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failing grades

Damien Howard
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What do you do with students who the only way you can give them a passing grade is to curve the class so much that everyone else would get As?
I feel bad failing students, but there seems no way to pass them and be fair to those who earned their passing grades.

Why do students wait until it is too late to come talk to the instructor?
Steven Bell
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Joined: Dec 29, 2004
Posts: 1071
You have to fail them. It's for their own good. It's a learning process. A failed class isn't the end of the world, even though they might think it is. You shouldn't feel bad, unless you failed as a teacher, not if they failed to do the work.

IMO
Ilja Preuss
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Originally posted by Damien Howard:
Why do students wait until it is too late to come talk to the instructor?


I'm currently reading "Punished by Rewards", and according to it one possibly explanation would be "because the instructor is responsible for evaluating the students' performance".


The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny - it is the light that guides your way. - Heraclitus
Ryan McGuire
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Joined: Feb 18, 2005
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    3
Originally posted by Damien Howard:
What do you do with students who the only way you can give them a passing grade is to curve the class so much that everyone else would get As?
I feel bad failing students, but there seems no way to pass them and be fair to those who earned their passing grades.


IMO, you have a responibility to fail those students. You owe it to the students that did put in sufficient effort and attention, to the companies that will look at these students' transcripts prior to making a hiring decision, and even to the failing students themselves (as Steven suggested).

I assume you...
  • made clear what the requirements were
  • gave reasonable tests, assignments and projects
  • provided reasonable opportunity for feedback,

  • ...so that failing students shouldn't be surprised by their grades. If that's the case, you should give them Fs and sleep well at night knowing you've done The Right Thing.

    Why do students wait until it is too late to come talk to the instructor?

    A fine question.
    [ June 22, 2005: Message edited by: Ryan McGuire ]
    Ilja Preuss
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    Posts: 14112
    Originally posted by Steven Bell:
    You have to fail them. It's for their own good. It's a learning process.


    It's actually not totally obvious to me that failing a class is good for the learning process.

    A failed class isn't the end of the world, even though they might think it is.


    That's true - but the fact alone that they might think it's the end of the world (or even just not a nice thing to experience) actually might *hamper* the learning process!

    You shouldn't feel bad, unless you failed as a teacher, not if they failed to do the work.


    Feeling bad doesn't help anyone anyway. Trying to do your best does, probably. And I think the question stated is a very insteresting one - and the answer isn't as obvious and straightforward and most people believe, in my opinion.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Ryan McGuire:
    IMO, you have a responibility to fail those students. You owe it to the students that did put in sufficient effort and attention,


    Why?

    to the companies that will look at these students' transcripts prior to making a hiring decision


    I think that might be part of the problem: having to rate people so that future employees know what they are good at has a high probability of being in violent conflict of trying to teach things.

    and even to the failing students themselves (as Steven suggested).


    Far from obvious to me.


    quote:Why do students wait until it is too late to come talk to the instructor?


    A fine question.


    There is a lot of research suggesting that people who are being rated for what they are doing are much less likely to ask for help - they just want to avoid *every* opportunity to look stupid.
    Ryan McGuire
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        3
    Originally posted by Ilja Preuss:

    Why [...does the instructor owe it to students that performed to a higher level to fail the students that didn't]?


    Because a student's grade should accurately reflect his performance. It would be unfair to the students that didn't go to the bar with their friends five nights a week, didn't go to Cancun for Spring Break, didn't take another three-credit course so they could graduate a semester early, etc. for the instructor to pass anyone who DID do those things just out of mercy. Such an grading scheme would devalue the grades that the (for the sake of discussion) harder-working students got.

    For instance, I could see a hiring manager evaluating resumes come across one from a student that graduated from Easygrade University and not really believing the student has any expertise despite the passing grades. Even worse, I've seen a case where a school gets a reputation for being slightly easy and then the reputation snowballs and a degree from that school (unfairly) loses all strength. (...with in the limits of accreditation).

    A level students should get As, B level students should get Bs, etc.

    I'm not completely without a heart. Sometimes good students get stuck in a bad situation. There may be extenuating circumstances, or maybe they didn't realize how poorly they were doing. In such cases, I would allow some slack. For instance, I would grant an "Incomplete" grade and allow the students to make up the work. They would still have to finish the same number of homework assignements and take quizzes of the same difficulty. But nobody gets a free ride. (I'll admit that I haven't yet worked out what counts as a valid reason for such treatment versus a case where someone is trying to take advantage of the Incomplete option, but that's another discussion.)

    Ryan
    [ June 23, 2005: Message edited by: Ryan McGuire ]
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Ryan McGuire:
    Such an grading scheme would devalue the grades that the (for the sake of discussion) harder-working students got.


    Yes. I just guess that putting the emphasis on "working hard to get good grades" might somehow work to *devalue* the whole *learning* thing.


    A level students should get As, B level students should get Bs, etc.


    Problem is, once people begin to think about themselves as "B level students", they typically stop trying to get As. Grading people is a strong demotivator for learning...
    Ryan McGuire
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        3
    Originally posted by Ilja Preuss:

    Problem is, once people begin to think about themselves as "B level students", they typically stop trying to get As.


    Perhaps I should have avoided labels:

    Students that did A level work for a class should get As in that course; students that did B level work should get Bs.


    Grading people is a strong demotivator for learning...


    I have no major argument on that point.

    BUT once the policy of grading is in place, passing out inflated grades is even more demotivating.

    If needed, I can look up the studies that show how bad "self-esteem" programs have done in US grade schools. Once a student figures out that he doesn't have to work in order to get showered with certificates and trophies, he doesn't bother putting out any effort. What a shock such students get when they enter "the real world" and suddenly find out that they have to (*gasp*) work in order to be rewarded (i.e. paid).

    (...which brings us back to the "for their own good" point.)
    [ June 23, 2005: Message edited by: Ryan McGuire ]
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Ryan McGuire:
    BUT once the policy of grading is in place, passing out inflated grades is even more demotivating.


    Could be, I'm not sure about it. Probably also depends on the details of how you do it.


    Once a student figures out that he doesn't have to work in order to get showered with certificates and trophies, he doesn't bother putting out any effort.


    That's mostly because beforehand he got trained to only do things when being rewarded for it, I think. The question is wether we really want to foster that behaviour, or try to reawaken other motivations (such as curiosity). It's a puzzle...

    What a shock such students get when they enter "the real world" and suddenly find out that they have to (*gasp*) work in order to be rewarded (i.e. paid).


    Interestingly, many people continue to work even when they don't need the pay anymore, so I wonder wether it's really "rewards" that need to be the main driver (or even typically are).

    If you are interested in the topic, I'd really suggest to read "Punished by Rewards". Even if you don't agree with all of it, it makes for an interesting and thought provoking read.
    Thomas Paul
    mister krabs
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    Interestingly, many people continue to work even when they don't need the pay anymore, so I wonder wether it's really "rewards" that need to be the main driver (or even typically are).

    Money is not the only reward. Sometimes it is popularity, recognition, sex... many things can be motivators besides money. Donald Trump doesn't need the money but I have a feeling he can only get it up when he sees his picture in the paper or on TV.


    Associate Instructor - Hofstra University
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    Ilja Preuss
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    The main point I get from the book (and I tend to agree with it from personal experience and observation) is that intrinsic motivation (such as born out of curiosity, doing something you like to do, the feeling to contribute to something worthwhile, the necessity to grow in knowledge and ability) is a much stronger and persistent driver than extrinsic motivation. There is even strong evidence that using the latter is a quite efficient way to destroy the former.
    Thomas Paul
    mister krabs
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    No matter how one feels about grades, the fact is that your entire life is graded. Your boss will grade your performance when he has to let someone go or when he is giving out raises. The share holders will grade your company's performance and decide whether to dump your stock or boost the price. To try to establish some touchy-feely way to let everyone pass without doing the work is how we create people who graduate from high school and yet can't read.
    Thomas Paul
    mister krabs
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    Originally posted by Ilja Preuss:
    The main point I get from the book (and I tend to agree with it from personal experience and observation) is that intrinsic motivation (such as born out of curiosity, doing something you like to do, the feeling to contribute to something worthwhile, the necessity to grow in knowledge and ability) is a much stronger and persistent driver than extrinsic motivation. There is even strong evidence that using the latter is a quite efficient way to destroy the former.


    Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Most students (even the best students) will have no interest in at least some of their classes. But the fact is that the grade is not the motivator. The grade is the way that the student is judged to determine if they did the work.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
    No matter how one feels about grades, the fact is that your entire life is graded.


    I don't think that is true, unless you use a very wide definition of "grading". But even if it where true, it wouldn't be obvious to me that it is something that has to be that way or that I should join in.

    Your boss will grade your performance when he has to let someone go or when he is giving out raises.


    Well, yes, probably, kind of. I think this is quite different from giving grades in school, though. And even if it wasn't, I'd think that the responsibility of a teacher is quite different from that of my boss, so I don't see the connection you seem to see.

    The share holders will grade your company's performance and decide whether to dump your stock or boost the price.


    Yes. There is some evidence that "grading" a community of people has much less negative impact than doing the same thing with individuals.

    To try to establish some touchy-feely way to let everyone pass without doing the work is how we create people who graduate from high school and yet can't read.


    Well, besides the point that I'm not advocating establishing any kind of "touchy-feely" thing at all, that simply isn't true. There is strong experimental evidence that exactly installing a system that is based on rewards and punishment *reduces* peoples motivation to learn.

    If people in higher grades seem to only learn something when they are extrinsicly motivated to do so, that's basically because they are trained that way in earlier grades.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
    Whether this is true or not is irrelevant.


    Is it? In my eyes, schools main responsibility is to get people to learn something, isn't it? So evidence that a commonly used practice actually is actively *reducing* the likeliness that people learn their stuff seems to be highly relevant to me.

    Most students (even the best students) will have no interest in at least some of their classes.


    True. So the question becomes wether they actually need to learn that stuff, and if so, how we do get them to learn it. Interestingly, grading is stunningly bad at doing the latter.

    But the fact is that the grade is not the motivator.


    True - it's a strong demotivator, as I said above. Still it's often tried to be used as the main motivator, isn't it? "If you don't do you homework, I will have to give you a bad grade!"

    The grade is the way that the student is judged to determine if they did the work.


    Well, I got very good grades throughout my whole school career without doing most of "the work" - so I think it's probably used for something else.
    Steven Bell
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    The problem as I see it is that you have to have some means to measure how much a student has learned. If a student has not learned the required amount they cannot be allowed to progress to the next level until they do so. This measurement system must be as consistent as possible and the students must be capable of understanding how the system works.

    The standard grading system may not be the perfect solution, but we don't live in a perfect world. I have yet to see a better solution that actually works.

    Failure is just as much a part of life as success, if not more. Kids get nothing out of making a big deal of every little success they have and ignoring their failures.

    Excerpt from a new story in todays paper:
    "We're seeing an epidemic of people who are having a hard time making the transition to work -- kids who had too much success early in life and who've become accustomed to instant gratification," says Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrics professor at the University of North Carolina Medical School and author of a book on the topic called "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes."

    Although Levine also notes that today's twentysomethings are long on idealism and altruism, "many of the individuals we see are heavily committed to something we call 'fun.' "

    He partly faults coddling parents and colleges for doing little to prepare students for the realities of adulthood and setting the course for what many disillusioned twentysomethings are calling their "quarter-life crisis."

    Meanwhile, employers from corporate executives to restaurateurs and retailers are frustrated.

    "It seems they want and expect everything that the 20- or 30-year veteran has the first week they're there," says Mike Amos, a Salt Lake City-based franchise consultant for Perkins Restaurants.

    [ June 27, 2005: Message edited by: Steven Bell ]
    Thomas Paul
    mister krabs
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    True - it's a strong demotivator, as I said above.

    You keep saying it but you offer nothing as proof. I guarantee you that if you start up a class and in September tell that they will not be graded that most of them will do no work.

    True. So the question becomes wether they actually need to learn that stuff...

    And the answer is yes. There is a lot of stuff that you NEED to know that you may have no real interest in learning. There is a lot of stuff that students will learn because they will need to know it later when they might be interested. And there is a lot of stuff that you need to learn that will just make you a better person and more interesting at cocktail parties.
    Thomas Paul
    mister krabs
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    Originally posted by Ilja Preuss:
    In my eyes, schools main responsibility is to get people to learn something, isn't it?
    No. It is the job of the student to get themselves to learn something. It is the job of the school to teach.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Steven Bell:
    The problem as I see it is that you have to have some means to measure how much a student has learned.


    I agree that to help a student learn, you need to know where she stands and what help she needs. It seems to me that a grading system is much too simplistic to do so, though.

    If a student has not learned the required amount they cannot be allowed to progress to the next level until they do so.


    I'm not convinced that thinking of "levels of knowledge" actually is a usefull model of learning.

    The standard grading system may not be the perfect solution, but we don't live in a perfect world.


    That's hardly a good argument to take things as a given, is it?

    I have yet to see a better solution that actually works.


    One way to do it could be to replace grades by substantive comments. But even if we can't do fully without grades, it seems to be good practice to deemphasize them.

    Failure is just as much a part of life as success, if not more.


    I don't think that a binary thinking such as success vs. failure is very helpful for mastering life - life is much more rich and multifaceted than that.

    Kids get nothing out of making a big deal of every little success they have and ignoring their failures.


    They also get nothing out of making a big deal of failures. There is a lot of research out there indicating that focussing on succeeding (insteand of learning) has a number of negative effects:

    - it holds students from taking risks, such as trying new ways of tackling a problem, being creative or even admitting that they have a problem

    - it holds them from following sidetracks that might help them understand a topic, but don't help them reaching the immediate goal (such as completing an assignment),

    - it significantly changes their relationship to the person who decides wether they succeed, so that they are less likely to ask for help or clarification,

    - it often fosters competition between the students, thereby reducing collaboration,

    - to the amount that success is coupled to a reward (such as a grade), it teaches them that the task is not worth doing for itself.

    All of these effects (and I probably missed some) significantly conflict with the learning of the students.


    "kids who had too much success early in life and who've become accustomed to instant gratification"


    I think that the "kids had too much success early in life" is a misinterpretation of the situation. The problem is that they are relying too much on external gratification - they are trained to not be intrinsically motivated.


    "many of the individuals we see are heavily committed to something we call 'fun.' "


    This sounds like a quote from someone who wants employees to be mindless working drones, who isn't willing to take the time to *make* work more fun.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
    No. It is the job of the student to get themselves to learn something. It is the job of the school to teach.


    Well, yes, that's what I meant. Grading significantly interferes with teaching, if we define teaching as helping people to learn.
    Ilja Preuss
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    Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
    [QB]True - it's a strong demotivator, as I said above.

    You keep saying it but you offer nothing as proof.


    I'm not sure that such a thing can be *proven*. There is strong experimental evidence, though, and there are many references in the book - too many to repeat them here.

    I guarantee you that if you start up a class and in September tell that they will not be graded that most of them will do no work.


    Of course! You can't take people who have been trained to rely on grades for years, simply stop doing it and expect everything to be just fine.

    True. So the question becomes wether they actually need to learn that stuff...

    And the answer is yes.


    So the second part of my question applies.

    There is a lot of stuff that you NEED to know that you may have no real interest in learning.


    I don't think I've ever learned something that I weren't interested in.

    There is a lot of stuff that students will learn because they will need to know it later when they might be interested.


    Then can they learn it later? Can we make them interested now?

    And there is a lot of stuff that you need to learn that will just make you a better person


    If people aren't interested in becoming a better person, the reasons might be interesting to explore.


    and more interesting at cocktail parties.


    Well, that is more in the category of "doesn't really *need* to learn", isn't it... :roll:
    [ June 30, 2005: Message edited by: Ilja Preuss ]
    Karen Baog
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    Posts: 120

    Originally posted by Ryan McGuire
    ...to the companies that will look at these students' transcripts prior to making a hiring decision ...


    here's an opinion from a student (that's me):
    Why do many employers only look at the skills? Skills only play half of it. The other equally important factor is attitude.
    It's easier to provide training to an employee to provide him/her more skills, but very hard to change one's attitude.

    The education one gets (programming, for instance) from school only provides the basics. The real big thing is learned at work.

    Karen.


    amerzil co-ed student<br />"Praise be the Code"
    Ryan McGuire
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        3
    Originally posted by Karen Baog:


    here's an opinion from a student (that's me):
    Why do many employers only look at the skills? Skills only play half of it. The other equally important factor is attitude.
    It's easier to provide training to an employee to provide him/her more skills, but very hard to change one's attitude.

    The education one gets (programming, for instance) from school only provides the basics. The real big thing is learned at work.

    Karen.


    I can't speak for all departments in all companies, but I can relate my thoughts from the dozen times I was in a position to make hiring decisions.

    I don't look at only school transcripts and certifications. I agree that attitude is a major factor to being a productive part of the team. However, if I see a pattern of very low passing or even failing grades, especially in courses that are relavent to the job, then that works into my evaluation of the applicant's attitude. It makes me wonder whether the person does just enough work to get by despite how enthusiastic they sound in the interview. I'm willing to make allowances for special occurances, such as a bad semester the year the applicant's mother passed away or when the applicant toughed it out through a graduate level course that they apparently weren't ready for.

    Also, if I'm convinced that I'm talking to a jewel in the sand, and some targeted training would turn this person into a top performer, then I'm willing to take a chance. But what information do I have concerning a person's ability and willingness to take advantage of training/education? One of the most obvious sources is the person's transcript.

    So the transcript tells part of a story but not the whole story. But even if it's 10% of what I use to make a hiring decision, I expect the school to be honest in what story they tell.
     
    Consider Paul's rocket mass heater.
     
    subject: failing grades