(Re)visions and Assignments

Every student paper should be revised. More than once. In an ideal world, that is; in the real world there are problems of scale and deadlines.

Periodically I receive an request from a student to revise a paper in return for extra credit. In the past when teaching in surveys of American history with up to a hundred students at a time, I feel obliged to reject these requests. I would love it for students to revise their papers, but extra credit is not something I can extend to just one student in good conscience and there isn’t enough time in the semester to let every student do this unless it is built into the course. On the one hand, I feel bad about rejecting some of these requests since I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the current generation of college students; on the other hand, though, the requests are framed in terms of getting a higher grade, not in terms of education.

This disparity comes in part from the nature of these assignments. I suspect that nobody has looked at a survey-level essay on the changing conceptions of race in America from 1865 to 1925 as an opportunity to write a brilliant and incisive critique of race in America. Even if the author has a fiery passion for the topic, the prompt and supporting materials don’t lend themselves to it. The disparity also speaks volumes about how courses like this one are treated. They are a grade, not an opportunity to learn about American history or learn practical skills such as writing or rhetoric.

Returning to the nature of the assignments, one-off submission that return marked and assigned a grade lend themselves to thinking about the assignment in terms of the grade instead of in terms of process. I understand the counter argument that history classes are for teaching history and not for teaching writing, particularly in these large survey courses. And yet, history is fundamentally discursive.

This fashioning of history, along with how we remember history, is going to be a point of emphasis this fall when I teach a survey of archaic and classical Greek history. I am going to do this not only because of the recent and not-so-recent appropriations of antiquity for political agendas, but also because I hope that pushing people to think about these issues in a Greek context will make it possible to think about in our contemporary context.

I am also planning some opportunities for my students to revise their work, made possible in large part because of a smaller class size. As of right now the idea is to give an option for students to revise at least one of their assignments for a higher grade, as well as making that type of assignment recur once more later in the semester in order to maximize the benefit for the student. The plan is to have revisions take place in two phases, with the first being that they come meet with me to discuss the assignment, before then making revisions based on both the written comments and conversation. My hope is that in addition to setting assignments that push the students to write a decent amount, adding this (optional) revision stage will meet the students halfway toward thinking about assignments qua grades. That is, maximize the students’ opportunity to earn a higher grade while underscoring that writing (and thinking) is a process that doesn’t happen simply by vomiting words onto a page.

An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.

† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.

Assorted Links

A few things that piqued my interest.

1. Why I deleted my Facebook account – An essay that echoes many of my own sentiments and articulates a few of the major issues I had that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

2. Writing by Hand: The Lost Art – Another op-ed about writing by hand, particularly noting that more and more students seem to be putting the onus on the teacher to decipher illegible handwriting, rather than making sure their writing is legible. She raises some interesting points, and I have expressed at least some of my views on this issue here, though I was responding to a scientific article about the hand as a a way of linking writing to tactile processes in education. I generally agree with this essay, though I generally think that she is harping on some of the (relatively) superficial consequences of weakened [sic] handwriting, and overlooking something more fundamental.

3. Taliban commander: we cannot win war and al-Qaida is a ‘plague– An interviewed senior Taliban commander admitted that the insurgents are unlikely to ever win back Kabul and that most members of the Taliban are angry with al-Qaida, saying that Osama bin Laden contributed to destroying Afghanistan and that if he truly believed in Jihad, he would have gone to Saudi Arabia.

4. Grading and Its Discontents – A post on the Chronicle of Higher Education about what grades actually stand for and how there is a fundamental misunderstanding, largely on the part of students, as to what is being measured, what needs to be improved, and how to approach their grades.

Seems like a light stretch for me; anyone else see anything good?

Standardized Tests and Exit Exams

Early in the ’03-’04 school year I was a senior in high school, class president and somewhere along the line I heard that I was supposed to attend student council meetings among my ‘duties’. I recall going to just one meeting: I sat on a table at the rear of the room as we were joined by members of the school board. The topic that day was standardized tests as Hazen Union had performed unacceptably and was close to losing funding under No Child Left Behind. We talked about the testing and ways to improve the scores, though I mostly railed against standardized tests at all, citing their ludicrous nature and how abysmally set up they were, especially in teaching to the test rather than teaching how to learn. In retrospect, I was really not helpful that afternoon.

The verdict was that students had no conception of why they were taking the tests, just that they were. Since early in elementary school the teachers had emphasized that the tests did not matter, which is not the same thing as not receiving a grade.1 Long story short, a group from the council was to have a discussion with each class about trying hard on the test, and I was volunteered to lead it.2 Thankfully it never actually happened, and now the high school is on some list of best high schools in the country, so ‘crisis’ averted. Now I am sure there are great teachers there, but considering the number of great teachers who have since retired or left for other reasons, I find it hard to fathom that the school went from the chopping block to highly esteemed in so few years.3

It seems odd to reminisce about this episode six years down the line and half a continent away, but today I read an article on the New York Times website about the continued proliferation of high school exit exams in the face of criticism–and more to come. Find the article here.

While I do not believe that decisions are made arbitrarily or maliciously on a large scale, they may still be misguided. Really three issues emerge: first the value of standardized tests, second the value of standardized exit exams, third the purpose of schools.

1) Standardized tests are made to ensure that every student is learning a certain amount, which is an enviable goal, but ultimately restricts teachers from teaching. Instead there is a situation where the powers that be decide what needs to be learned. In the humanities this is even more exaggerated since it often falls to rote memorization or simple narrative to make sure that the kids know what they need to know to perform on demand. Naturally funding is tied to these tests.

Of course the most gain to be had in those fields where testing names, dates, etc, is taking place is inherently in their flexibility. The chance for teachers to deviate from merely a time-line and engage students, or go beyond the novels deemed useful, but not too controversial, to engage the students, expose them to something new and teach them to think–rather the opposite from brainwashing, or nap-time.

This is just the current gripe, and while they are also a waste of time, the list could keep going on and on.

2) As bad as standardized tests are, exit exams are worse, and this is the focus of the article. A common effect of these exams is that dropout rates increase as students are held back by the district. Now at some level it may be good, and any system of grades that includes an ‘F’ equivalent and yet forces the students to be there until a certain age will hold some back, but exit exams increase that percentage as a second filter beyond the classes grades appears. The first problem here is that it inherently assumes that the teachers are unable to deal with students who do not keep up. The assumption adds to that of other standardized tests, only is an across the board assessment of those teachers, every year, soon to be kindergarten through high school.4

The more pressing issue in all of this is that exit exams are being simplified to make sure that most students can pass the tests. This defeats the purpose of the tests.

If, as claimed, these tests will ensure that high schoolers are ready for college, and that the powers that be decided that kids need to know a certain amount of information before graduating, then that is what they need to know. Reducing the standards because the education system did not rise to the expectations makes the test a waste of time and money, while keeping the standards and holding more students back admits failure of the education. In either situation the tests make no sense at all.

Either there needs to be continued evaluation of coursework, participation, and the rest of the traditional barometers of grading in each individual subject, or a single test at the end. Doubling them up makes the traditional grades moot, unless the students must first jump through those hoops to even take the exit examination.

3) In their work Who Killed Homer?, classicist John Heath and historian Victor Davis Hanson suggested that modern education pounds people into one broad mold, which continually restricts as people fall away until a select few academic masochists with no perceivable teaching skills emerge with PhD’s, everyone else choosing a point of this road to stop. Their suggestion, much in line with vocational schools and some college programs is that schools must teach skills, not just books. Traditional education usually consisted of skill training for most of the population, while only a select group even did academic work up through high school.

A re-division of society along those lines is too extreme and entirely infeasible, but merits thought. The goal of public high school education is college preparation, a rounded course of education that will enable students to succeed in college. Yet not all of those students will go to college, so the school must also teach this rounded skill set to those students, averaging out what curriculum is expected.

Everyone should know basic history, be able to read, write and do arithmetic, but academics is not for everyone. Once beyond the capacity to perform those functions, the more important task is to engage the students,5 push creativity and interest, which is only inhibited by making these students jump through ever increasing hoops.

As a quick aside, standardized tests basically ensure that schools cannot reasonably teach history to its fullest. A good teacher can still get students excited by the topic, but the beauty of it is how versatile history is towards promoting thinking. Anyone who knows how to research can learn that the Declaration of Independence was July 4, 1776, or that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, but without reading too much into the situations, both mark times and situations when people stood up and threw down tyranny and government overreach.

If only it were that easy for school reform.

1 Though I have heard some stories from my mother about my early schooling that make this oversight look quite good in comparison.
2 Yes, someone else volunteered me.
3 Those distinctions were based somewhat on different criteria, but not wholly.
4 Please, can someone tell me what exactly we are testing kindergartners on to let them move to first grade? I remember playing with blocks and going to time-out for throwing clay…I am not seeing much of an exit exam in all of that.
5 Incidents in middle and high school where I know I was not engaged (all during class): taping a friend to a door, napping outside in the sun, witnessing someone stapling his pants to his leg, reading kosher dietary regulations…to the class, singing little bunny foo-foo as a class to the freshmen in the next classroom, and ditching group projects to calculate how many dimples there were on a basketball (somewhere around 23,000, if I recall correctly).

Given, received, earned

New York Times on class grades

I must say that as someone who did not receive great grades for a time in college, since turned it around and desires to teach, the entitlement of students in infuriating. When I was not getting the grades, I knew full well that I was not trying my hardest and for whatever reason this was simply acceptable; when I cared about grades, I made them.

The average grade, or rather the grade that should be attainable with only attending class (note no preconception about attention therein), and doing most of the reading should be a C. This does not account for studying, paying attention in class, asking questions and generally caring. If a professor suddenly has a class wherein no-one is getting better than that, perhaps the guidelines or subject audience needs to be addressed; on the flip side, if attending class (usually) and doing the readings alone is enough for an A, then the effort and dedication of the students deserving an A is for naught. If college is preparation for the real world, how is coddling students with preposterous curves or no challenge supposed to do that? There is no magic formula, but hard work on the right projects will, ultimately, provide success. As my father always imparted to me, half of all schooling is to determine what course your work will need to take to provide success, be it memorization, thesis paper writing or anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I think every student should endeavour for that A, I just think that they must also go searching for it. No matter what level the students are operating at. Entitlement produces frustrated students and parents, in some ways whom are worse than the students themselves. I don’t have the solution to this problem, all I know is that if teachers at all levels must instill that good work is not easy to come by and therefore should be rewarded. Effort is invaluable, if only because it is the path to the the product, but the product itself is what is graded.