I'm an 'A' Student, But You Only Gave Me a 'C'|
Addressing Student Misconceptions
In my on-going research into the grade appeal process at post-secondary institutions across Canada, I have encountered many stories of poor evaluation practice from students. But instructors also have their own complaints about students who demand better grades without any apparent understanding of either the grading process or the student's own responsibility for the grade earned.
A Two-Fold ProblemThere appear to be two basic problems here. First, many students believe that the grades they receive are largely arbitrary, a reflection of the idiosyncratic tastes and biases of instructors. They believe that one has to "give the professor what s/he wants to hear", but that it is impossible to predict ahead of time what particular hobbyhorse the instructor will impose until after the first assignment is handed back, if even then. In many cases, these students receive what appears to be contradictory feedback from various instructors. For example, in one course they may be told that they received a low grade because they failed to provide sufficient quotations, or that their paper was much too short. In the next course, they may be given a low grade for having too many quotations and for exceeding the severely restricted page limit. Little wonder then that from the student's frame of reference, instructors make up the rules and grades as they go along.
The underlying problem in these cases is that no one has explained to students that the nature of the writing task changes discipline to discipline. A history assignment may call for extensive quotations as a key form of primary data and supportive evidence, while a sociology instructor may see the same number of quotes as intrusive, redundant, and distracting. A humanities instructor may expect a considerably longer discussion paper than a business instructor intent on training students to produce concise executive summaries. Without the meta cognitive recognition that this feedback is discipline-specific, students taking courses across a variety of disciplines will inevitably be forced to the conclusion that the professoriate does not know what it wants, has inconsistent and arbitrary standards, and that at least half their instructors are crazy.
The solution requires that instructors first recognize the problem, and then address it directly in their classes. Many instructors themselves fail to consider that other disciplines have differing requirements. Isolated in our discipline-specific department structures, we may spend our whole careers knowing that a good paper is characterized by having/not having lots of direct quotations, or by its depth/conciseness (to take just two examples). Consequently, our advice to students tends to be framed against the implicit assumptions of the traditions of our discipline or paradigm, without ever being made explicit to students.
Once instructors understand that students may be receiving the opposite feedback from their colleagues in other departments, it is a simple matter to frame one's own comments within an explicit discipline-based context: "In _________ (insert appropriate discipline), it is customary to ______ (insert preferred style)." By flagging the paradigmatic origins of the feedback they receive, students will not only be able to apply the advice in more useful and meaningful ways, but will be reassured that there is in fact some logical basis for their grades, rather than reflecting merely the idiosyncratic tastes of their instructors.
Further, it is important to emphasize that all instructors, not just those in the English department, are responsible for teaching students good writing skills as these are defined in their own discipline. Learning to write as a sociologist, for example, is an important aspect of the resocialization of sociology undergraduates into successful graduates. Many instructors, especially in senior courses, mistakenly believe that students should come to their classes already equipped with correct APA format, with no recognition that the English department may have taught them MLA format instead, or that their colleagues are demanding rigid adherence to Chicago Manual of Style. A few moments spent explicitly stating the requirements of a particular criterion or assignment, and the logic behind it, can save students a great deal of confusion and frustration, and consequently improve relations with instructors.
Second, and closely related, many instructors fail to take full advantage of their course outlines to set out clear cut criteria for each assignment. Students are correct to complain that they have no clear idea of what the instructor requires, unless these requirements are clearly stated in the course outline. Where explicit grading criteria are provided, the grading process becomes transparent to students, and the number of complaints is drastically reduced. [One may even legitimately include personal preferences in their grading, so long as these do not come as a surprise to students. (I warn students, for example, that I will deduct marks for pomposity as part of a personal crusade against the spread of "academese". Or that their papers must be written in "inclusive language".)]
Some instructors refuse to provide scoring criteria since "no one is going to hand my graduates a rubric out in the real world, so I'm not going to do it in my class". This position is simply wrong-headed, and violates the Principles for Fair Student Assessment Practices for Education in Canada. As educators, we are expected to meet a significantly higher standard than "the real world", else why bother with separate institutions of higher learning? Furthermore, by providing clear standards that students can internalize to become self-monitoring, our purpose is to produce graduates who can improve the real world. (Indeed, management research demonstrates that the successful businesses are those that provide employees with clear direction and performance criteria.)
Other instructors have told me they hesitate to provide explicit, detailed criteria because they fear these would make the assignment too easy. This has not been my experience. Although allowing students to see the target reduces student anxiety, improves learning, and raises the general standard by eliminating the most dreadful papers (which would otherwise consume an inordinate proportion of my marking time), student work still generally spreads itself out across a normal curve. Given explicit, specific scoring criteria that lead the student through the assignment step by step, both I and the students are able to quickly identify whether they can master the required content and processes. When the students are able to accurately assess their own work, they seldom have occasion to question their grades.
Other instructors worry that they cannot provide specific criteria without dictating a very restrictive assignment where the content is entirely determined by the instructor. A sample generic essay scoring rubric for the social sciences is included on this site as one illustration of how clear standards may be set without reference to specific content.
Once clear scoring criteria have been provided in the course outline, the grading process becomes clear to students, and most misconceptions can be eliminated. Nevertheless, there remain some students who wish to debate the grade assigned.
Addressing Student ComplaintsFaculty, particularly beginning faculty, often respond defensively to student criticism of their grades. This is understandable, but unhelpful. Instead, one needs to take an educative approach. After all, part of an instructor's role is to teach students the criteria relevant to one's discipline, and to assist students to internalize these criteria so they can become self-monitoring.
Refer back to the course outline where course objectives and scoring criteria were laid out for the students. Go through the criteria for the assignment with them, and ask them to indicate where they feel they demonstrated mastery of the relevant course objective, or how they addressed each of the specified criteria.
Inevitably, one will encounter a few students who remain unsatisfied by this approach. Eight of the more common complaints with which one may be faced, and a suggested response for each, are listed below.
Sample Responses to Common Student Misunderstandings"I'm an 'A' student, yet you only gave me a 'C' in this course."
The student is inappropriately over-generalizing from the global to the specific; that is, their self-assessment is contaminated by 'halo effects'.1
"I put a lot of effort into this paper, but you only gave me a 'C'."
Unless "effort" or "participation" are explicit criteria for this assignment, effort is not relevant to the assessment.
"You never covered this question in class; it is unfair for you to evaluate us on something we haven't been taught directly."
If one intends to test or otherwise hold students responsible for readings or other material not directly covered in class, head off this complaint by announcing the fact at every opportunity. Ensure that this intention is clearly stated in writing in the course outline, indicating the specific list of readings for which students are responsible and the dates by which they should have mastered the material. Draw students' attention to this section of the course outline at the start of the course, and before every examination. Then, if you still receive this complaint, you can point to the statement in the course outline, and point out that this requirement was clearly understood by their classmates. [If the complaint is widespread, however, then the error was yours; your instructions were not sufficiently clear. In this case, allow students the option (because it is important not to penalize those students who did well on it) of dropping the offending item from their evaluation; and redouble efforts to communicate to future classes their responsibility for specific outside reading.]
Similarly, if one intends to assign exercises in which students are to attempt to master material on their own before taking it up in class, be sure students understand before hand that the timing was intentional. Students are primarily familiar with summative evaluations, the kind that occur at the end of the learning process; they are not always familiar with formative evaluations, the kind that help them monitor and correct their own learning process. Consequently, one needs to explain that the 2% - 5% weightings assigned to these exercises are merely to ensure their completion, and that the point is to see if the students can work out the answers on their own, without having to resort to help from the instructor. Without this simple explanation many students may assume that the instructor is always one lesson behind where they intended to be in terms of the assignments.
Occasionally, instructors fall behind planned deadlines, and questions do appear on examinations before they have been covered in class, or were covered in some sections of the course and not others. In this case, the student complaint is fully justified, and students must be given the option of having the question removed. (The question cannot just be dropped automatically in case some students attempted and did well on the question even without formal instruction. These students must be allowed to benefit from the effort they applied.)
And sometimes students have a legitimate complaint. If one decided to assign a web design project to a class, is it legitimate to grade the students on web typography if this has not been formally taught, either in this course or a prerequisite? I think not.
"Most of your comments on my paper were about grammar, spelling, and writing skills. But this course is about ________. You should only be grading me on my knowledge of subject content."
Many instructors cannot resist circling every spelling, grammar, and sentence structure error they encounter on the way through a paper, even when these do not officially count towards the student's grade. This practice has three drawbacks: it is pointlessly time consuming for the marker; it is demoralizing for the student; and it may unconsciously bias the marker against an otherwise competent presentation of content knowledge.
Thus, there are two ways to head off this complaint:
For example, a student may hand in the same paper on "Aging" to both a psychology course and a sociology instructor, expecting it to do equally well in both courses. Or, in an even more extreme version of recycling, "I got this paper from the fraternity files (or off the internet), and it always got an 'A' before."
"I met all the criteria in the assignment. Why did I only get a 'C'"?
Paradoxically, when instructors are clear about the disciplined-based requirements for their assignments, some students may take the directions too literally. Instead of producing an integrated and coherent argument, they mechanically reproduce the assignment structure or scoring rubric, often even adopting the descriptors from the rubric as their topic headings. Such methodical approaches do allow limited success, because it is clear to both the student and instructor that the student has met the assignment's minimum requirements. This approach is further reinforced by reasonable success in those course components (such as labs) where essay-style integration is not required. Their failure to take risks, to bring their own out-of-course knowledge to bear, or to push the envelope, however, restricts these students' grades in the "C" and "B" ranges. For students who religiously follow the structures set out in the assignment, it is frustrating to be told that they received only a minimal pass because they "failed to go beyond" the requirements as set out in the assignment. "Tell me what you want," they complain, "and I'll do it!"
Thiers's is a legitimate complaint. From the instructor's point of view, it may be clear that a particular paper was at the low end of the distribution, because the instructor has the entire curve against which to compare the student's performance. Confidentiality rules, however, make it difficult to demonstrate this range to students. Without the student being able to compare their work against exemplary papers, they are once again in the position of being told to "trust the instructor's judgment" and faced with apparently arbitrary grading.
In this situation, students should be given the higher grade if they can demonstrate that their paper matches the listed criteria. The criteria should then be modified for next term, so that the implicit criteria of "integrated", "creative", or "original", etc are added to the published rubric. The sample scoring criteria provided on this site demonstrate how higher categories not only hold the student to successively higher standards on those criteria common at all levels, but may add additional criteria (in this case, originality, insight and creativity) to the highest categories. The descriptors should, as far as possible, reflect the characteristics of actual student papers, so that it is up to the instructor to capture the essence of what makes an "A" paper on each assignment in their rubrics.
One could also seek exemplars of each grade level from graduating students to be placed on reserve in the library, so that students could examine the range for themselves. This approach presents two difficulties, however. First, some weaker students may have difficulty recognizing the deficiencies in their own papers when compared to the "A" exemplars. To prevent these students from focusing on superficial similarities between their own paper and the exemplars, each exemplar needs to be accompanied by a detailed marking guide that explicitly links each element of the exemplar to the relevant scoring criteria.
Second, and more difficult to address, some weaker students may adopt the "A" exemplars as templates for their own work, thus defeating the whole purpose of the exercise.
"But I need a better grade to earn a scholarship / enter grad school / survive probation"
Where students are only one or two marks short of some critical cut off grade, it is reasonable for them to seek a reassessment of their work. Our assessments are at best fairly crude measures of what students know and can do, and without very high levels of statistical reliability, it is unreasonable to suggest that one or two percentage points reflect actual differences in student performance. We know that had the same assessments been made on a different day or using a different test, the student might well have scored the one or two missing marks. (Instructors who insist on distinguishing between students based on one or two percentage points are merely demonstrating their ignorance of evaluation technique.) Consequently, instructors should be prepared to round up the one or two percentage points to the next grade level. Indeed, the principle of fairness suggests that we routinely round up all such scores rather than waiting for particular individuals to come forward and ask. (This need not imply any grade inflation if standards are set sufficiently high in the first place.)
Where students have experienced a greater shortfall, say in the range of three to five percentage points, they may be provided with the opportunity to improve their grade by undertaking rewrites, extra course work, and so on. Again, the fundamental principle here is that the instructor be able to accurately evaluate what the student knows and can do, and if the student can successfully demonstrate work at the required higher level, then so be it. (Of course, if this opportunity is to made available to some students, all should have this option, though in practice only those very few students within hailing distance of some critical cut off will bother to avail themselves of it.)
If the shortfall is larger, however, such that the student is a half letter grade away from where they need to be, and the instructor is reasonably confident that their assessment is sufficiently reliable to suggest that the student really has not made the particular cut off, then the problem becomes one of ensuring that student has not been taken by surprise. Sufficient formative and mid-course feedback should have been provided that the student knew they were in danger of failing to meet their goal. If such information was not available (e.g., an "A" on the first assignment, but failed a final worth 80%) then serious consideration should be given to allowing students to rewrite and resubmit the assignment that ambushed them. In most cases, assignments can be modified in the next term to ensure that this situation does not arise again.
On the other hand, if the student had sufficient warning and still failed to produce work to the required standard, then no further accommodation need be entertained. Nevertheless, such crisis points do occasionally provide real learning opportunities, and (provided that the same opportunity is afforded all students and that faculty policy permits), some instructors may find it useful to permit rewrites. This does represent a significant increase in the instructor's workload and a potentially torturous situation for the student, should they again fall short, and so should only be entertained where there is reasonable expectation that the student can make sufficient gains to actually attain their goal.
"Your exam (or assignment) sucks."
The above discussion assumes, of course, that assessment instruments and procedures are well designed and clearly articulated in the course outline. If an instructor experiences continuing or widespread complaints about any aspect of their assessment procedures, efforts should be made to rework the relevant assignment for next term, even if the specifics of the complaint appear invalid