1.3.09

NONCOOPERATIVE EQUILIBRIUM. I've been busy grading exams while others have been fretting about it.

It started two weeks ago in the New York Times. Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes. To the paper's credit, it draws examples and observations from the land grants and mid-majors, it's not another angsty piece about the boutique colleges. The fundamental error many students make is equating a lot of input to a substantial output. Real Professors Don't Grade Inputs.

The error has made its way into high school.

I often see this attitude from students and parents. How can it be that a student studied hard and did all the homework, yet didn't get a good grade on a test? The input of effort should balance out whatever defects there are in their output. I always remember a student we knew in graduate school who measured her level of effort by how much of the book she'd highlighted in yellow.(*)

This sense of entitlement is dangerous. And it will translate to other elements of life. As I tell my students, they need to learn that all the preparation that they made before a test is only 50% of the job. The other 50% comes from the intellectual effort that they put forth on the actual test. I can't grade their effort; only what they write down on the paper. It's tough love, but it's a necessary lesson.
Perhaps the attitude reflects design on the part of the high schools.
When I was in grade school (public, Indianapolis, 1970s), report cards were such a big deal. You'd get them every six weeks or so--these intimidating folded documents on stiff colored paper. The teacher would have hand-written your grades for everything from spelling to reading to math to science on them. There would also be handwritten comments directed to your parents on the back, and a place where your parents had to sign to say they'd seen the report card. We had to take the cards home to our parents in manila envelopes, and then bring them back to school the next day with the signatures on them. It was a big deal, all that kid-style accountability.

I can't remember exactly when it happened--but I would guess it was along about third grade. The format of the report cards changed, and suddenly we didn't just get a single grade for each subject. We got two: one for achievement, and one for effort. You might get an A for handwriting--but you'd perhaps get a B for effort. Or you might get a B in math, but an A for effort. It could go both ways--and it was a genuine way for the teacher to register both effort that was not translating into a good grade, and a good grade that was gotten without trying.

But I think that subtlety has been flattened out over the years; somewhere along the line, introducing grades for effort has translated into the assumption that effort matters more than achievement, or even that effort is the achievement. Along the way, "effort" has also been diminished; no longer necessarily synonymous with really giving your all, it's become something students can gesture at, or approximate, by just going through the motions of showing up, more or less doing the reading, more or less completing the work.(**)
In college, where there is no separate evaluation for effort (or for conduct, part of junior high and high school in Milwaukee in the late 1960s) students might have the expectation that their mark is a convex combination of performance and effort, perhaps heavily weighted toward generously measured effort, whilst professors might have never heard of that idea, or might be aware of it and yet be resisting it.

The heart of the problem appears deeper in the article and in most of the commentary on it. Get past the what's-the-matter-with-kids-today and think about the incentives and the consequences.

Start with a simple one: David French in Phi Beta Cons.

It will be interesting to see how much the entitlement mentality persists even in the face of a potential long-term economic downturn. Entitlement mentalities are much easier to maintain when most people seem to be doing well and when companies can sometimes seem downright eager to overlook flaws in their quest to meet the ever-expanding demand for their goods and services.

In an era of cutbacks, the mentality shifts dramatically. Instead of looking for a reason to hire, companies look for a reason to fire — a reason to cull out the worst of a swollen workforce. One response to this new reality may be an increased pressure for inflated grades, as students do all they can to boost themselves on paper. But I think it is also equally — if not more — likely that students are reminded that the work world they aspire to enter is a bit more harsh than they thought it would be and that actual achievement may increasingly be a prerequisite to success.
I can see this cutting two ways. On one hand, yes, a grader can use the five-week-assessments as a way of demonstrating tough love. On the other hand, a grader can be swayed by a tale of losing a job retraining allowance, per corollary to a Vietnam-era draft deferment, as a consequence of an accurate grade.(***)

Here is where market tests come in. Employers have incentives to discover which universities deal in inflated grades. I'm still waiting for National Review or one of the other leading journals of opinion to announce an internship class drawn from Northern Illinois and Marquette and Lake Superior State rather than the usual Establishment hothouses.

The harder part of the problem lies in the ways by which education at all levels simultaneously informs and sorts. Michelle Cottle, who got The New Republic to the right of National Review in pouring scorn on the "I-worked-hard-I'm-deserving" argument continues by spelling out why working effectively trumps working hard.
While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we're trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail--much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere.
That's the glorious waste of general education. It provides people an opportunity to discover strengths they didn't know they had. (Yeah, I'm generalizing from my own experience, not so much with failures at what I thought I was good at as with success at something I didn't know about. Deal with it.) It can also provide frustration to people who know, or think they know, what their real strengths are.
Aim for the stars. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you're not so hot at it, don't whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren't properly appreciated in the real world.
There's truth to that, and at the same time, there's a trade-off. The New York Times hints at it.
Professor [Aaron] Brower [the vice-provost for teaching and learning in Madison] said professors at Wisconsin emphasized that students must “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.”

This informal mission statement, along with special seminars for freshmen, is intended to help “re-teach students about what education is.”

The seminars are integrated into introductory courses. Examples include the conventional, like a global-warming seminar, and the more obscure, like physics in religion.

The seminars “are meant to help students think differently about their classes and connect them to real life,” Professor Brower said.

He said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.
That's why I call it glorious waste.(****) Yes, the intrinsically motivated learner will make the A or B without breaking a sweat. The careerist, however, who sees that B in philosophy as the end of medical school or that C in calculus as the end of law school isn't the best candidate for holistic and intrinsically motivated learning. The polymath, on the other hand, might lose focus in the operating theater or in delivering the summation. The task gets a bit more challenging with differences in the incidence of ability. Sorry to get technical: the Gaussian distribution isn't necessarily descriptive of all talents. A power rule probably works better for math and music and some sports and for all I know keeping track of interest-rate-swap-spreads. We thus have to temper conflicting principles: developing the best talent is not necessarily the same thing as developing well-rounded citizens.

What's a professor to do? The polemicists decry the grade inflation, yet offer no advice. Timothy Burke, a historian at an expensive liberal arts college, sees the problem.
I find both of the poles in the current cross-blog discussion of grading policies a bit weird. There’s the people who say that a C is the average, and thus that should be reflected in the distribution of grades, with an A being one end of the bell curve. And then there’s people (most especially including students) who say that if they do everything asked of them, they should get an A.
He reveals his approach.
My personal sensibility shifts a bit from year to year. I’m not terribly consistent in my internal understanding of what I’m doing when I grade. In general, I tend to imagine the B as the default grade, and an A as a grade that says, “You did something considerably better than ordinary”. The C means, “This is really not as good as ordinary work”. Failures are either, “This is dramatically worse than the norm” or “You blew this off, and I can see that you did”.
The qualifications to that post are worth your time. Go there and read and understand. Note that at a small liberal arts college, he's got the problem of being able to recognize that somebody is not performing up to potential to weigh in his grading algorithm, and the opportunity to compare notes with colleagues, where (despite differences in grading styles) overall evaluations converge.

Chris Lawrence, a political scientist at a public regional, offers a similar model.
“Doing everything the teacher asks of [you]” isn’t A-worthy; doing everything the teacher asks of you better than most other people do it and achieving mastery thereof is A-worthy. And I say that as someone who has historically been a relatively lenient grader.
I've reduced my model to a rubric, which makes up in brevity what it sacrifices in tact.

(*)I recommend that students highlight in pencil, in order to later erase the marks on passages that turn out to be less important. A student caught me out once, leafing through an old volume that I had highlighted in yellow.

(**)We could really use more general knowledge of economics, in order that a simple "is measuring inputs necessarily measuring output?" would stop proposals to grade effort and numerous other performance follies immediately.

(***)Economics is again useful: in order for that grade to be the cause of the benefit or the deferment being cancelled, the student must already be close to the edge. The marginal is dragging the average down from a low level.

(****)That a once-highly-regarded land grant university become football powerhouse now has a provost of teaching and learning bespeaks inglorious waste.

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