“Where Did I Lose Marks?” & “I Got a C+, But I Expected a D+”: Conversations With Two Students

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series On Teaching Writing in a Korean University

[Note: This is a coda to a series of posts titled “On Teaching Writing in a Korean University. You’ll probably get more out of this if you start at part 1.]

I had an email exchange the other day with one student, and a phone conversation with another. Both threw some interesting light onto the problems I’ve discussed in this ongoing series and in other posts about teaching in Korea, so I figured I’d share. (And my next post, maybe later this week, will touch on the question of what I have to say about essays and alternative projects after having done all my grading and seen the students’ work.)

The phone conversation was with a student with whom I had a discussion about her final essay. We get along well, and can be brutally honest with one another, and I made the point that, her incomplete and somewhat problematic argument aside, her approach to writing was, well… it could be improved. I don’t mean her grammar, I mean her sense of structure, of argumentation, of how to demonstrate a point and support it with evidence, and so on.

(And in turn, she gave a pretty accurate critique of the course she took with me this semester, including its warts and problems. The final verdict was that I was too nice to the class, for reasons that seemed apparent to all the students — I looked exhausted all semester, she said — and that if I could have found the energy, I should have been more of a slave-driver.)

In the course of the conversation, a few interesting points emerged: 

  • Despite her studies in several departments, it wasn’t till her junior year, when she began studying with me, that she ever heard of “plagiarism.” She said she had no concept of it beyond, “You’re not supposed to copy but if you do you’ll get a bad grade — a passing grade, but a bad grade.” She admitted to doing so in classes in sophomore year.
  • She said she believed her (mostly Korean, but occasionally other Northeast Asian) professors in freshman and sophomore year probably noticed that she was plagiarizing, but approached it differently from myself and the other Western instructors she’s had. That is, they simply penalized her in terms of grades, and much less harshly than she expected: she figured she’d get a D+, but she was pleased to find she had a C+. Her opinion was that, really, they — and this is a direct quote — “…don’t give a shit about plagiarism.” She amusingly added that “plagiarism became a big issue at our university in 2009.” What she really meant was, I and another foreign prof I worked with started pushing really hard on the issue, trying to raise awareness and get some explicit standards established, and students in my department started worrying about it around then.
  • She noted that while she thinks small classes are “where it’s at” in terms of actual learning — and expressed an opinion I share regarding the fact my classes tend to be smaller (because in a small class there’s nowhere to hide) — most of her peers seem to prefer large classes, because, she said, it’s more like high school (more passive, easier to just sit and listen, easier to get away with skipping class, and so on), as well as because if one gets a C+ in a large class, one can justify it to oneself as a product of the grading curve imposed on large classes.

I don’t intend to universalize her experience, of course, but it does seem to resonate with other students in the humanities I’ve talked to. Which is interesting because of course, there are implications:

  • Working to raise awareness (about an issue like plagiarism) might have only limited effects, but it can have some effect. The intellectual environment of my department’s students now includes, at least tangentially er, peripherally, some sort of awareness of the issue of plagiarism. Some might still practice it, since the general environment is less hostile to plagiarism than in my class, but some effect can be felt.
  • Developing alternative methods of evaluation — methods less susceptible to the exploit of cheating — is important. For example — and this is a really old example, one developed in the writing program in which I taught as a graduate student in Montreal — requiring students to submit outlines, research summaries, first and second drafts of their major essays, is more work (though nobody is saying the instructor needs to give detailed feedback on all these things); but it also makes it much harder for a student to simply pay someone to write an essay, as well as forcing students to see writing as a process… and, of course, giving instructors a chance to catch things like plagiarism or other problems along the way.
  • Microniches develop within departments, as in any institution or ecology. What might look like under-enrollment to an administrator may instead be a case of a natural filtering of students who wish to be pushed harder into smaller groups with instructors who wish to push them harder. (This is not an indictment of professors who teach large classes. This, too, is a skill and it’s unavoidable that someone teach large classes. But large classes are conducive to certain kinds of learning, and appropriate for certain kinds of subjects; smaller classes are appropriate or necessary for others. Unfortunately, administrators where I work seem to think large conversation classes are problematic — when in my experience they are not — but large writing classes are no problem — which, in my experience, they always are.)

The email exchange, on the other hand, was with a student who was distraught about “low marks” received in my class. The “low marks” in question were a B0 and an A0. (What would be, in North American schools, a B and an A.1) The student’s inquiry was as to how she had “lost marks” and arrived at this score.

Which is an interesting question, since it reveals the presupposition that everyone starts out with an A+, and only by failures to fulfill obligations do they arrive at a lower grade. It certainly seems to fit with the widespread folk belief among students that in classes small enough to be exempt from the grading curve, “Teachers can give everyone an A+.”

I am always quick to quash that belief —   that teachers give grades. I really do have an urge to pose in a Santa Claus suit with an essay in hand, a big red A+ on it, so that I can have a photo taken and photoshop one of those red circles with a bar across it, the “prohibited” sign. The caption would be: “I Don’t Give You Grades: You Earn Them, Or Fail To Earn Them, Though Your Work.”2 But there’s a second interesting assumption that I think is worth addressing, which is that students seem to think that grades are a matter of not doing something wrong, as opposed to a ranking of achievement.

Not an evaluation of effort, though effort can and should be taken into account, but rather of achievement. After all, how does one truly evaluate effort? All one can evaluate is apparent effort, and sadly apparent effort is also something I’ve seen occasional students simulate. You get told stories of how hard someone worked, how they stayed up all night, or researched something for a month, but the result you’re presented with looks slapped together at the last minute. So I don’t really know a good system for demonstrating or measuring effort except a sort of gut instinct thing… that, or when a student’s attempt to “know beans”3 is so apparent that one cannot miss the fact. A student who pops by your office for the Nth time that semester trying to understand the finer points of XYZ is someone you can just tell is making a hell of an effort. But then, those students usually also perform well… the proof is nearly always in the pudding, if you know how to taste pudding for the proof.

After all, if I went to a proper university and tried to complete a B.Sc. in Physics right now, I would likely be flunked out within a semester. I am innumerate, I am so innumerate in fact that the very idea is laughable. I’m not proud of my innumeracy, and in fact I have a slight complex about it. But try as I might, I cannot seem to make the math make sense in my head. (It’s much worse in abstract math than in the sort of classical mechanics-related math I learned in high school. But of course, physics gets pretty abstract further along, and I think that’s where I’d get in trouble.)

My point is: not everyone is capable of A+ work. Trying your hardest might land you with an F, or a C+, or maybe just an A.

Of course, someone might say, that’s a culturally-determined value. Perhaps, they argue, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the idea that everyone starts with an A+ and then loses, or manages not to lose, marks as a result of his or her work.

Which I suppose might be true, but what I find is that there are several problems with this:

  1. It puts the onus on the instructor, not the student, in terms of how the grade finally ends up. That is, it creates a situation where the student and teacher share a sense that the grade is something granted by the instructor, not earned by the student.
  2. It seems to feed the practice of grade inflation, possibly as a direct result of #1, and likely because of the psychological effects of the idea that grades are given by instructors, instead of earned by students.
  3. It cultivates in students an attitude of looking for the hoops through which they are expected to jump, meaning, it cultivates a sense that one does well in an educational setting by avoiding obvious missteps, rather than by pushing oneself to achieve something outstanding. That is: it cultivates attitudes that translate to practical underachievement. Even among outstanding students, it can translate to a practice of pushing oneself only hard enough to be better than other classmates, resulting in a kind of race to the edge of a bellcurve (no matter how shallow). I’ve had great students who underachieved for this reason — they felt pragmatically it was best to just do enough to be better than their next-best classmates, and expected that would be enough to earn an A+. (And they were shocked to find that their work, while better than the others, had not been deemed A+ quality. The idea that nobody in a class received an A+ tends to shock many students.)

Putting the onus on the student, limiting grade inflation and the psychological temptation to “be nice” and “give good grades” regardless of standards of performance, and cultivating not hoop-jumping but actual achievement — and cultivating an attitude of striving to achieve a personal best — all are positives of the system I espouse.

The corresponding negatives aren’t quite apparent to me, other than the fact that the best way to put the onus on a student, to foster healthier relationships between instructors and students, and to eliminate the silliness associated with grading in general, would be to get rid of ranked evaluations, grading, and so on, and institute either a pass-fail system, or a high-pass, low-pass, fail/repeat system.

While that may sound radical — and it won’t happen in most places because of the rules for accreditation — it is my opinion. Of course, there would need to be better systems for evaluating teacher competence and teacher performance, because this would be rife for exploitation. But barring such an unlikely reform, it seems to me that promoting a conception of grades as earned through achievements, rather than given minus subtractions for “mistakes,” is the best way to go.

UPDATE (a few hours after posting): I realized the post had been published with the conclusion missing. Something about having it open in multiple windows, and Autosaves. Argh. It’s complete now.

Series Navigation<< On Teaching Writing in a Korean University — Part 4: Finding Your Own Way to Live in Rome

  1. This is a peculiar notation system, I know. I think it’s an artifact of the way the grading system is programmed into campus electronic grades-management systems, where find-and-replace is used to swap A0 for a specific grade point amount, and A+ for a different one, and of course if A were alone, without some kind of placeholder, it might get swapped before the A+ and this would mess up the system. Notable is that there are no minuses. In the a range, you have A0 and A+. New students to my classes are always bewildered when I give them back assignments with an A- grade, or A-/B+, or A/A+, or any of those fine gradations. They tend to expect A, A+, B, B+… and they always refer to A as A0.

  2. This is, indeed, what is written at the top of the page I’ve written on grading and grade-related inquiries for my teaching website. See for yourself.

  3. Apologies to Thoreau

13 thoughts on ““Where Did I Lose Marks?” & “I Got a C+, But I Expected a D+”: Conversations With Two Students

  1. I had similar conversations with foreign professors before (in our university, but in other universities as well). Allow me to be blunt (as much as I can be, and not get kicked out of the university or teaching in general).

    More than 90% (well over) of the students are not really here to learn. They are here so that they can get jobs after they graduate. That means they need high GPAs. Because the university gets better reputation, higher recognition and more demand (and thus better quality students) when they have a better graduate employment percentage, they want more kids to get jobs after graduation. (The Korean education ministry also grades university – in large part on employment percentage of new graduates. So as usual, the government is not helping). This mean all universities have an incentive to inflate grades, but also they do not want to be seen as inflating grades. Thus, our quota system for grades. So effectively, the quota percentages are the percentage of grades which are handed out. In that sense, the students are *competing for*, and not *earning* grades. This is one of the reasons why some students also prefer smaller classes – since these classes need not follow the quota system, so a majority of students in those classes get A’s.

    Plagiarism – On classes where I require writing, I spend an hour each semester giving them an idea on what plagiarism is. Not surprisingly, for most students, they are finding it out for the first time. I don’t blame the students, though. (How can you blame them if they have never been taught, and they do not have access to information?) But the academic culture doesn’t help. Until about seven years ago, plagiarism wasn’t really considered anything serious; then it suddenly became serious, because of (not surprisingly) politics. One party wanted to get back at a member of another party, and they used plagiarism as a weapon. Now academia is hyper-sensitive about plagiarism to the extent beyond what is acceptable elsewhere. For example, let’s say you are an expert in sewer systems, and you write a paper on how the sewer system developed. In a background part of the paper, you use passages from a previous paper written by you, which dealt with the background in question. (Note that there would be original content later). This recycling is now considered “self-plagiarism” in Korea.

    Go figure.

    For students, I use a very loose definition of plagiarism, and I let things go that would get students serious reprimands in the US. I figure, how can you demand such a high level of professionalism about plagiarism from students if

    1) The professionals themselves don’t keep to it;
    2) The students never really learned what it is; and
    3) The students never really learned how to avoid it.

    1. I go to a large university in America; plagiarism is taken very seriously. All incoming students have to complete a module on plagiarism which includes videos, questions, and our signature. In fact, recycling is considered plagiarism in our university and many other American universities. Reading your post and that of others on this blog has given me insight about Korean universities.

      1. Vanessa,

        That was my experience in Canada, too: there were departmental policies (though not campus-wide ones) about teaching what plagiarism was, and there were consequences for plagiarizing.

        I’ve been told that some universities in Korea are (or used to be?) more stringent regarding plagiarism, but I’ve also heard expats teaching at most of those places saying that it was still lax as all hell. So I don’t know how much you learned about “Korean universities” versus about the place where I worked.

        That said, I always explain what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it, with a strong emphasis on how important it is. And I also emphasize that unlike in Korea, universities in the English-speaking world tend to be quite strict about it, which is a part of they get better-regarded. I can say I saw a reduction in plagiarism in my own classes as a result, but I’m not fool enough to think that it made a dent in plagiarism campus-wide: since many or most Korean professors don’t even feel they should bother to do anything when they know of a case where a colleague has plagiarized (according to a recent survey), it’s hard to believe that they’ll do anything about student plagiarism… because hunting down student plagiarism is probably even more annoying and time-consuming.

  2. An interesting post. Regarding the “I thought I’d get a D+” student, isn’t a C+ still considered a ‘bad’ (albeit passing) grade? If the other student complained about getting ‘only’ an A0…

    To a certain extent, though, I can see where that mindset comes from. Do everything perfectly (e.g. perform precisely according to what is expected of you) and you’ll be rewarded with the top grade.

    As long as school is about grades and not understanding, numbers and not learning, I’m sorry to say that there won’t be much correlation between the grades and the amount learned.

  3. Junsok,

    Yeah, we’re on the same page. One thing I’m lucky about is that students in my department seem to self-sort. I get an unusually high proportion of students who not only want to learn, but are willing to work their butts off to do it. I’ve been told of my reputation within the department in terms of homework load, and also in terms of the challenges posed in my classes.

    (I’m not claiming my colleagues are “easy” teachers, but I am saying that students who take my classes tell me my classes are the most challenging they’ve ever had. Which is a bit weird to me, because I didn’t think I was that tough.)

    Interestingly, my department is approximately 40-50% foreign profs (depending who’s on sabbatical that year), who in the last five years or so at least have quite consistently graded according to standards like mine: A+ is hard to get, you earn your way up, etc. While there are a few students who’ve managed to avoid taking classes with foreign profs, they are the minority. Yet our department has been getting great results with post-graduate employability — the top result for our university (or campus? I’m not sure) over the last year or two, actually.

    Of course, it may be self-sorting: students who are willing to slog like mad tend to take more classes with the profs they can do well with, while those more interested in schooling as a stepping stone to some job tend to minimize that “exposure.” Is this a sign that diversification of approaches to grading is one way to work a transition while not ignoring the system in place? Hmmmm.

    Self-plagiarism: wait, that’s when one reuses content, as opposed to, say, citing it from the previous paper? I would see no problem with cited recycling, of course. I haven’t seen much of the straight reuse without commentary, though maybe it’s more common in other areas. (I suspect litcrit people just wouldn’t do it because We’re Writers, Dammit! and it wouldn’t look right to us…)

    As for my practice concerning plagiarism — and I hope my students aren’t reading this — I actually make a bigger show of Sturm and Drang, of horrifying threats that make the blood run cold. If someone seems not to really “get it” usually I make them rewrite the paper with citations, and submit it with the only real penalty being a late mark. I use the big red F to scare them into understanding that copy-and-paste is unacceptable. The number of times I actually flunk someone on plagiarism is much rare than the number of times I make an issue of it, demand a rewrite with citations, provide a link for a citation guide, and either receive the paper a week later with proper citations (and only deduct late marks) or never see the student again.

    It seems to work. The majority do the rewrite and never plagiarize (at least classes where they’re writing in English for foreign profs) again. And the one student I talked to said she developed a concept of plagiarism afterward and finds it an offensive practice now.

    So I figure I’m lenient, and for the same reasons you are. On the other hand, my colleagues also had someone translate the guide I wrote on how to avoid plagiarism into Korean, because they felt it was well-written and useful for students.

    I think once I’m taking a break from all the papers I’m writing now, I’ll be doing up a “Writing & Presentation Handbook” for students. My goal is that a bilingual edition be printed off in sufficient numbers that every student in our department is given one, with specific standardized citation style guides included for writing essays in Korean, and in English, as well as step-by-step guides to formulating a thesis, developing arguments that support it, using evidence, and structuring an essay or presentation… along with useful little templates for structuring specific and common argumentative moves and so on.

    I don’t imagine that all students will use it, but I so imagine it would be easier to point students at specific pages in the book when grading, so they have somewhere to look to see where they went wrong.

    (I learned a lot from exactly such a style guide that was available at my uni during Undergrad, when I shifted from studying music to literature and had to learn how to cite sources and quote text in an essay and so on.)

    Chris,

    Oh, in the same conversation it was suggested that many students don’t really start taking grades all that seriously till junior year, and even then, lots of people who prefer big classes seem to be satisfied with a C+ on the justification that a grading curve makes competition too fierce.

    It also suggests a reason why people seem to think they need an A+ in every class along the way; presumably it’s to counterbalance all those poor grades from the first few years of goofing off?

    In this particular case, the student said she wasn’t really interested in the course and found it unuseful, so she was willing (as a sophomore) to accept a bad grade on the report as a tradeoff for no effort put into it.

    And yeah — I agree, as long as school is about grades instead of learning, it’s going to be a problem. But I think Junsok’s comment above also demonstrates that it’s not really about grades either; the grade-fever is a symptom of what universities are really about: yes, prestige, yes, sinecures for the tenured, but also, more fundamentally, about money.

    And this is hardly unique to Korea, I should add, despite my suspicion it’s more pronounced in Korean universities than, say, Canadian ones. (Hence Canadian universities are much less obsessed with the Harper’s rankings than Korean ones are with the Joongang Ilbo’s and other “official” ranking systems.)

      1. Well, I no longer work in that place, but parts of it are available on my old teaching site, which I still maintain. In fact, I think a lot of it is there, but you’d have to hunt for it.

        EDIT: Though somehow the link is invisible, so if you want to go hunting, it’s at http://classes.gordsellar.com/ and some of it is linked in the sidebar under “Some Advice From Your Professor.”

        I didn’t bother to go any further than drafting a couple of documents to make a handbook for the Presentation Contest because, frankly, students weren’t interested in reading it. Even when a co-worker had her students translate it to Korean (so that students whose English reading level or speed was too low for the English version) and we distributed it, I found very few students were willing to bother reading 20+ pages on how to prepare for a writing or public speaking project, research, write, and cite their sources.

        Part of that is because Korean students have a stupidly heavy class load compared to North American students. (Like, two more classes per semester, often.) But it’s also because they’re rarely asked to read textbooks comprehensively; implicitly, it’s not necessary a lot of the time since many professors just regurgitate the textbook in lecture form. (The venerable Junsok Yang who commented above being, I am sure, an exception to this depressing rule.)

        There’s also the problem that the relative usefulness of the document was probably not high enough for most of them. The Presentation Contest it was drafted to help them prepare for is a hoop-jump exercise–almost nobody ever fails, unless they’ve explicitly plagiarized Wikipedia all the way through, or unless they truly, truly, immensely suck. It was a High Pass, Low Pass, Fail grading system, and Low Pas encompassed everything from B to a high F; F was only for the real crash-and-burns. Outside of that, the only courses where students regularly wrote essays were in foreign professors’ classes. As I’ve discussed in a series of posts titled On Teaching Writing in a Korean University, it’s impossible for students to acquire and develop any decent writing ability if they don’t have to write essays or other texts for the majority of their classes. Since my Korean coworkers were not willing or able to assign essays in most of their classes–according to what students told me year after year–it was an uphill battle. (Because, while they didn’t feel it was a real priority, they also knew that that wasn’t really kosher for a university English department, so they side-loaded the task to foreign professors. Which can’t work: it’s like learning to tap dance by only ever dancing for half an hour, once a week. But see, they tended to think of courses as modular, disconnected from one another; the necessity of assigning writing in every course only becomes apparent when you consider how courses interlock to build a program of learning. To be fair, they also tended to have some significantly larger classes than I usually did. I maxed out at 30 or 35 students on rare occasions, but I do remember instances where a certain prof was lecturing more than 80, the university maximum for course size. Obviously without teaching assistants, assigning essays in a course that size is really onerous… especially if you haven’t been reinforcing it all the way along in smaller courses. But at the same time, I can only recount one conversation with an English Literature professor who complained that students weren’t good at writing in Korean, either…. at which point I noted the obvious fact that if people can’t write in their mother tongue, it makes no sense to make them learn to write in a foreign language first… and pointed out that a student had even said as much, to thundering applause, in a presentation in my public speaking course. When I had the temerity to suggest maybe what our students needed in their first year was a departmental course on writing and research skills taught in Korean (ie. by Korean faculty) he immediately backtracked and characterized their (earlier “terrible”) writing ability as “good enough.” Because heaven forbid a Korean professor ever have to teach a writing and research course to undergrads! And while that might sound cynical, this is a context where “Reading and Writing” courses of the most elementary type were seen as too onerous such that Korean professors would “focus on the reading part” and students would complete the required course never having written more than a few sentences or paragraphs on an exam somewhere… again, this is what I was told, at least.)

        In any case, the fact that they couldn’t be bothered to read the document even when it was translated to their mother tongue discouraged me enough that I decided to focus my energies on more worthwhile projects.

        1. Vannessa:
          ” In fact, recycling is considered plagiarism in our university and many other American universities.”
          I’ll take it under advisement. :)

          Gord:
          ‘The venerable Junsok Yang who commented above being, I am sure, an exception to this depressing rule.)’
          Nope. :) For theory courses, I tend to stick to the textbook. However, I do try to link my material to current events, since Korean textbooks (economics, but I think other subjects as well) tend to overemphasize theory, and not really place much attention on facts and real-world application. When I taught in the US (TA’ed, actually), one of our jobs was to show our students that economics was actually useful. In Korea, I don’t think we care as much about proving whether economics (or other theoretical courses) are useful, since it is high-falutin’ “academics” so it is useful and worth learning implicitly rather than actual worth (Which may also explain why students often don’t care about what they’ve learned, and forget what they learned so easily once the exams are over).

          The English department seems to have it easy. :) I typically have two classes over 80 students each semester – (out of three which is my contracted courseload, though I had to teach four classes in some sememsters). Usually one of those classes are over 100 students. This semester, the University was warned about the large number of large classes, so I have 78, 73, and 36 students in my classes. Of course, I was stupid enough to assign essays, so I have to read about 140 papers to read this semester (as well as 78 resumes and 2-page personal introduction essays which I assigned instead of an essay in a large class). Last semester I had to read 120 essays. [No TAs – and I was talking with a new professor, and he couldn’t believe that in American universities, TAs and not professors may read your papers). Next semester, I’m just going to use multiple choice exams.

          1. Oh, and most of them do not really have much experience in writing essays, so most of them are mediocre, though there are some which surprises me. I do spend a week talking about basics of writing a multi-page essay. (Students do get extensive training in writing one-page essays since – of course – college entrance tests require it.) For the first time, I had my students critique each others’ writing (the self-introduction essays mentioned in previous post); and (at least from their expressions), it seemed to be really illuminating for them. It was the first time I think they really realized how much they were under the influence of “group-think” (i.e. everyone said the same things in similar ways) and how much they realized that they were not really thinking about the reader when they were writing.

          2. That’s my experience too: those essays that weren’t mediocre shock me… and it was because the students had never been trained to write anything beyong a five-paragraph essay. I also used peer feedback and found it really helpful to students… the ones who wanted to learn how to write, anyway.

          3. Ha, I only wrote that because I remembered you talking about assigning essays at some point. If I had classes with a hundred students, I would also not be assigning essays often, or perhaps at all. Of course, I would also see this as a bad thing, because how are students supposed to learn to write?

            And yeah, the English Dept. sort of has it easy, though, I’ve heard, the admin has been gunning for them for ages. When I heard professors talking about “focusing on the reading part” of Reading & Writing–the only required writing course in our department–I was taken aback.

    1. Andrew,

      That’s certainly part of the reason, but far from the only one, as I explain in the posts in this very series — have you read the other posts in the series?

      Note: Western students encounter a lot of multiple choice tests, but I don’t remember the idea of starting at 100% and losing marks to be anywhere near as prevalent in the West as here — though I haven’t been in a school or university in North America in over a decade now, and things may have degraded there as well.

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