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“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: 

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:

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

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