Saturday, January 17, 2009

Abolish grades -- now

In September 1979, when I arrived on the campus of the University of Tennessee, I didn't need any additional incentive to study other than playing back, in my head, the speech my father gave me before we packed our car and headed up to Knoxville.

"If I make Dean's List the first quarter," I asked, "do you think I can go to Florida with some of my friends over the Christmas break, maybe adding that to my Christmas present?"

"Two things, genius," he responded. "First, we don't celebrate Christmas. Second, your 'reward' for making Dean's List is getting to return for the second quarter. And your reward for making Dean's List second quarter is to return for the third quarter. Screw up and you can think about Florida all you want while you're attending DeKalb Community College, which you will pay for."

Remember the scene in "Glenngary, Glen Ross," when Alec Baldwin, in the best performance he's ever given, tells a group of despondent real estate salesmen that first prize in that month's sales contest was a Cadillac El Dorado, second prize was a set of steak knives and third prize was "You're fired." And when I asked my father for another cup of coffee, you know what he told me?

"Put the coffee down. Coffee is for closers. Or A students."

No, he didn't say that. But the other part of the story is true. Trust me, I wasn't heading off to college with a stack of academic awards under my belt. My sole academic distinction of merit through Grades K-12 was winning the second place ribbon in the county social science fair contest in 6th grade. My project was a reenactment of the JFK assassination complete with a second shooter behind the grassy knoll. "What you lack in artistic merit you make up for in creativity," I remember the judge telling me. What, you didn't think that using Hot Wheels tracks, mismatched model cars and "buildings" constructed from Lincoln Logs was an accurate portrayal of downtown Dallas in November 1963? Or was that simply a nice way of saying, "What you lack in brains and ability you make up for with heart and soul?" Or perhaps he thought I was poor, since my project actually looked like an 11 year-old made it rather than a team of architects, building engineers and professional landscapers, as was certainly the case for some of the other projects. Whatever the case, that was about it for the next seven years or so, until I made the Dean's List my first quarter in college.

Since my father had already "fired" me once from my occasional Saturday job working in his store growing up for sitting on my ass, talking on the phone or reading the paper when I should have been working, I never doubted that his threat to bring me home and sentence me to community college, complete with a part-time at job at Sears or, worse, something that would require actual physical labor, like painting, working in a warehouse or cleaning toilets in office buildings, I didn't need any additional incentives to keep my grades up.

Third place. You're fired.

Now, though, it just seems like the $45,000 tag of my university isn't enough to motivate someone to do well. Now, the Housing and Dining Program from the Office of Residence Life is rewarding students lucky enough to live in our South Side residence halls "study bucks" if an RA or some other residence life official "sees" a student studying in one of the hall lounges. Forget, for a moment, the great injustice this means for students who might be reading or computing or doing something academically-related in their rooms. How did we arrive here, paying college students for doing what they came to here to do -- reading, thinking, or perhaps even talking about what they're reading and thinking? Are residence life officials going to assume the posture of KGB agents, mysteriously roaming the lounges and, presumably, other common spaces to determine who gets "study bucks" and who doesn't? Is this sort of like the university equivalent of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," where good students are rewarded with golden tickets and the lazy, stupid and irresponsible ones are thrown in Rock Creek or buried in the World War I munitions dumping grounds behind the varsity athletic fields to rid the university of their ilk so the smart ones can claim their free cookies? Students already steal plenty of food from our dining hall anyway, so I'm not sure how the temptation of even, what, free-er food is much of a motivator.

For students not motivated by the prospect of free food or decorative shot glasses from our campus store, there is something now available to them called GradeFund.Com. Students can set up accounts and invite relatives, friends and, I presume, jilted lovers and angry bartenders to donate money to them if they make good grades. There is a catch, though. The donor and recipient have to agree on what grades merit financial reward and which don't. No, no . . . you're not gonna get that $20 iTunes card for just showing up!

Odd, isn't it, that just the price tag of a modern college education isn't enough to inspire a student to live a life of the mind?

* * * * * * * * * *

Reading stories like these further cement my view that the time has come to simply abolish the formal A-F grading system that has been in place in our university system (and secondary and elementary systems) from time immemorial. As everyone knows -- students, advisors, professors and administrators -- we moved to a de facto pass/fail system years ago. Over 90% of American University students make some combination of As and Bs, making the mean GPA over 3.0. So either every student is, at minimum, a good to very good student or students are receiving artificially inflated grades due to the perverse incentives facing professors charged with evaluating them. Graduate programs don't take seriously undergraduate GPAs anymore, relying much more than ever before on standardized tests to "sort" the "real" 3.4 from the "fake" one. Not surprisingly, many students complain about the emphasis that schools place on the GRE, LSAT, GMAT or MCAT. But the Faustian bargain universities have struck with their students -- we will give you As and Bs regardless of how you've really done in exchange for the tuition and fees that you agree to pay us -- has a downside. And this is it.

I think we should simply move to a Pass/Fail system. Removing the pressure to "make" certain grades, the moronic and demeaning ritual of a 19 year-old student with five weeks of experience in Econometrics insisting to a professor that he or she "deserves" much better than the grade that he or she received and the morale-killing tradition of handing back bad papers just in time for the student evaluations would benefit everyone.

So how will a student know how well or she is "doing" in class, or how much he or she has learned? Here's the straight dope: you never really know -- and I put myself in this category -- how much you know and how much you don't know. The point of an education is to open the door to greater knowledge by developing the chops to ask the right questions and seek out the right resources to answer them. Read, write, think, sing, dance, compute, play, run, paint, build . . . just keep at it and maybe the answers will come.

Or maybe they won't. That's the risk you take.

Can I have my cookie now?

1 comment:

Jen Singleterry said...

Hmm...instead of encouraging students to study, I wonder if this "Study Bucks" system is for reinforcing the intended purpose of those study rooms. They're rewarding students who actually use them to study, instead of to (1) sleep in (2) do a different kind of "sleeping" in *wink wink nudge nudge* (3) smoke/drink/ingest other substances (4) have loud arguments via cell phone in, etc. When I lived in Letts, those rooms were barely used for studying...