Grades: Obedience or Evaluation

It is the end of the semester, and I hear stuff. A lot of this stuff I do not like to hear. This is a sample (essentially):

  • "I don't have to take the final in that class, the instructor said I just have to organize some folders instead"
  • "I got an A on all the tests, but the instructor said my grade was a B because I missed too many classes"

Those are just two examples I have heard recently. When I hear these kinds of things, I try not to pass judgment on other faculty because I am only hearing one side of the story (I can only imagine what crazy things students say about me). However, I still wonder what faculty think about grades and class.

For me, the exams and the grades are my best attempt to evaluate material and concepts the students actually understand. Ideally, a student with a grade of "A" would have a pretty good understanding. Yes, I know that grades do not always measure actual understanding, but that is the goal. For me, if a student only came to the tests and did well I would be ok with that.

I am afraid some other faculty think of grades a little different. Perhaps they treat classes like obedience school. How can you get a good grade if you don't go to class? You didn't go to class, therefore you do not get a good grade. How can you have your pudding if you don't eat your meat?

Both of the student quotes from above are evidence (but not proof) that an instructor is basing the grade on obedience. Is that what education should be about? Do we want to make sure that successful students are obedient? I, for one, would like to encourage them to be disobedient.

More like this

I am pretty sure that the goal is obedience, most of the time. For the most part people are being prepared for jobs. This is more true of elementary/high schools than of college, but in college it still applies. Citation standards for different disciplines are a good example of pointless rule following that starts right away in college; and it doesn't stop there. The amount of power that teachers have over students must corrupt a certain amount of people, too. I am not sure that a system of hierarchy/authority is the most reasonable way for a system of learning to operate anyway. seems to me like that undermines creative thinking and makes any class extremely different depending on what prof you get.

Students seeing education as some sort of token to use for reward ___ is a huge problem too. I know very few people who just like to learn, most want to have certain letters after their name or make a certain amount of money. There are problems from every direction, really.

In defense of the 2nd instructor it's possible he is using attendance as a catch all for in class participation/involvement. I teach an inquiry based physical science class and I use attendance as part of a student's grade because it's important to me that the student is in class participating in discussions and working through her own ideas.

There are aspects of inquiry learning and the student learning process that I'm not sure how to test on an exam. Attendance/participation is my attempt to emphasize and grade these aspects of the class. This isn't my ideal situation but it's the best plan I have at the moment.

First, what is a successful student? Passing all the tests is a start but a scientist needs to do more. They need to work well with others, defend their position, question assumptions, design investigations and ask questions. I've changed my grading system this year (H.S. physics) to include these factors AND test scores when determining final grades.

I think some teachers play a game of 'gotcha' with there students and use an obedience model as a result.

Others use attendance as a factor in grading because they feel it is a proxy for participation. This is a mistake. Attendance does not ensure participation.

One must evaluate their course and determine which factors are valuable. Then assess all of those factors directly.

If attendance is a component of the grade, students must be informed of the fact and provided with the specific criteria by which it is assessed.
Learning to show up, and to complete all assignments well and on time, is good training for the career market.

For me, if a student only came to the tests and did well I would be ok with that.

I had to do that a few times due to work conflicts. It can be quite hard, but for a physics or math class it's usually do-able provided one is able to practice substantially more exercises than the professor recommends. (Always a good thing to do anyway.)

Thanks for saying this. It's reassuring to know that not all professors will look at you funny for missing class a couple of times.

I had the unpleasant experience this semester of not needing to attend two of my three courses. One was a required course that ended up just being a review of material I'd already covered in detail at my undergraduate institution. The other had a no-value-added type of professor. I learned what I needed from the book and spent class time yawning my way through his slow, meandering algebra and his useless random life stories (life stories are fine if they're related to the material, or at least interesting. These were not).

The point being, even though neither of these courses had an attendance component to the grade, I still felt as though attendance/obedience was expected and ended up attending these classes - leading me to feel resentful. Attending was a complete waste of my time, in terms of what attending class added to my understanding the material. That was time I could have spent getting caught up on what my new research group is doing, spending time at home with the partner I never get to see and the puppy who still isn't completely house-trained, or at least simply not being bored out of my mind.

I am not the sort of student who easily feels compelled to miss class. Usually I can find some value in attending. When I can't I shouldn't still feel obliged to be there, even when the school/department is covering the tuition (as long as I get the grades and understanding that are required of me, of course!).

Okay, I can see this turned into a rant. My apologies. I'll stop by mentioning that the third class was an absolute joy to attend, and I never missed a single one all semester. Just to prove I'm not a slacker. ^_~

By Usual-Handle-E… (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

Using "job preparation" as an excuse for training students into blind obedience is kind of disturbing. I've worked in an environment where a corporate culture of obedience kept everyone working unpaid overtime for months on end. My idea of healthy job preparation for my students is to teach them to stand up for themselves better than that (and to be so dang clever and do such amazing work that employers will want to hire and keep them around anyway).

Alex: I haven't tried this myself yet, but one (experimental) idea I've heard from a very good source is to create a sort of inquiry-based test. Give students a hard problem, let them work on it together, but then when each student is ready they walk out of the room to an area where they are responsible for writing down and explaining the complete solution on their own. You'd want to mix this with a more conventional test to check for previously learned material, but this gives you a concrete way of testing a students' ability to take part in an authentic group problem-solving task.

There is some merit I suppose - but by the time kids are in colledge do they not have to learn to be responsible for their own actions / inactions and handle the consequences of that. Taking a "roll call" in class is effectively contuing to treat them as children.

When in college, I discovered I had missed an entire module one semester - don't ask but I did enjoy my time. I spent 2 weeks before exams having to self-learn relativity (not general) - and did well in the exam.

It could be argued that I actually did well because I had to take responsibility, go research and work it out myself as opposed to being spoon fed.

I suppose it dpends on your approach

"colledge" ?????

I obviously didn't major in spelling

In physics, perhaps what you want to teach can be evaluated by exams. In some classes, discussions are a major part of your assessment. They are evaluations in addition to exams.

For instance, in class we read and analyze papers. There are some types of students that are really great at memorizing things and regurgitating them on exams, but in discussion I get to see them evaluate science and criticize methods. In fact, just the other day I had a debate (the first one all semester) and one of my students just shone. This is a student who wrote a completely incomprehensible essay, but in class was able to make clear, cogent, and well researched arguments in favor of his team's sides. I would have no idea he was capable of that if he'd never shown up to discussion.

It depends on whether you think that grades are intended to reflect what was learned, or that grades are the incentive system for getting students to learn something. If you aren't teaching a group of self-motivated students majoring in your own subject, you're generally better off thinking the latter way.

For instance, the real learning in an exam comes, generally not from taking it and doing well, but from studying for it. The fact that there's a grade attached to the exam is the incentive to do the studying. Once the exams are handed out, the learning has already happened and the grading is something you have to do in order to maintain the credibility of the incentive system.

All of which is to say--it might very well be that the professor took attendance because he realized (or thought he realized) better than the students, the extent to which attendance would be (on average) necessary for learning. He'd then have to follow through with docking the grades of the non-average students for whom the attendance wasn't necessary and who had perfectly well learned the course material.

Of course, as pointed out above--incentive systems only work to the extent they are well publicized and well-understood.

By Andrew Foland (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

In my smaller, upper-level physics classes, I usually make class participation 5% of the grade. This is mostly to encourage the students to ask questions. But I emphasize it's participation and not attendance. I tell them that if they don't want to attend class, they don't have to: all they have to do is show up once and ask a bunch of questions, and they'll get full participation credit.

I do make homework a significant part of the grade. Not only to coerce the students to do it, but there are important problems that can't realistically be assigned on a timed exam. It's important that students be able to do these mathematically lengthy problems as well as the shorter ones that show up on tests.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

No, a grade should not be base on obedience.

When I did my college education, I did it taking CE classes. I was a terror.

I abhor forced seat time. In some of the classes you really didn't even need to have class at all and I made that painfully obvious. Never got dinged for leaving early, or not showing up at all. But then CE is different and I took advantage of that.

I can see it for some of what I term the soft sciences like sociology, English, etc. but for the I.S. related courses, that was all head material. Instructors were accessible via email, phone, etc. All class notes were posted on an Intranet site, wasn't like you could really be foggy on the ideas.


In my Real Physics class, attendance means nothing. Over the years, I've had several students who only attended on exam days. (They got their graded exam back after taking the next one, so they had to intuit what they did right or wrong when preparing for the next test.) Grades earned were A, B, and D. I only care what they can demonstrate they know.

In my Gen Ed class, attendance serves as a way to help students reach the Promised Land while requiring effort on their part (showing up and participating). If they retain one thing later in life, like why you need to wear a seat belt, I'll be happy.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 29 Dec 2009 #permalink