The only persistent complaint about my course is that my tests are too hard.  I wonder.
The point of university is to make students better at solving problems, better at understanding new material, more questioning of authority, better at thinking for themselves, more creative and better at expressing themselves.  It’s not easy for students to develop those critical thinking skills and, left alone, most won’t. So society (and the students’ current and future families) enlist our help. We are in effect paid to stand between the student and the television.

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But how high should we set the bar? Surely this is one of the most important — and least discussed — questions in Higher Education. What level of excellence should we demand?

Here’s my contention. We should repeatedly stretch the students as far as they can be stretched – without them snapping.

The hard part is to know where that sweet spot is. After a lot of thought, I still don’t have a clear answer. But the guiding principles must go something like this.
First, we need to set critical thinking targets (expectations) as high as we can. How do we know when the target is high enough? It is surely when most students are not getting most things right most of the time. If they step into the class room and get an A from the get-go, we are not asking enough of them.  The real danger is not that we over do it, but that we under do it.
Second, things should be set up so that students who strive and steadily improve get rewarded. Equally, no achievement, no reward. Period. Reinforcing mediocrity with an A (or a B) is a disaster.
Third, students should get an A not for effort but rather for achievement. It is tragic when a student says s/he deserves an A because they put in the hours. The real world will eat that attitude. Hours don’t count, it’s what you do with them. We must ensure we are assessing only the quality of output.
What do these principles mean for SC200?
It means I need to make the most of my grading algorithm which takes the best performance from several blog periods and tests. Poor performance early in the course has no grade legacy unless the poor performance continues. I should use the early part of semester to force folks out of their comfort zone. Indeed, the ideal would be a bunch of shocking marks initially, with everyone climbing steadily to a final A grade based on outstanding performance in the last blog periods, tests and the final exam. A number won’t make that climb, and there will be complaints, but do we serve our students well if we hold them to lesser standards than we hold ourselves?
I particularly need to make the first test set the standard. I made it too easy this year. It was nice to have few complaints, but I inadvertently created a lot of complacency which morphed into more complaints after subsequent tests. Since I take the best two scores from four class tests, I should use the first test to lay down a marker, and wake everyone up. That will focus minds on revisions sessions. I should also do more pop quizzes on test questions. The tests are the only opportunity I have to force students to think critically.
The class blog is my place to develop student creativity and self-expression skills.  I have to be much more punishing on students who are not participating comprehensively. This year I found myself giving pass marks for Facebook-like efforts. I must stop that. Moreover, I really must (MUST) keep the A’s for frequent participation at the high performance levels described in the rubric (e.g. “Entries are conceptually sophisticated, engaged in a substantive way with the material”). And I need to mark the first blog period very firmly. I put a lot of time into individual feedback. I need to insist they lift their game in return. I need to do class sessions off the back of the first blog period, talking about what makes a good post, and what makes good comments. I’ve lots of examples of good and bad practice now. I also need to encourage the students to tackle difficult topics in their blog posts, or to be creative, or lateral, or especially lucid. Few are shocking me in a good way.
In all of this, the guiding principle should be to set the students clear and high goals and help them to get there. I need to tell them all this and manage expectations. I need to make clear, as Karin Foley memorably did in different context, that I will do everything to get the students over the bar – except lower the bar.

All of this is well and good.  The main obstacle is the students. They do not like to get less than 100% at any point in the course. They view even a B as a failure. Many think they should get an A just by turning up (and some even if they don’t turn up). How did this come to pass?  What warped US education so badly? Anyone ever wonder why transcripts are packed with A’s and the US is way down the international league table in education?

The entitlement generation is not entitled to A’s. Instead, it has earned the right to stretch for an A, and to have us help them do as well as they can.  Getting things wrong is the only way to find your limits. Defining your limits is the first step to pushing them back. The right degree of failure is a spur, a motivator and an educator.  Students learn a lot from failure. We all do (this is why scientists know a lot). So long as the environment is right, having students fall over is a great way to teach. And an important lesson in life.
However, I have to tread carefully here. Deliberately setting out to make students uncomfortable needs to be handled carefully for a Gen-Ed course like this. We want students choosing to do the course, and we do not want to reinforce the loathing many of them developed for K-12 science. I can keep the numbers up and the enthusiasm high by setting a low bar. But is it naive to think that the right form of stretching will also lead to student happiness – and better-rounded citizens?

1 thought on “Harder?


    Is the GPA system the culprit? I overhear many students talk about how they “Really need an A on the next test/final in order to keep my GPA up” or just to pass, but never any comments about the actual content learned in a course. I do not think I have heard real thoughts and discourse on a subject, but rather how to min/max and crunch numbers for a numerical result that, for me, ultimately means nothing. Cram the information, fill in the multiple choice circle and hope for a curve.

    Of course, I understand that the current system is built upon the GPA and in order to keep financial aid flowing and be considered for scholarships depends upon it. I suppose even to acknowledge academic acumen. However, it becomes a rat race instead of an intellectual journey. To think that I’m paying the tuition cost that amounts to four letter grades is horribly depressing. I don’t really have an answer (other than an inkling for a pass/fail system) or the experience of being a professor.

    The benefit of your course is the different ways in being able to achieve success. Perhaps my experience and/or age helped me to realize that success is never a direct path nor assigned a letter grade, but a feeling and sense of accomplishment that is undeniably addicting.

    In other words, science is an expensive drug.


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