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Student and Faculty Expectations about Grades – Highlights from a Conversation

Posted by on Thursday, February 3, 2011 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Last week, the CFT hosted a conversation titled “Negotiating Student Expectations about Grades and Goals.” We’ve found that when students and faculty have very different expectations about teaching and learning, a variety of teaching challenges can result, frequently leading to frustration for both teachers and students. We’re planning to explore this topic throughout 2011, and last week’s conversation was our first event in this exploration.

More than two dozen faculty, students, and staff participated in the discussion. We thought of the event as a bit of a think-tank in which various perspectives on the topic of expectations about grades could be shared, hopefully giving everyone involved a better sense of the issues, even if they didn’t walk away with concrete solutions. We also worked hard to recruit a few undergraduate students to participate in the discussion. It seemed important to have student voices part of a conversation on student expectations! We were glad to have four undergrads participate in the conversation.

We opened the session with a few clicker questions designed to surface the group’s ideas about grades and grading. Below are a few highlights. It should be noted that these questions weren’t designed as research questions, just questions intended to spark discussion. The results of these clicker questions aren’t necessarily representative of opinions across the Vanderbilt community.

  • “A student’s grade in a course should reflect only performance, not effort.” The room was split on this, half of them disagreeing with the statement, half agreeing. One participant argued for performance grading given the way grades are used by grad programs and employers to compare students. Another argued that it’s impossible to isolate performance from effort, since performance is enhanced largely by student effort.
  • “Students should be graded against objective standards and not against each other.” Most participants agreed with this statement, but almost a third disagreed. One participant noted that the first time you teach a course, you can’t benchmark against prior student performance, so you might need to compare students.
  • “There should be a limit on the percentage of A’s given in a course.” Participants were all over the map here: 16% strongly agree, 24% agreed, 32% disagreed, and 28% strongly disagreed. We didn’t discuss this clicker question as a whole group, but it’s clear that this is an idea that generates a diversity of opinions.

After the clicker questions, we moved to smaller breakout groups for further discussion. The groups surfaced a few key ways in which student and faculty expectations about grades differ. The highlights from these conversations below aren’t meant to be definite statements on the topic, just ideas worth further exploration.

  • Some faculty feel that students should be motivated by intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn. But students can feel that the importance that grades play in applying for grad schools and jobs is often underestimated by faculty.
  • Most faculty and students agree that not all students can receive A’s. But most students want A’s, leading to some conflict, particularly when faculty don’t think it’s appropriate to have too many A’s in a course. Just how many A’s are appropriate? That’s another point of disagreement among students and faculty.
  • Given the role that grades play in students’ post-college life and the fact that A’s are perhaps more scarce than students would like, many students want to know exactly what it takes to earn an A in a given course. This can be viewed as “grade-grubbing” by some instructors, and it can be frustrating for faculty who want some flexibility in their grading schemes (to reward, say, creativity in student work).

The small groups also surfaced some potential negative consequences of these differences in expectations including for students loss of motivation, misplaced effort, missed feedback from instructors, and a lack of learning. Negative consequences for instructors can include negative course evaluations and uncomfortable meetings with deans or parents. And all involved can experience frustration, disappointment, a loss of faith in the system, tense classroom environments, and communication breakdowns.

What’s to be done? Again, the goal of this first conversation wasn’t to develop concrete solutions, but we did spend some time suggesting possible strategies for both students and instructors.

  • Start Smart – Instructors can clarify grading schemes in their syllabi and communicate policies about such things as deadline extensions up front. Students can ask for clarifications on grading policies that are unclear.
  • Be Transparent – Instructors can use rubrics for individual assignments and share those rubrics with students so they know what’s expected of them. Instructors can also share effective study habits with students, including giving students a sense of how much time they expect them to spend on the course outside of class. Students, in turn, can share with their teachers their grade expectations or targets.
  • Be Flexible – Instructors can give students a say in determining assignment deadlines. Let students know they’ll eventually have to do all the work, but by giving them some control over the pace of the work, they’ll have more ownership over their out-of-class effort. On the student side, flexibility can mean seeing less-than-ideal grades as chances to learn and improve, not as reasons to argue with instructors over points.
  • Scan the Horizon – Students can check in with instructors about their performance in the course along the way. Likewise, instructors can identify students at mid-semester (or earlier) who might need to hear about additional resources, like tutoring services.
  • Use Multiple Measures – Instructors can provide students meaningful feedback on their learning before that first big exam. Student can then learn from their early mistakes and difficulties. Students, in turn, can ask for useful feedback on assignments, particularly during the first half of the semester.
  • Set Boundaries – One policy suggested was to have students wait at least 24 hours to submit any grade disputes and to have them do so in writing. Instructors can connect the boundaries they set with professional standards–would your boss accept a report two days late without any prior notification? Students can acknowledge that they really shouldn’t be the ones deciding their grades and that grades are earned, not “given.”

The CFT will continue to explore this topic this spring. Look for a series of guest blog posts by students sharing their expectations about teaching and learning, and please join us on March 15th for the second conversation in this series, “Negotiating Student Expectations about Freedom and Responsibility.”

Image: “Design is a good idea,” Dirk Dallas, Flickr (CC)

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