B is for Bad

I’ll admit it. I feel pretty intimidated sometimes giving out papers and evaluations to students who earned grades lower than A-. It seems more students now than in the recent past come in to talk to me about how disappointed they are to have received a bad grade (of B or B+).

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Sometimes students are so upset with the B that I start to get nervous when I hand back the next assignment and there’s another “B” grade on it. It’s so much nicer to just give A-range grades and not have to deal with anger, tears, frustration and all other forms of negative energy. And, when my salary depends on how my students “rate” me in course evaluations, I can get down right intimidated by students.

Why is B a bad grade?

  1. Many of the college students I teach come from a high school background where they earned predominantly, overwhelmingly, A’s. As colleges get more selective in their applicant pools, the percentages of these high school scholastic super-stars goes up. It’s all the more disappointing to them to earn B’s when they get to college.
  2. For many, they’ve learned that simply showing up will earn them a trophy. Everyone on the soccer (or baseball or other sport) gets a trophy for just being on the team. Checking off the boxes on a grading rubric earns them 100% (or even higher) on virtually every assignment at school pre-college. Many students have extra-credit opportunities that bring up their grades to the A range.
  3. Parenting styles have emphasized self-esteem building through praise. The bulldozer and helicopter parents actively participate in their children’s educational experience and ensure A’s by whatever means necessary. It’s all about getting the credential, not on learning through trial and error or practice.

Whatever the reason, many high school students entering our college these days seem to have little or no experience with B’s. They probably don’t even know that lower grades even exist. Or, certainly not for them.

My high school aged kids bring home a lot of A’s. Sure, they are very intelligent and hard-working and likely earned those high marks. But……they also believe that a B is a sign of failure. I talk with them about what a B is….to no avail. They aim for perfection (100% or even more than 100%). They compete with their friends for how high an A they have. Sometimes a 90% is viewed as doing poorly. Only above 95% is acceptable to them. They’ve narrowed their range to such a tiny slice that they seem destined for a self-esteem crash when they get to college. Unless, of course, they encounter a bunch of intimidated college professors who find it just easier to give A- or A.

Why do we even have grades? Isn’t just completing an assignment good enough?

No. Think of playing a musical instrument. Two students might both be able to play the notes of a particular piece. But, playing music, being a musician, is about more than playing the notes. There’s different qualities that make a piece moving. We can each recognize that musicality is about the quality of playing. The same is true for athletic ability. Two students might both be able to swim an adequate 100 yd backstroke. But one might have a smoother, more streamlined stroke. The one with the better stroke gets a faster time.

Two students might both be able to write a five page paper on a topic you assign. They might both consult resources and develop a theme. But one might write with more “flow”, might build that theme in a more compelling way. One might use language with just a bit more grace and style. Or have a more sophisticated idea.

I think we need to talk with our students, particularly those making the transition from high school to college, about what grades are and why we use them in assessing student work. These might be tough conversations and might make you unpopular with your students. But, it’s important for the quality of their education that we assess the quality of their work. B shouldn’t mean Bad. It should mean Better. Not every grade is “Best.” And….can we bring back the C?

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4 thoughts on “B is for Bad

  1. Perfect timing to read this post! I now get so anxious giving back any writing assignment or presentation grade lower that than an A- that I tend to hand them back only at the end of my Thurs afternoon class with the hope that the weekend will buffer the potential anger, and I’m definitely guilty of overinflated presentation grades, as those seem to be the hardest to justify. (I do have a clear rubric for them but I still find it tough and am constantly worrying about my course evals and tenure.)

  2. This article deals with one of my pet gripes about teaching. One of our major problems as teachers is that we evaluate students’ understanding of a subject — or try to evaluate that understanding as well as we can with the imperfect instruments that are available to us — whereas students tend to think that they are being judged on arbitrary standards known only to their professors. It’s as if the classroom were an American Idol show: The teachers are judges with their own preconceptions and tastes, and the students are contestants trying to figure out what makes the judges happy. Students see the evaluation process as arbitrary; professors think it is based on objective standards.

    I think our problem is that we have not found a way to help students become aware of their own intellectual processes. They don’t know how to judge their own level of understanding. It’s what education professionals call “metacognition.” Many students think that they have mastered a topic when they have learned, for example, which numbers to plug into which places in an equation to get the answer that appears in the back section of the textbook. They don’t seem to get the idea that you don’t really understand the topic until you understand how to derive the equation.

    Students need to be able to distinguish remembering from understanding. They need to see enough brilliant intellectual performance to be able to appreciate real genius. And they need to be sufficiently reflective about their own achievements to be able to judge for themselves whether they deserve an A in a course. I wish I knew how to give students that gift. They could all perform better if they were conscious of their own shortcomings.

    • SO true! Thanks for adding to this and making it a conversation! Maybe making the implicit process, that being the learning process, more explicit? I frequently put “meta-goals” on the board before class. These goals are things like: “learning to work in groups using the language of biology,” or “thinking about multiple levels of biological organization at the same time,” or “building community.” Most of the time, I’m not sure the students really “get” what those goals are all about, so every now and then I try to make these aspects of their learning experience explicit.

      • One thing I’ve tried is to grade “concept” questions without writing any corrections on the students’ essays — just a simple grade to let them know how far off the mark I judged them to be. Then I gave them a chance to earn a higher grade by answering the question again, accompanying their new answer with a little discussion of the concept on which the the question was based and the reason I judged their first answer to be wrong. It’s a sort of exercise in “meta” thinking. This is not something you want to do very often if you have 200 students in the class, but the logistics would be leasier for smaller classes.

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