B is for Bad

I’ll admit it. I feel pretty intimidated sometimes giving out papers and evaluations to┬ástudents who earned grades lower than A-. It seems more students now than in the recent past come in┬áto 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?