Grading system gets an F

We are currently paying a large amount of money to attend this University and receive an education. If I have paid to be taught something, shouldn’t there be a repercussion for the teacher rather than, or at least as well as, the student when knowledge has not been taught? —Ailee SlaterGrading system gets an F (Oregon Daily Emerald)

I especially enjoyed this author’s telling use of “toilet-cleaner” as a metaphor for a university instructor. And then the toilet would be… —

Whoops, a student has just come in the door (during my scheduled office hours), so I’ve got to spend some time listening to “the boss”.

Update: Just kidding, of course.

I have heard faculty colleagues lamenting the creeping consumerism that leads students to think that they are buying an A, but I’ve never seen that consumerist attitude so starkly and blithely displayed as in Slater’s essay. I *have* had students tell me that they thought my course was one of the first times they felt they were paying for the chance to learn, rather than buying credits to apply towards a degree. (Of course, I have also had students blow off my class, for whatever reason.)

Towards the end of Slater’s essay, she suggests that, if faculty paid less attention to grades, and didn’t spend much time generating assignments that forced students to keep up, then faculty would have more time to mentor the brightest students; letters of recommendation that approving faculty write to excellent students would replace the need for grades. I don’t think there’s a faculty member on Earth who wouldn’t prefer to teach a small course of intimately devoted students, rather than a huge section of disinterested students.

But what if a faculty member simply refused to write a letter for a deserving student? Perhaps the faculty member is just too swamped to write more than a perfunctory letter… perhaps the faculty member makes an arrangement with the student — babysit my kids for free and I’ll write you a better letter of reference. While grades are hardly foolproof, they can be externally verified more fairly and accurately than an individual professor’sletter-writing whims.

A student has the option of dropping a course if they think the instructor is too hard (or they otherwise don’t like the instructor’s methods). An instructor can’t simply drop a student from a class simply because they think that the student will be too hard to teach. I think this is a good thing for student education (though it’s not always a good thing for the instructor’s record, if a student who wasn’t prepared for the class blames the teacher for not being good enough).

Entry-level courses at large research institutions are typically taught by graduate students who may have a solid grasp of the subject matter but not much experience in the classroom. Slater might be better suited to the academic environment at a teaching university.

I don’t know what to make of Slater’s suggestion that it is somehow unfair for the teacher to be able to decide whether or how much the student has learned. According to the article, Slade is a sophomore English major who would like to publish her own creative work. If she were studying French, wouldn’t it make more sense to let a native French speaker (or someone who has spent 10 years studying French) judge her work than to let her come up with her own opinion about how much French she has learned? If she were studying history, should she be the judge of the facts?

I’ve blogged before about variable credit pass-fail grading system; that is, a student who does exactly what the syllabus requests gets three credits of “pass”. A student who goes above and beyond the requirements can get up to six credits. Students who don’t meet the course requirements can get fewer credits. Such a system would make education more expensive for students who take up a lot of instructional resources without doing their fair share of work.

Slater uses a passive verb in the excerpt quoted above… “when knowledge has not been taught”. Slater seems to be basing her understanding of education on the conduit metaphor, rather than the constructivist metaphor.

Her solution — punish the instructor instead of, or along with, the student who does not perform — assumes that learning is something that is delivered from instructor to student, like water through a pipe, or packages on a conveyor belt. If the student doesn’t end up knowing enough, it must have been because the instructor didn’t distribute enough knowledge, right?

Regarding the conduit metaphor, Reddy writes that in English, the language we use to discuss communication share a pervasive metaphor that conditions us to think of communication in exactly the way Slater seems to use — as a conduit, like a conveyor belt or a pipe, carrying quantifiable bits of knowledge from the source to the destination. According to Reddy, we don’t actually exchange pre-packaged knowledge; we exchange signs and symbols, and that in order to fully learn anything, the receiver must work hard to use those signs and symbols as blueprints, to reconstruct the image or concept that was in the mind of the sender. (See “The Evil Magic of the Conduit Metaphor“, part of an article I wrote for BlogTalks.)

To blame the teacher for information that is not learned assumes that teaching is a matter of putting the right information into a package and sending it down the conduit to its destination. It assumes that learning is as simple as opening up that package.

I forget where I found this link, but I came across a discussion on Metafilter.