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.

9 thoughts on “Grading system gets an F

  1. Well, her proposal was tried at UC Santa Cruz when it opened and at Evergreen State College in Washington state when it opened. No grades–all profs wrote individual evaluations for students. Various pressures, including students who wanted gpa’s to show graduate schools, led to the return of grading schemes.

    The pressure to produce a single letter or number does not come from teachers–it’s a product of fundamental American cultural values.

  2. ZGS, I think Lakoff actually gives Reddy credit for identifying the conduit metaphor, though my recollection may be faulty.

    John, I’m fortunate to be at an institution where we are raising admissions standards. Historically we’ve had a hard time keeping our brightest students, who tend to transfer away. So there is administrative pressure on making our coursework more challenging. At the same time, each faculty member has to average about 20 students per class in order to be perceived as carrying his or her fair share of the load. (We’re a small school, and don’t have the 300-body cash-cow mega-courses, like Psych 101 or lit surveys, that might subsidize smaller sections of specialty courses.) If my administrators had a markedly different agenda, of course I’d be powerless (unless faculty went back on the job market in droves).

  3. I’m less offended by the consumer activism that is bleeding over from the private sector here than I am by the ways that professors (and even more, adjuncts) find themselves unwittingly caught in the middle, and with the least amount of influence over how these issues play out. While the degeneration of the educational process at the hands of market fundamentalism is certainly lamentable, it is hard to imagine a solution apart from not only placing this in the context of faculty needing to become much more organized and empowered as a labor group, but also reframing the whole discussion in a way that leads to a solution rather than the typical circular firing squad scapegoating that has become such a common cultural ritual.

  4. i like joseph beuys’ didactic art. not only his art as in an art object context- i love america and america loves me, secret block for a secret person in ireland, social scupltures, multiples, and blackboards- but also his role as a shamanistic healer, “capitalism= creativity”, and free university.
    free university- free thought. that is the correct model. students are caught up in the wrong model where they pay for knowledge. they don’t pay attention. it’s a job. the attitude is partly due to the university loan system. i don’t like the $25,000+ debt for attending a public university in california. i had bad teachers. it happens. i dropped them and found new ones if possible. no matter what, i was in control of how i absorbed the knowledge. the university gave me a lot of short-cuts in connecting ideas, force fed linear thinking- when i am far better associative thinker- and made me pretend to respect the History of the Canon. it’s a lot of bullshit. it’s an institution- no better, no worse than any other. i had my own wiseman-like documentary experience with the bureaucracy while i was there. twisted up in the red tape. it made me abhor the university system in the states in general. now i’m a loose cannon. although it’s hard without the necessary degrees.
    by the way, didn’t lakoff first discover the conduit metaphor, conceptual metaphors, embodiment of language etc.? our bodies create our metaphors.
    my main points- free art/thinking= anti-capitalism, new institutions= new students, graduation= deinstitutionalization, – also knowledge is play. the atmosphere in most schools is too somber. multimedia it up/ lotsa handouts, the internet, more cross-disciplinary courses, teach how to connect ideas, not just digest them, or teach like vulgar mouth julian boyd. it’s about new patterns of thought, not memory bank brain machines. i don’t know, really.
    beuys + free university.

  5. While Ms. Slater says “Suddenly, the purpose of schoolwork will be to garner knowledge, rather than to gain an artificial mark of how much learning one had achieved,” this only holds for classes where the student _desires_ the knowledge form that class! In many cases, students in core required courses outside their majors would rather chew tinfoil than open the text book. I can count on my fingers the number of students who have been “motivated” by the material in my gen-ed math courses.

    I have been a student in courses without exams, without any assesment except the dialog between the instructor and the students, but these courses were always upper level or graduate courses in which Ms. Slater’s idyllic group of motivated students lives. That’s not the majority of students at _any_ school in the country (that I know of).

  6. Evan, your analogy of the “cable decoder” does reflect the fact that a student needs to know how to interpret the signals he or she receives, but it still presents education as the flow of knowledge from the teacher, through a conduit, and into the mind of a learner. That implies that the secret to learning is simply having the right decoder box.

    Reddy asks that we think of the transfer of information — such as the purpose of a rake — more like the delivery of a blueprint. You actually have look around you to find the raw materials to use in order to construct the tool described in the blueprint. Only once you have constructed and mucked around with your own working contraption (or, to step away from the metaphor, your own mental model of the concept the “sender” was trying to represent) can you say that communication has really taken place. And that construction takes a lot of effort.

    So, yes, you have made some useful distinctions that Slater probably should have made.

    Of course, to be fair to Slater, maybe she really really has run across instances of bad teaching. And maybe her article is vague because she is deliberately avoiding naming names, out of professional respect to a teacher who sparked her compliants.

    Slater uses the toilet-cleaner/boss analogy, putting the student in the position of the boss. In fact, she challenges the very notion that a teacher is capable of assessing student learning. That suggests she does not share your opinion that teaching and learning should be equal components of education.

  7. In my opinion, learning requires effort on both parts. As a Chinese proverb went: A teacher can open the door, but the pupil must enter alone. Some students (and sometimes teachers) fail to grasp this concept. The author of the quote you cited is probably trying to allude to teacher inefficacy, but failing by putting the responsibility directly on the educator, further illustrating the guilt by such overt displacement.

    However, if the rest of the class fails to learn (and I hate to use social standards) is that not an indicator that the teacher is ineffectual and needs to change his/her methods to be understood?

    There are two sides to education: teaching and learning. Should not both sides have equal responsibility to education?

    It’s nice to think that the teachers only responsibility is to send out coded cable signals (sorry for the bad analogy), but you have to install the cable box for the TV to use them. The methods of understanding are what allows students to learn and teachers to get their point(s) across. Without the cable box, the output matches the input. It’s one thing to shoot out facts, it’s another to actually understand them.

    But if a student does not understand while the rest of the class does, questions are very helpful. No teacher should have to squeeze out every last minutiae from his/her lungs for only one student. That is not fair to the class or the teacher.

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