Why Students Today Complain About Grades—and How We Can Fix It

I periodically get emails from former students who thank me, several years after a class is over, for challenging them in a way that prepared them for life after college. I don’t get so many grateful comments while the students are still in college.

I don’t blame my students, but a certain proportion does seem perfectly willing to blame me.  It is indeed much less stressful and much less time consuming simply to teach to the test, since as a college teacher I can write my own test, or choose to ditch the test in favor of some other way to evaluate students. But without familiar benchmarks such as quizzes and PowerPoint presentations, students can panic.

This brief reflection does a good job summing up the situation.

I wish I were being simply ironic and flippant here but I think this is very serious.  I know just how serious when I talk to corporate recruiters about the current crop of students and they tell me that, whereas it used to take six months for a great student to become a great coworker, it now takes a good year to two years.   This generation of student is still waiting for the final grade, for the test score that shows they’ve aced a subject, not for some demonstrable achievement of mastery or—the most crucial workplace skill—an ability to survey one’s skills and knowledge, understand where one might be lacking, and then find someone to fill in that gap through a collaborative effort or to find some way, typically on line, to learn the skill one needs in order to make up for previous educational losses.

It takes nearly two years because they’ve been educated in a system where the grade is all but have to live adult lives in a world where self-awareness, diagnosis of a problem, an ability to solve a problem by applying previous knowledge, and collaborative skills all count—along with eloquence, persuasive skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills.

Here’s the punch line for college profs out there:  We will not eliminate the grade-grubbing until we change our current educational system. Until then, we will need to be putting up with a lot of whining by students who have mastered the system that educators and policy makers have created for them.

Here’s the punch line for college students out there:  Until you educate yourself beyond the assumptions of the system we’ve foisted off on you,  you’ll be depriving yourself of the real skills and knowledge that constitute the only educational test worth anything:  the test of how well your formal education prepares you for success in everything else.  Cherish the great seminar teacher, even if she gives you a B-.   It’s what went on inside that classroom—not the grade at the end of it—that truly constitutes achievement in the world beyond school.



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