Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Grade Grubbing Scientists (rant/early thirsy)

I'm teaching a "writing for scientists" course this term, my first in some time. On one level, I enjoy it; I've always liked science myself, and my students are lively, genuinely interested in their chosen fields of study, and idealistic, dedicated to helping everything from people to animals to the environment. They get to pick most of their own topics and sources, and I'm happy to learn more about the ones they choose.

But I'm also reminded of why I stopped taking science courses in college: they are so, so grade-focused, interrogating every decision on a rubric that adds up to a grade worth less than 10% of the final. Of course, there's a reason for that: many of them want to pursue medical careers of one kind or another (nurse, veterinarian, doctor to humans), and they're keenly aware of the competition for the slots in the relevant graduate (and, in the case of nursing, undergraduate) programs, and the minimum GPAs necessary to have even a shot at admission. But they don't seem to understand that if I and other undergrad proffies were to set up a system where everyone could get an A if (s)he worked hard enough (the approach one of my students suggested today would be "fair") , then the medical/nursing/vet schools would have to come up with some other weeding mechanism, most likely a very-high-stakes one-day test.

I tried explaining that, when initiating a conversation with a professor in whose class you hope to raise your grade, it's best not to lead with "why did I lose points on this, and this, and this?," but they honestly didn't understand the difference between that and asking "how could I improve this when I rewrite it?" And they have a lot of trouble with the idea that fully satisfactory work earns a B, with As going to work that goes above and beyond in ways that I can't necessarily define until I see it.

Q Has anyone found a good way to explain why everybody shouldn't get an A to students facing stringent admissions requirements, or to students, period? Should I even try? Should I just give all the complainers As (or A-s, or B+s) lest they torpedo me on the end-of-term evaluations?


  1. Don't give in. Remember that grade inflation punishes your best students, by not allowing them to stand out. It's easiest to make this point to the best students. I've been in a conversation with a student who *was* one of the best students, but who felt bad for the others and was arguing for easier grading; I pointed out to him that *he* was the one who would suffer for that.

    Of course, on the other hand, if institutions don't want professors to give in and give too-high grades, they should not pay too much heed to professors who get torpedoed for grading fairly....

    The whole "B is a good grade" thing is something lots of students have trouble with. They have this model that they *start* with an A, and only by doing things horribly wrong does it start to sag down from there. I'm always telling students that a B is a good grade, despite their skepticism.

  2. The medical schools and others do have a one shot test called the MCAT (which also has a section that requires writing).
    But as a science teacher ,therefore a former science student, I"m troubled by the concept of "recognizing but not able to define" A level (or any other)work. I like quantifiable data. I feel everyone should get a A,if they do A level work! ! I would get physically sick in some classes if the teacher said they were going to grade on a curve and you knew half the class was capable of 99% work.

  3. Having run a program for pre-meds/pre-pharma types, the obsession with grades is understandable. However, you should gently remind them, if they press too much, that post-grad schools will not care about a 'B' in a writing course. They will look at their grades in Chem, Bio, HumPhys. They will read their letters, examine what research projects they worked on. The focus on grades is a side effect of the completion that the system imposes on them at various levels. They do not know how to turn it off.

  4. Propman is correct. Saying,
    "... As going to work that goes above and beyond in ways that I can't necessarily define until I see it."
    sounds to a scientist like bad methodology. If you are assigning a number (the grade), you need numerical criteria. Your rubric doesn't have to be perfect (it never is) but it's a basis for evaluation. A rubric provides documentation for others to verify the way you calculated the grade. That's important in science and in grade disputes.

    I'm not being critical of the way you grade. I imagine that it is frustrating for you. What you see as annoying behavior by your students (apart from their embarrassing level of grade grubbing) is actually a good scientific mindset.

  5. I grade exactly the way CC does, and I assure you, all A-level work gets an A. But for an A I am looking for more than "fulfilled the technical criteria; cited 3 sources, wrote 2000 words, gave me an intro and a conclusion that belonged to the same paper and a well-organized argument that got me from one to the other without egregious grammar errors Do all that and you have fairly earned a B+.

    To get better than a B+ you have to actually say something INTERESTING about your subject; substantiate it, draw connections I wasn't expecting, or was expecting but didn't think you'd find. You have to display higher-order cognition. I can't tell you how to do that. All I can tell you is, if you don't, if's not an A.

  6. I am not sure if this is what you are looking for because I more have to explain to my students why the BARE MINIMUM earns a C. I go off course a little and use a cake baking metaphor (Cheesy, yes, I know).

    Assignment: Bake an edible cake

    F=Completely jacked up, inedible, missing ingredients
    D=Kind of looks like a cake, maybe baked brownies instead, missing some ingredients, burnt, etc.
    C=Bought cake mix. Followed instructions correctly. Just a store-bought cake mix cake, nothing extra, kinda dry and crumbly (doesn't hold together well, but manages to be a cake until examined closely.
    B=Store bought cake mix, but tweaked the recipe to make it better. Added some outside ingredients to make it tasty, moist, and doesn't fall apart when eaten. Decent Frosting.
    A=Completely made from scratch with good ingredients, moist, holds up to the roughest handling. Beautiful frosting with carefully crafted decorations. Goes above and beyond

    I show them that A means OUTSTANDING and C means AVERAGE. Just doing the basics won't get you an A. I also try to drive home that a B is GOOD, but there is room for improvement. They could do more to make their cake "worth more".

    Another analogy is when I compare fast food to a fine restaurant. Both are food. Both satisfy hunger (the assignment), but one is "worth more" and higher quality.

  7. I work at a "feeder school" for one of the biggest med/dent schools in the state. In addition to giving them something like Bitchy Proffie's recipe, I go through the recipe beforehand and give them examples before they write their first essay of the diff. between the various grade breakdowns (e.g. showing a sample of an A essay; especially showing the diff between a B and an A essay b/c that's often who gripes). This helps stave off SOME of the grade grubbing, but not all of it. There will always be certain students who will want to argue about specific points. At that point, I start showing all the points I COULD HAVE taken off and didn't and ask if they want me to REGRADE their essay at the risk of finding even more points to deduct. Only the dumb ones ask me to do so.


  8. Yes, since when does A mean "competent?"

    For the scientists, all I can think of is this: when you are, say, a doctor, you can listen to someone's symptoms, mentally compare them to a list of various diagnoses, think one looks like the best diagnosis, prescribe something, and move on to the next appointment. That is a C: you did your job. But if you listen to someone's symptoms, hearing behind them some signs of, say, domestic abuse, treat the symptoms with the mildest possible medication while taking them seriously, gently coax the patient into describing the home situation and offer her help, well, then, that is an B: you did your job, gave your patient dignity, and set her on the road to a better life. An A might be something like asking the sort of questions that lead to a completely counterintuitive diagnosis, one that turns out to be absolutely right and leads to a research paper: something like Oliver Sacks does. I'm sure that this is a terrible analogy but I think the best scientists show the kind of holistic, higher-order, original thinking that is valued in the humanities.

    So these multiple-choice, quantify-it-all dudes who show up in humanities classes are completely aggravating, because they think that everything is piecemeal and quantitative, right or wrong, and they are outraged when I say that our job in the Humanities is actually to find the right questions, not the right answers. And yes, I give the As to those who ask the riskiest and most interesting questions, not to those who mechanically crank out a formulaic answer.

  9. @BitchyProffie: I'd really like to borrow that analogy for my syllabi, if I may. My students might actually understand that where they don't understand "A=outstanding writing, guys. C=what you did."

  10. "... with As going to work that goes above and beyond in ways that I can't necessarily define until I see it."

    This is precisely why the writing for scientists course at my uni is taught in the school of science by a professor who has degrees in both Chemistry and English (with the whole-hearted approval of the English department). From all accounts, he does a fantastic job. No, he doesn't give out all As, but he is able to explain precisely what constitutes A work.

  11. "... with As going to work that goes above and beyond in ways that I can't necessarily define until I see it."

    Klytaimnestra, Bitchy Proffie, and Frog & Toad did a much better job of describing this phenomenon than I did at the end of a long and discouraging day. I *can* describe what distinguishes an A-level paper -- an especially interesting question; especially well-chosen, well-integrated, and well-analyzed secondary sources and primary evidence; an overall organizational scheme that employs the usual lab/social science report headings, but also uses topic sentences and other key elements to create a developing argument and supporting themes that reach across those sections; in short, something that feels like an organic, creatively/intelligently-designed, whole -- I just can't give them a checklist or recipe for producing one. The response that does everything I explicitly asked for in the assignment, and does it well, is a B (and yes, I know it would once have been, and in some institutions still is, a C; I've only got the bravery, and the energy, to fight grade inflation so much).

    @Honest_Prof and Beaker Ben: I'm glad to hear you say that, since I thought it was true, but wasn't confident enough to say so. Precisely because of the sort of humanities standards described above, I would expect science-oriented grad programs to be satisfied with a B in a writing course (but perhaps concerned about a C, since they do need to see good technical competency if not brilliance, and a C at many schools is now a pretty low grade, more like a traditional D).

    @Kari: that sounds like the ideal solution (and a couple of my colleagues in English fit that description, and teach this class more often than I do; my presence in this class has to do with the demand created by the growing health sciences sector, and my bravery, perhaps hubris, in thinking "well, I like science, got through the AP/freshman level in several science fields and so have some idea of scientific method, and can read journal articles and figure out how they're put together even if I don't understand all the content; I can do this." Mind you, when they're working in their own fields, I don't critique their content or analysis, just their presentation of it, and I tell them that's what I'll do. The current project is a meta-level look at the state of their field based on written sources and interviews, so I'm pretty competent to critique all the elements of that). I think the dual degree/background is key, since there really are better and worse ways to write within the traditional scientific genres, and, as a lot of published articles in science journals suggest, some scientists either don't realize that or don't care (of course, based on the evidence in humanities journals, once could say the same of some humanists). Another option which I'd like to see my program explore, especially now that hybrid and online classes make scheduling easier, would be to pair the English-run "writing in the disciplines" class with the major-department-run "research methods in. . ." class that students often take in the same or adjoining semesters, so that research would be overseen by a professor in the major, and writing about that research by an English/writing professor.

  12. "... with As going to work that goes above and beyond in ways that I can't necessarily define until I see it."

    I have graded papers myself (History of Math), and so I know exactly what you mean, however:

  13. Beaker Ben and Kari are right that this needs to be addressed as a real issue, rather than asserted as an excuse. I was a Math and Philosophy double major, and I generally found writing papers to be excruciatingly difficult. Finally, at the end of 4 years, I earned a legitimate A on a paper. (Part of the reason I slogged through the Philosophy major was to improve my writing.) At the beginning, it was very hard for me to understand the difference between good writing and bad, and while it did eventually click for me, more guidance would have been nice. For the record, I went to the kind of school where most of the entering students were already competent writers. If they had remedial "Freshmen Comp," I would've been in it, but they didn't. They offered a remedial math course, after all.

  14. I have taught many "Math for Liberal Arts*" type courses, and I have seen the difference in perception about education that the Thirsty-Asker refers to. But I see this as an opportunity to bridge the divide, and I applaud the Thirty-Asker for trying to do the same.

    *Though Math is one of the Liberal Arts, dammit!

  15. PS. Why is there such a low limit on the length of comments here?

  16. @Snarky-Feel free to steal! I have found that when I take it out of the context of Basketweaving to something more "common" that things click. I also do the same thing that Cynic does at times for the more annoying grade grubbers. I show them every little error or slight weakness to show just how darn GENEROUS I really am with my scoring. I always have at least one student cry and whine about 1 point taken off in the mechanics section and would not accept that since it as not PERFECT they cannot have a perfect score.

    Student: Waaaah-waaaah, "But they are so small and you can't expect us to be perfect! We aren't graduate students!!"
    Bitchy: "No, this is why I only took ONE point off. You did well, but here are the minor errors" Points out errors AGAIN.
    Student "But...But...then why take off point if it's minor?? We can't be expected to know this perfectly."
    Bitchy: "Actually, had you followed the manual more closely, gone to the Writing Center, and carefully proofread your assignment, maybe you would have avoided these errors."
    Student: Belligerently, "But you said this was good and the errors were only minor!!"
    Bitchy: (Secretly wants to punch student in face now) Sternly, "It is not perfect. It does not deserve a perfect score. I would be more than happy to more carefully review your assignment and take off more points for the additional errors I am sure to find."
    Student stomps off mumbling what a bitch I am.

  17. PPS. And why don't others experience the same problem?

  18. @mathesian: I'm not sure, but it does seem the limit you're experiencing has something to do with your local setup, not the blog's. There is a limit (and I've managed to run up against it once or twice), but it's pretty high: something in the range of 4500 characters, if I'm remembering correctly.

    And I'm glad it's clear that I *do* want to bridge the divide: hence the query on CM, where I can actually find scientists to "talk" to -- one of the things I very much appreciate about this place.

  19. I really appreciate this topic, and BitchyProf, if I may, I'd also like to borrow your cake metaphor. I have a similar in-class participation rubric that I can share in exchange if that would be useful to anyone...

    Today I haz the stoopids, but wanted to say thanks for this topic, as both a former composition teacher and a current writing-heavy teacher.

  20. @BlackDog:

    While BitchyProf's metaphor is fine, I think klytaimnestra's post is clearer.

  21. For starters, you don't "give" grades. They are earned.

    Also, never let them use class time to dispute grades. EVER! That is for office hours. Put a clause in your syllabus about it. I have a section in my syllabus on "Appropriate Use of Class Time" which stipulates that this kind of thing is not to be discussed during class (use FERPA if you have to). They can talk to me after class or during office hours, but they may not use class time. My syllabus also stipulates that if they attempt to push the issue and hijack the class, then they are being disruptive. What you do with them after that depends on how your adminflakes handle disruptive students.

    I've actually heard students brag about causing the instructor to not cover material.

  22. Regardless, if you are letting them use class time to complain about their grades, then that also hurts the good students as they sit at their desk wondering when class is going to start.

  23. I've tried K's explanation and it hasn't worked. Maybe it's because I drool on myself whilst I offer it...

    Best student response ever? "You're the professor. How are we POSSIBLY supposed to write something you don't know? or that interests you?"

    Ummmm...how is that you simultaneously believe that I am omnipotent AND still willing to accept your crappy excuse for work?

  24. @Crazyprof: I wouldn't usually discuss a grade during class time (though I don't think I could get away with requiring them to come to office hours, either; either my "by appointment" office hours would be spread all over the map as I tried to accommodate my crazily-overscheduled students' schedules, or I'd end up discussing grades by email, which is even worse. I usually try to put off conversations about individual matters, including grades, until between-classes time, which is, realistically, when I have many of the conversations traditionally associated with office hours).

    But this was a group project, the class time in question was dedicated to their working on said project, and I think they really did intend to start a "how can we make this better?" dialogue; they just did it ineptly, and I, being very tired, dealt with the situation even more ineptly -- one of those exhausted proffie/exhausted students encounters that did not turn out well.

    I'm also realizing that having a relatively high-stakes group project -- not my usual MO, but I decided to try it this semester for a couple of reasons, including, to be honest, the thought that having them produce a smaller number of actual written products would keep my grading more manageable -- changes the dynamics of grade-protest conversations considerably, since I'm dealing with a whole group of unhappy students rather than just one. From my perspective, it's a new assignment, and I'm actually grading a bit easier than usual because I know that I'm adjusting and clarifying as I go along; from their perspective, it's the only time they're going to take the class, the standards aren't absolutely clear, and they want to know how to get an A, dammit. All in all, I'm reasonably pleased with their learning, but I am finding some things hard, especially holding them responsible as a group for less-than-wise decisions they made as a group (and that I warned them at the time were unwise). I'm sure I'd work out many of the kinks in another semester or two, but the whole enterprise is feeling stressful, and a bit perilous. I may well go back to the low-stakes introductory group project/higher-stakes individual project model I've used before, which offers fewer but nevertheless real advantages for the grading load, and creates much less stress, for them and for me. At the same time, I wish I felt freer to experiment without worrying about how possibly lower evaluations in one semester might affect the chances of my contract being renewed. We're actually rewarded for trying new things on our department's annual review rubric (which also takes student evaluations into account, but as only one of several measures). But the Dean approves contract renewals, and the Dean seems very fond of the spreadsheet with the evaluation numbers. In some ways, I'm in much the same position as my students: afraid that a single number, or at least a small set of numbers, will have a disproportionate influence on my professional future.

  25. @Blackdog: I'd love to hear more about your in-class participation rubric. I've got a basic "for this part of the grade, as for all others, you start with no credit and build" paragraph, which also contains examples of what earns points (answering questions in a way that shows they've done the homework, asking good questions, building on each others' points in discussion, etc.) and what loses them (any activity irrelevant to the discussion/task at hand; falling asleep). But I can't say that it's working all that well; some classes (including the one described above) are reasonably engaged; others aren't. However, since I don't add up the class participation grades until the end of the semester, I don't usually get complaints about those.

  26. Anyone is free to steal my analogies. I feel so special that you all aren't laughing me off of CM for them...lol

    I have a very clear rubric that is much like K had described, but they don't "get it" when I have it laid out in that context why the bare minimum is not an A. They really do believe that just doing the assignment with the least amount of effort, but "get it done" earns an A and "trying so hard" should earn at least a C.

    I have found that if using the style like K's doesn't work, then I use the cheese-ball cake or restaurant analogy. Somehow by putting in "every day" terms it seems to click upstairs for them. I o find that I have to resort to cakes more with my lower-division courses than with my students that are majors or upper-division classes.

  27. Yes, BlackDog, please share!

    One thing I do to help them see what an A paper is, is to offer up samples. I also suggest that they read scholarly work in the field a bit, to get a feel for it. While there is no "recipe" for a good humanities paper, it's quite difficult to write one if you never read them. I learned how to write literary criticism by imitation, occasionally with embarrassing results, but the end-product was a fairly mature scholarly voice for my honors thesis.

  28. Tracking Participation: Use otherwise useless instructional software package to print grid of student photographs. At the end of the class, take 30 seconds and a red Sharpie and write a grade on everybody's face. This serves both record-keeping and frustration-relieving functions.

    F--Does not speak in class, frequent absences, assignments often incomplete or not turned in. (Active disruption of a class will also earn an F, like that kid who tried to set his clothes on fire.)
    D--Rarely speaks in class, contributions irrelevant, assignments sometimes incomplete or not turned in.
    C--Sometimes speaks in class, contributions relevant when issued, assignments complete and submitted in a timely fashion.
    B--Student speaks often in class offering relevant contributions, but engages only with the teacher. Assignments complete, timely, and of a high quality.
    A--Student makes frequent relevant contributions, engaging instructor's questions and comments as well as those of classmates. All assignments complete, timely, of a high quality.

    I use these for discussion classes, thus the emphasis on engaging other students. You could adapt to your situation including references to readings, etc.

  29. @BlackDog: I like your approach. Getting across the idea that it's possible to attend class but not get a passing grade in "participation" may be a hard sell, but it's worth pointing out. And I *really* like the idea that an "A" requires -- gasp! -- interacting with other students (not just the proffie).

  30. To give these students their due, I have to post a brief update: I just finished sorting through ballots they filled out to determine whether each member of the group would get 100% of the group grade for the current stage of the project, or whether credit should be distributed differently (each student can vote for each member, including him/herself, to receive anywhere from 90% to 110% of the credit; the total has to equal members in the group x 100). For the most part, they were quite generous to each other. Several groups voted unanimously (via secret ballot -- I know who voted for what; group members don't) for each member to receive 100% (which is what I told them to do if they felt that contributions had been equivalent, though not necessarily identical). In the groups that voted to distribute credit unevenly, there was usually pretty clear agreement about who deserved a few extra points, and students most often docked themselves, rather than someone else, to give those points. In several cases, reciprocal generosity brought the group back to somewhere between 99 and 101% all around. There were a couple of groups who -- fairly, I think -- docked laggard members a few, but not usually the maximum possible, points (in most cases, the laggard members agreed, and also docked themselves). And there was just one student out of two sections who adopted the sneaky (but still not too harmful to others) strategy of docking each of her group members a few points so as to give herself the maximum of 110. All of her other group members voted for 100% all around, which means she will benefit from her sneakiness, which sticks in my craw a bit, but so it goes (I was able to use rounding-up to give everyone else 100%).

    So, they may be grade-grubbers on occasion, but they're also pretty good citizens. You -- and your dog, cat, horse, parakeet, bridge, nuclear reactor, etc. -- will probably be safe in their hands.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.