The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘learning’

The Real Meaning of Grades and the Importance of Standards

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2013

*Sigh*… at the end of nearly every single semester that I teach, be it high school or college level, I have to deal with the same thing over and over again: grade grousing.  After grades for the semester have been posted, it is inevitable that I have to address some kind of request from a (former – note the semester is concluded) student asking me to increase their grade.  Most notable are the requests from students who missed an excessive number of classes, failed to turn in the required work, or who performed abysmally on exams (or a combination of all of the above) – yet they feel they deserve a better grade anyway.

Rather than go on in my own words, I would like to pass along the wise words of Prof. Kurt Wiesenfeld, a physics professor at Georgia Tech (at the time the article was written) back in 1996.  These words are just as important now as they were then, and for those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and hold to high standards of evidence when confronted with extraordinary claims, I think the connection is obvious…



© Copyright NEWSWEEK Magazine, 1996

Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt


Kurt's PictureIT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. “Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wonder if there’s anything I can do to improve my grade?” I thought, “Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements” After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. “I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to ‘Incomplete’?” Then the e-mail assault began: “I’m shy about coming in to talk to you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.” The next day I had three phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.

Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade, they go to the “return” counter to trade it in for something better.

What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.

That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.

Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel it’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’ll flunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” This is tough stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long hours and hard work required.

In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial values saturating our society?

Yes, of course it’s right. These guys had better take themselves seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously later, when the stakes are much higher. They must recognize that their attitude is not only self-destructive, but socially destructive. The erosion of quality control – giving appropriate grades for actual accomplishments – is a major concern in my department. One colleague noted that a physics major could obtain a degree without ever answering a written exam question completely. How? By pulling in enough partial credit and extra credit. And by getting breaks on grades.

But what happens once she or he graduates and gets a job? That’s when the misfortunes of eroding academic standards multiply. We lament that schoolchildren get “kicked upstairs” until they graduate from high school despite being illiterate and mathematically inept, but we seem unconcerned with college graduates whose less blatant deficiencies are far more harmful if their accreditation exceeds their qualifications.

Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work. One finds examples here in Atlanta. Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much weight it could hold. A new 12-story dormitory could develop dangerous cracks due to a foundation that’s uneven by more than six inches. The error resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under kilotons of weight is repairable, or if this structure will have to be demolished. Two 10,000-pound steel beams at the new natatorium collapsed in March, crashing into the student athletic complex. (Should we give partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real-world consequences of errors and lack of expertise.

But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you won’t (not can’t but won’t) change the grade they deserve to what they want, and they’re frequently bewildered or angry. They don’t think it’s fair that they’re judged according to their performance, not their desires or “potential.” They don’t think it’s fair that they should jeopardize their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they could not or did not do their work. But it’s more than fair; its necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society needs to maintain safety and integrity. I don’t know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I’ve learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I’ll lie low until the next quarter starts.

WIESENFELD, a physicist, teaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

From NEWSWEEK JUNE 17, 1996

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The James Randi Educational Foundation Announces a New Education Advisory Panel!

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 2, 2010

I’m very happy to announce that one of the largest & most active skeptical organizations out there – the James Randi Educational Foundation (also known as the JREF) – has formally put together an education advisory panel. Allow me to reference their blog post announcing the panel, and allow me to further toot my own horn a bit, because I’m on the panel! 🙂

Before referring you to the official JREF announcement, let me first say that I’m perfectly willing to entertain any and all feedback on issues related to education and the JREF. After all, that’s why I’m on the advisory panel – so my email inbox is open…

The James Randi Educational Foundation announces formation of Education Advisory Panel

Written by Michael Blanford
Monday, 01 November 2010 15:16

The James Randi Educational Foundation is pleased to announce the formation of a new education advisory panel. The JREF’s mission includes educating the public and the media with reliable information about the paranormal, the supernatural, and the pseudoscientific, while promoting critical thinking as a tool for making reasoned and reliable decisions about such unproven claims. The JREF is committed to expanding the impact of its educational programs through innovation and a focus on effectiveness and accessibility. We think this new educational advisory panel, which will focus primarily on the JREF’s K-12 educational initiatives, will be a valuable tool to help us better achieve our mission.

The panel will be made up of individuals with broad experience in areas at the intersection of skepticism, critical thinking, and education. Its primary function will be to provide the foundation’s president and director of educational programs with informed opinions and recommendations related to the JREF’s efforts in the educational arena, focusing on resources for teachers to advance critical thinking in their classroom. …

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Teachers & Merit Pay: The Research Says It Doesn’t Work

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 4, 2010

There are a lot of people in the political class talking about the need for education reform.  In fact, being a teacher of over 15 years myself, I can definitely say that on the science & mathematics side of things we need to get our butts in gear or we are in serious trouble.  So, I’m all for “education reform”, but I am concerned that many who wish to make necessary changes to our primary & secondary public educational system could be pursuing ineffective solutions or even make things worse.

For example, one of the buzz phrases going around in many education circles these days is “merit pay.”  The whole idea of merit pay is that you tie the salaries of teachers to the performance of their students, either by assessing how much kids have learned via their grades or on standardized tests.  At first blush, this sounds like a great idea – the really good, energetic, and inspiring teachers get paid more and the lazy slugs get paid less.  Meanwhile, it gives other teachers an incentive to become more involved & innovative in the classroom so that – the logic goes – they get the students to learn more.

But there’s one big problem with the entire concept of merit pay: it seems that it doesn’t work. In a recent National Public Radio story it was revealed that there is now extensive research which calls into question the validity of merit pay…

Study: Teacher Bonuses Don’t Improve Test Scores

Offering big bonuses to teachers failed to raise students’ test scores in a three-year study released Tuesday that calls into question the Obama administration’s push for merit pay to improve education.

The study, conducted in the metropolitan Nashville school system by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, was described by the researchers as the nation’s first scientifically rigorous look at merit pay for teachers.

It found that students whose teachers were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved test scores registered the same gains on standardized exams as those whose teachers were given no such incentives.

That’s some pretty damning evidence against the merit pay concept.  At least, it is damning evidence against the manner in which merit pay is being proposed to be implemented the way that many education reformers wish to see it done.  Personally, though I have some ideological hangups with the idea of merit pay (full disclosure: I am a strong proponent of teachers’ unions), I am not willing to completely throw the baby out with the bathwater on the basis of this one study; I think more research is necessary.  However, I think it is worth slowing down the rush by many to push merit pay as some kind of cure-all for the broken parts of our public education system.  I like how the lead researcher of the study puts it:

“I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. “But we don’t know what the better way is yet.” [emphasis added]

As I said before, I’m all for reforming education & getting bad teachers out of the profession (we need it), but we cannot simply get hung up on the latest fad to come along (and if you’ve been in education in the U.S. for any length of time, you know that such fads are a common occurrence).  In that sense, this research serves as a cautionary tale.  And, in my opinion, we cannot expect to find one solution that will fit all of the problems in our public education system which varies so widely in terms of socio-economic conditions, ethnicity, culture, etc.  We are going to have to probably find local solutions & local reforms to the specific problems of local schools – which means our education reformers should avoid the temptation to simply jump onto the merit pay bandwagon because it promises to fix everything.  Solutions to such complex societal problems are not so easy.

In closing, I’d like to finish with the final paragraph of the NPR article reporting on the study:

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’ll pay you more if you do better.’ You’ve got to help people know how to do better,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington think tank. “Absolutely we should reward them once they do better, but to think merit pay alone will get them there is insane.”

Posted in economics, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Skeptical Teacher on Skeptic Zone Podcast!

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 1, 2010

This past Labor Day weekend, I attended Dragon*Con 2009 in Atlanta, where there was a really groovy skeptic track. One of the panels in which I participated was “Psychology and Skepticism in the Classroom” – participating were me, Kylie Sturgess (author of the Podblack Cat blog), D.J. Grothe (new president of the JREF), Prof. Barbara Drescher, and Dr. Martin Bridgstock. During the panel we discussed a variety of topics related to skepticism, critical thinking, and education, and our panel discussion was followed up by a lively Q&A session.

The fine folks over at the Skeptic Zone Podcast have now hosted the audio of the discussion.  Go on over and check it out…

Posted in education, psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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