Friday, December 16, 2011
A grade goeth before a fall
While I doubt it registers with my students, I am at pains every semester to explain to them that they earn grades. I do not merely give them. Unfortunately, the students who most need to hear this message seem to be the least likely to retain it.
I recently taught an algebra class in an accelerated format. Students were warned at the outset of the course's brisk pace and the need to work diligently to stay abreast. The faint-hearted quickly folded their tents and stole away. The braver students stuck it out to the end—a bitter end for a few of them. Overall, though, the success rate was over 80 percent. I was happy that so many of my students passed the class.
One of the students was less than enamored with her “success.” Yes, she passed the class, but she passed it with only a C after having spent most of the semester at the B level. She had spectacularly flunked the comprehensive final (earning fewer than half the possible points on it) and her average plummeted. I declined to award a B to a student who couldn't even earn a D on the final exam. She called me up to complain at the injustice of the result.
Her particular complaint focused on what she perceived as the inequity of students getting a C grade with composite semester scores of 68.5 while she was being denied a B despite a composite score of 78.5. Why did I “round up” the scores near the C-D boundary but not hers at the B-C boundary?
Several factors influenced my decision. First of all, the C-D boundary is basically academic life versus death. A grade of D forces you to repeat the course for credit. I give very close scrutiny to the scores of all students teetering on the precipice of the C-D divide. Furthermore, the three students in question had all beaten my complainant by several points on the final (and the weakest of the three was in the enviable “hammock” position). Unlike my former B student, they had not used the final exam to demonstrate utter confusion and lack of subject-matter retention (a consideration of some significance in a prerequisite course like algebra).
Then, of course, there's the other tiny factor: Among the students with passing grades, the student in question had one of the lowest participation rates in the quizzes that I used throughout the semester to gauge my students' progress. To be fair, it was not chronic absences that caused her to miss so many quizzes (although her attendance did suffer near the end of the semester). No, it was her refusal to submit her paper to me when I collected them, even when I made a point of asking her directly. “No,” she'd say. “It's no good.” Brimming over with sweet reason, I would explain, “Five points on a ten-point quiz may be a little embarrassing, but five points in the grade book is significantly better than zero points!” She'd shove the crumpled quiz into her binder and resolutely refuse: “No, I don't want you to look at it. It's no good.”
In the end, she withheld or missed over twenty percent of her quizzes. A series of truly bad decisions. Those points were not there to reinforce her against a bad result on the final exam, which turned out to be a significant matter in the end. I guess her problems weren't just in algebra.