From the New York Times:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “

In line with Dean Hogge’s observation are Professor Greenberger’s test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

What else is there really than the effort you put in? Well… you know, there’s the finished product. The one thing that I, the educator, actually see? But that’s inconsequential, right?

Here’s the bad news – I originally wrote a pretty detailed response to this article, including both my outraged reaction as an adjunct who has experienced this sort of behavior, and a more thoughtful response on how race and gender play into student entitlement. But I found I couldn’t write it without divulging details about past jobs. So no commentary for you!

Instead, here’s an education-themed tab dump (it’s been a fertile week at NYT):

The humanities continue to have to justify their existence to college administrators. The best justification, in my opinion: the humanities explore what it means to be a human being. It’s true that you don’t need to go to college to do that, but college would be a pretty barren place without it.

18 students have been suspended from NYU following a sit-in. The students were demanding, among other things, an annual reporting of the university’s operating budget and the right of TAs to organize. Oh, the horror.

Speaking of university labor and operating budgets, coaches, star faculty members, and administrators can make millions of dollars a year while adjuncts and TAs – you know, the people doing the actual teaching? – subsist on salaries as low as $4,000. (That last part’s not in the article – it’s the salary I received my first year as a TA, after tuition was deducted.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

3 Responses

  1. I’ve been kind of disappointed by the reaction to this article so far – so much resentment towards the students! Not saying that’s necessarily you, especially since I don’t know what sort of behavior you experienced as an adjunct, but in general, I say give them a bit of a favorable presumption – they need to be taught how to respond to grades; think of this as a pedagogical moment.

    I totally agree with you that effort alone should not guarantee an A, but students need to feel like there’s a level playing field in order to feel validated in their efforts, and there are ways to reconcile these two things. I like to believe that in every class I teach, any student entering the class with the prerequisite skills and putting forth the maximum effort possible, including taking advantage of all of the educational resources available to them (like office hours and writing centers) should be capable of earning at least a B, if not an A. The key is still EARNING a B or an A (with the quality of their work), but if students meet their end of the bargain, they should expect to emerge from an effectively taught class with the ability to produce that quality of work.

    But those are two very difficult conditions to meet . I’ve had students come to office hours frequently who lacked basic reading and writing skills, basic knowledge of cultural context, etc. Often times, these problems can’t be completely fixed in a 10 week course, especially without exceeding the time that’s been budgeted for helping students outside of class. These students should recognize that the responsibility for their unsatisfactory grades lies not with their current instructor, but rather with some combination of a) the educational systems that have failed to prepare them for their current course of study b) the institution that has required/encourage them to take the current course without adequate preparation or c) themselves, for previously lack of effort to acquire the prerequisite skills. The goal with these students should be to be to help them (within reason/contractual obligation) to acquire, or find resources for acquiring, the needed skills. The pedagogical moment is teaching students to recognize that it is their responsibility to ensure that they’re ready for the classes they take. It means teaching them that they’re responsible for the skills they bring to the table, not just want they do with those skills over a short period of time. This is a crucial lesson for them as students and as adults, and we’re in a wonderful position to help teach it.

    On the other hand, a lot of the complaints about grades from students who are “working hard” and “attending all the lectures” and “doing all the reading” are from students who don’t have the faintest clue what working hard means, or who are surfing the internet/daydreaming during lecture, or who don’t read critically with a pen in hand, or don’t reread or don’t study, or don’t revise their writing. Most of the ones complaining have never been to office hours. Not only does this mean, by definition, that they’re not putting forth the maximum effort possible, it also means they’re missing out on one of the greatest pedagogical opportunities in the entire university. 2 hours a week, I sit in my “office” (I actually meet at a campus food court to make it even less intimidating for students) waiting for students to show up, mostly in vain. This means that the students in my class are literally passing up, say, 8-15 hours of free one on one tutoring from the person who is best able to help them earn an A in the class. The ones that do show up consistently outperform those that don’t. Complaints about grades are opportunities to get them into the habit of attending office hours as part of a broader habit of seeking out help to overcome their shortcomings, both habits that will help them throughout both their college careers and their adult lives.

    On the other hand, I’ve literally never seen a student who came into one of my classes with the needed skills, attended office hours regularly and worked hard earn less than a B. Rarely less than an A.

    As someone who tutors high school students, my experience has been that many of them literally don’t understand how to study. They need to be taught how to take notes, how to pay attention in class, how to budget the right amount of time for studying and to study effectively. Many of students graduate from high school without ever acquiring those skills. They may feel like they’re working hard, but they’re not. In short, the problem isn’t that education doesn’t reward effort, it’s that students don’t know how to work hard in a effective way. They need to be taught, which means we need to find a way to reach them…and it certainly isn’t disdain.

    Sorry for the diatribe – it’s not directed at you, but at the article in general.

  2. I like to believe that in every class I teach, any student entering the class with the prerequisite skills and putting forth the maximum effort possible, including taking advantage of all of the educational resources available to them (like office hours and writing centers) should be capable of earning at least a B, if not an A.

    See, for me (and other people I’ve talked to) that’s the crux of the issue. Of course they should be able to get a B – it shouldn’t be a near-impossible goal. But I think the article is referring more to students who think it should be automatic, regardless of whether or not they’re actually learning anything.

    Case in point (I said I wouldn’t divulge details, but screw it, just this one): last year a student of mine – a guy whose assignments didn’t come close to meeting the minimum requirements, let alone resembling thoughtful work – couldn’t believe he’d gotten a D and demanded that I raise it to at least a B because, well, he wanted one. At no point did he ask for an explanation or come to me for help; his sole tactic was bullying and harassment. If he’d argued that the assignment was too hard, and if a significant number of other students had had similar trouble with it, then I would have gladly adjusted some grades. In fact, I already curve them when an assignment proves tougher than I thought it would be, and I’m glad when students come to me for one-on-one help. But it’s the sense that putting in your time or just wanting it really badly should be enough to be qualified as “excellent” that I can’t stand.

    And I totally agree that many students aren’t equipped with college-level study skills – but when, after I talk to them about taking notes and reading actively and managing time, they still don’t take notes or read actively or manage their time and then become aggressive (and, in rare instances, borderline threatening) about their grades, that’s when I lose patience.

    Anyway, as disdainful as this comment came out, I do agree that disdain shouldn’t be our first reaction to students who don’t fully understand what a grade means. It’s something I wish we were better prepared for.

  3. Well, the student you describe sounds worthy of disdain to me, not because he thought he deserved a higher grade, but because of the bullying and harassment. That’s never cool. Fortunately I’ve mostly managed to avoid that kind of behavior.

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