You are the best teacher in the world and you’ve just turned in your grades for the best class you’ve ever taught. If you are a college professor you know what comes next: the barrage of complaints about the low grade, the litany of excuses for why this or that missed assignment was due to health reasons, the pleading that the B+ be raised to an A- or medical school plans will be foiled and a life ruined, the thinly veiled threat that changing a grade is easier than dealing with a student judiciary complaint (or an irate parent). It's the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.
And here’s the paradox: If our students weren’t all tireless grade-grinders, we educators would have failed them. Yes, you read that right. They were well-taught and learned well the lesson implicit in our society that what matters is not the process or the learning but the end result, the grade. A typical college freshman today has been through 10 years of No Child Left Behind educational philosophy where "success" has been reduced to a score on a test given at the end of the course. For a decade, they have had the message that a good teacher is someone whose students succeed on those end-of-grade standardized tests. Teacher salaries can be docked in some states, whole schools can be closed or privatized in others, if students score too poorly. The message we're giving our students today is all that really counts is the final score. No wonder they fight for a good one!
Conversely, for all that colleges say about not being solely concerned with test scores, almost all boast their average score, and that score helps colleges with their own rankings in U.S. News & World Report and more serious collegiate ranking and accreditation systems. And, to go one step higher, aggregated scores on those tests are what make the world educational rankings in the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- you know, the ones where our students humiliate us each year by coming in 14th in reading, 17th in sciences, and 25th in math.
It's not like an examiner is standing there really probing to see what each child in the world does or does not know, what they remember, or how well they apply their knowledge. All those rankings reduce all the skills and content one learns in a subject to how well one does on a standardized test that research shows might actually cover about 20 percent of the actual content of a course, demotivates actual learning, and can be "scammed" either through intensive cram sessions, pre-testing tutoring in the form of the test, or enormous amounts of class time dedicated to "teaching to the test." None of those are good educational philosophy, but in a world where the final score is what counts, those methods get the end result you want — not of more learning but of a higher score that opens doorways.
So don’t blame the next 18-year-old who calls, knocks on your door, or e-mails to boost that B- to an A-. He's been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success. Why should he be able to forget that lesson just because it's a seminar and the grades are based on essays requiring eloquence, persuasive rhetoric, critical thinking, and analytical skills? If he has absorbed the educational philosophy of our nation that grade achievement constitutes educational success, then whining for an A- makes him ... what? Well, eloquent, rhetorically persuasive, and a final critical and analytic thinker. Right? Doesn’t he now have the grade on his transcript to prove it?
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 students 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 online, 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.
As an editorial postscript, I should mention that I almost never have grade-grabbing and whining, but, for over a decade, I've been using peer-grading, contract grading, and other forms of participatory learning (such as the class writing its own standards and constitution at the beginning). I write about a lot of that in Now You See It.
And, if you never have a chance to take a class with a truly inspiring seminar teacher, you'd do worse than to master the "rules for students and teachers" offered by the great avant garde composer John Cage. You'll notice he never says anything about test scores, grades, teaching to the test, or OECD rankings. The test he wants you to pass is the big one: success in the rest of our life.
Cathy Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) and co-director of the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University. This essay first appeared on her HASTAC blog.
Harvard Law School is preparing to offer a free course through edX -- the platform Harvard University uses for MOOCs (massive open online courses). But as The National Law Journalreported, the law course (on copyright) won't be totally open or massive. Enrollment will be limited to 500. The course description explains the rationale behind the limit: "Enrollment for the course is limited, in keeping with the belief that high-quality legal education depends, at least in part, upon supervised small-group discussions of difficult issues. Fidelity to that principle requires confining the course to the number of participants that can be supervised effectively by the 21 teaching fellows. The limit on the enrollment does not mean, however, that there will not be access to the course materials. On the contrary, all of the readings and recorded lectures used in the course will be made available to the public."
Fifteen years ago, my attendance policy in media ethics class was considered so unusual that The Chronicle of Higher Education did a news story about it, titled, "Ohio U. Professor Will Take Any Excuse for Students' Absences."
The article, still online, shared my reason for accepting any excuse, as long as a test or project was not scheduled for that day. I wanted students to assess their priorities. What was more important — attending class, or nursing a hangover from a Thursday night on the town?
I continued to teach at Ohio until 2003, when I became director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. My contract was entirely administrative. In other words, I did not teach a class again until the fall 2012 semester, when I took over the media ethics class of a faculty member who passed away suddenly. (See the essay "24 Hours" in Inside Higher Ed.)
More on classroom absences momentarily.
As an administrator, on a few occasions, I had to cope not only with stringent attendance policies of faculty but also their own attendance in assigned classes.
Case in point: In 2009, my administrative team began to see declining enrollments in our degree programs in advertising and journalism and mass communication. We identified two primary causes for the drop in pre-majors. We were requiring an "English Usage Test" before students could become our majors, and it seemed that students were not getting sufficient instruction in high school on grammar, spelling and syntax — essential in our disciplines.
Then we discovered the attendance policy in our required orientation class. Students failed the course if they missed one, yes one, class.
We changed that attendance policy in 2010.
As director, I have had to take action on occasion when instructors cancel too many classes. Official Iowa State policy states that faculty members are "required to be on duty during the academic year on those days when classes are in session." Professors may arrange for others to manage their responsibilities when they are away from campus while classes are in session.
However, before professors can take time off for personal or professional reasons, they are expected to fill out a form specifying dates they will be gone and how their courses and other obligations will be covered.
Of course, accidents, emergencies and illness can strike without warning. In those cases, we ask that the instructor contact the main office so we can post information on classroom doors or arrange for others to take over classes.
We do not police these policies, but we do expect faculty to adhere to them. You may want to consider that level of trust with your students.
After taking over our media ethics class, with one day’s preparation, I had to create a new syllabus within hours. That’s when I decided to implement the attendance policy that attracted so much attention at Ohio University in 1997.
Here’s an excerpt:
You can miss as many lectures as you like, as long as an exam or project is not due that day. Simply write a brief e-mail to me explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment – don’t explain symptoms). Send the e-mail to me before you miss the scheduled lecture or deliver it within 24 hours. Note: Title your absence email "462 Absence."
The attendance policy also has a section for late and early departures from class. Nothing can be more disturbing to the instructor or the class as a tardy student clumsily opening the door during lecture or a student leaving before the lecture ends. The latter also suggests something the teacher said was so disturbing that students just had to leave when they really only had to relieve themselves.
So I designate a row of chairs near the exit as "liberty seats," meaning students may come and go as they please if they sit in that row.
But what about students who violate the attendance or seating policy? Again, an excerpt from the syllabus:
Failure to Follow Attendance Rules: If you miss a class without e-mailing an excuse letter, your final grade will drop by 50 points out of 1000 for each occurrence. If you come late or leave early, without taking a reserved seat in the back row near the rear exit – and then fail to write an email explaining why you had to leave — your grade also will drop by 50 points for each occurrence.
How will I know who’s who, who’s lying and more, if I don’t also take roll? Well, I can download photos of my students from the registrar’s office so that I can identify them if I have to over time. In other words, students may be able to get away with skipping class and not emailing me initially — which only encourages future infractions — but sooner or later I catch up with them and their lies.
And remember, this is a media ethics class. If you lie in any ethics class, you go to hell — literally, I tell them.
But the best part of the attendance policy is compiling the class report detailing just why students miss class.
Here are a few examples, names withheld, of course, from last semester’s ethics class:
It just so happens, tomorrow is my birthday. Not just any birthday you see, and I know you like us to be honest; it’s my 21st ... at midnight, tonight. I should also add, I am a senior and the last person I know to turn 21. So, I have this weird feeling that tomorrow's 9 a.m. class is going to come up and hit me like a brick wall. I don't think I'll make it, but hey, you never know! I could rally!
*** Professor Bugeja,
I was absent for 462 yesterday and here’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. While I was walking to class, a raccoon was in my path that was squirming and running around. I knew something was wrong since it was out in the daylight, so I called animal control. They asked me to keep an eye on it so it wouldn’t run away (although I’m not sure how much help I would have been if it had). By the time the animal control woman arrived, I was 30 minutes late for class with a 10-minute walk ahead of me. I didn’t want to be rude and show up that late, so I didn’t come into class.
As a final gesture to students, I post a chart that summarizes why they missed class and why others who had taken the class previously also missed. Categories include:
Career-related conflicts: Working for a student media outlet or part-time job.
Academic-related conflicts: Working for other classes or student organizations, sororities, fraternities, etc.
Family-related conflicts: Dealing with emergencies, weddings, outings.
Romance-related conflicts: Indulging in Valentine’s Day, excursions, rendezvous.
Health-related conflicts: Dealing with illness or honoring medical/dental appointments.
Overslept: Falling asleep in rooms, newsrooms, etc.
Funeral: Coping with death of parents, relatives, friends, associates.
What surprised me was how reasons for missing class at Iowa State in 2012 were so similar to reasons at Ohio in 1992-2003. The world has changed so much since then, especially in the digital classroom. Nobody missed class because of Facebook, for instance. In fact, the only technology-related absence concerned a student missing class from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2 to attend a Microsoft conference in Seattle.
To view reasons for missing class in a downloadable chart, click here.
Also consider this: Stringent attendance policies may be necessary in small workshops, labs or other group-related classes. I get that. I also know we’re very good at finding reasons why students should attend our classes but usually not very informed about why they actually skip.
In the end, it’s their tuition dollar and their grade.
As I explained to my class, my attendance policy may look lenient at first blush, but I also can document that students with the fewest absences also almost always boast the highest grades. There is a correlation there, and I have the data to prove it.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.