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As we enter a new year, I’d like to encourage other faculty members to make a resolution with me: we will bring the F back fully into our grading schema. And we will assign it more frequently when a student deserves it.
This, obviously, is counter to various tenets of student success or some of those new ideas about how to grade more equitably. I’m talking about ideas like no deadlines, multiple retakes of assignments, group answers, no penalties for excessive absences, ungrading and so forth—all of which are wrongheaded and misguided attempts at pedagogy. Sadly, even with all this support and concern for their success, some students not only do poorly but also simply don’t do the assigned work. Why? And what do we do?
Over the years, colleges and universities have spent considerable time and effort analyzing the cause of students not succeeding in college, citing a lack of funds, the need to balance academics with outside employment, inadequate nutrition, a weak institutional connection, the absence of a strong mentoring relationship with a faculty member and a sense of being out of place as a first-generation or lower-income student, among various other reasons. And they have implemented many expedients to try to alleviate such challenges. Those include, for example, the recent proliferation of campus foodbanks and the creation of microloans for students to tide them over financially through the rough spots. Or to create more of a culture of belonging, faculty members have worn buttons proclaiming they are a first-generation student and the like.
But rarely do we comment on or even recognize a significant impediment to student success: students’ own refusal—not inability—to simply do the work. It’s not that they have trouble with the work; they willfully do not do it.
I still remember a colleague’s comment back in the late 1990s that so many of his history majors failed to even turn in their final research papers, which are now viewed as one of those high-impact pedagogical tools useful for student success. I also recall a college of business mandating a business reading course over the summer for rising seniors as a capstone experience (also deemed a high-impact pedagogical tool useful for student success), only to find no one had done the reading.
And a long-term examination of the D’s, F’s and W’s that I myself have awarded over the years finds one signal attribute of the students who have received them: frequently missing assignments or not doing them at all. Moreover, I have been seeing recently in my teaching evaluations frequent complaints from some students that others had never read the material for discussion. Really, what is so hard for those others to do here?
To cite a case in point: a significant part of my class pedagogy has always been the heavy use of formal class discussions. Every Friday, I set aside time to discuss primary documents organized into case studies, and the class works on these in small group activities (yet another high-impact pedagogical tool). A few years back, to prompt the day’s discussion of World War I propaganda posters in one class, I conducted a closed-book prewriting exercise in which I asked students to tell me which poster they found most striking and why they were impressed with it. Unfortunately, the most popular answer was that of the energetic young woman rolling up her work sleeves and saying, “We can do it.” It was, of course, not part of the reading, as it’s a World War II propaganda poster. They had remembered Rosie the Riveter from somewhere else, perhaps just popular culture, and clearly demonstrated that they had failed to even look at the pictures from World War I (not many—about eight).
Another time, during the first half of my U.S. History course, I assigned a short-answer quiz in class before the discussion began, asking students to identify who helped enslaved people escape based on a series of runaway slave advertisements. In the ads, the owners had frequently warned various people, such as ship captains, not to aid the escapees. The most popular answer students gave was the Underground Railway. But the ads were from Colonial newspapers almost a century before the Underground Railway existed—or any railway, for that matter. Once again, it was clear that the students had not bothered to read the ads, which were not all that long to begin with and again numbered only about eight.
Such visual assignments did not necessarily put a burden on the students’ time. Nor did the discussion book strain their resources, as used copies are relatively inexpensive. So why did students not do the assignments? Maybe they are spending too much time on video games (the amount of which can be stunning when a student talks to you truthfully)? Maybe they are spending too much time staring at their phones? Maybe they are just trying to burn the candle at both ends, as student Harpo showed university president Groucho in Horse Feathers, the Marx brothers’ comedy on campus life (which still has some truisms for today)?
Even worse, I discovered an interesting phenomenon recently in my survey classes. By the time of the first midterm, a number of students had yet to buy the discussion book, despite the fact from day one and often after that I told them that the material would be examined in a short essay section on the first midterm. And a major reason why students did not succeed in the first midterm turned out to be their failure to answer the discussion essay adequately.
Interestingly enough, after the first midterm, all the students had purchased the discussion book lickety-split—or at least all those who had not dropped the course. It seems they had realized a consequence of their lack of preparedness. I had assigned some F’s, and that prompted a change.
The Foundation of Student Success
Of course, I am not alone in noting this phenomenon or lamenting it, if my colleagues’ comments are any indication. We see this behavior all the time and try to work our way around it. I remember a teaching assistant colleague years ago storming into the office throwing books around and cursing that, although assigned, the students had not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for that day’s class. At that point, I decided to never ask students to read from a book without a hefty writing assignment to go along with it.
Why has this self-defeating behavior of not doing the work or being prepared been increasing among some students in my various courses and those of my colleagues? Is it the inevitable price of No Child Left Behind, where teachers, to meet the goals, began gundecking grades and reports, thus passing students along anyhow? And students, not being fools, began to see that in grade school and high school they could slide by with less or little effort? And they then bring this flawed behavior to us? That may be the case.
But do we need to help perpetuate this behavior? I know faculty members who agonize over the failure of students to do assignments but ultimately do not assign a failing grade to the student for the class—or even the assignments. Why? Our own good nature? Perhaps. Our sense of our own failure if students do not succeed—or appear to succeed? Possibly. Our fear of getting negative student reviews? More likely.
Regardless of the reason, this is wrongheaded. We must be honest with our grading. The F is a good grade that accurately measures a lack of success. And it is useful feedback for students.
Many students do not know they have not achieved minimal competency to advance to higher-level classes; an F tells them that. Many do not realize they have taken on too many hours in relation to outside pressures; an F can help pinpoint that overload. Many simply do not realize the amount of work necessary to succeed in college; an F can help indicate that. Many do not realize they are unsuited to their major; an F can help show that, thus allowing them to change majors early on. Many do not realize that college is not for them at a particular moment; an F can help convince them that this is so, thus saving them money in the long run. And the F is a good diagnostic grade for midterm grade reports, which can trigger changed behavior and adviser intervention.
Thus, why should we shy away from using F’s? In fact, we should boldly use them. If nothing else, an F convinces a student that coursework and study are serious things.
We have tried to use carrots so long for student success. Perhaps now it is time to introduce a bit of the stick: real grade consequences for the students. Yet we tend to be wary about this, given some of the external pressures placed on us. I recall how, when I was a new faculty member, the chair of the department told me not to assign F’s, as so much of the university’s budget was tuition-driven.
I have, however, found that students do take grades and grading seriously at a certain level. They often do worry about failing or doing poorly, they will certainly grub for extra credit, they argue vociferously for points and they will pay attention to their GPA.
Thus, we should direct that concern toward their own academic achievement and begin to award more F’s for bad assignments and F’s for classes with excessive missing assignments. We must grade honestly, as that is leverage that can lead to better behavior and, ultimately, real student success.
And we need to do this in concert across academe. If one faculty member assigns F’s, they are just a crank. But if we all do it, it will become systemic and cultural and students will conform. Certainly, this will take time. But if students eventually realize that, yes, we truly do mean business and will assign F’s fairly and deservedly, they will pay more attention to their studies. Maybe they will not play the game that I heard graduate students at my institution once did: “How little can I do and still get my A?”
One does wonder how much of the current movement to enhance student success is built upon sand and not reality. Have we been bending over backward too much and been far too lenient too often? Grading honestly will firm up that foundation and make a real difference. Going forward in 2023, let’s use the F when it is due.