Let’s Not Bring Back the F

Instead, we should do a better job of assigning authentic tasks that genuinely reflect the kind of work students will have to do after graduation, writes Benjamin Rifkin.

January 18, 2023
A report card with grades in US history, business, and developmental composition.
(eyecrave productions/istock/getty images plus)

In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, Louis Haas wrote that we as faculty members should “bring the F back fully into our grading scheme … and … assign it more frequently when a student deserves it.” He argues that doing so is the necessary response to students’ actual “refusal—not inability—to simply do the work.” Haas claims that a number of students “willfully” do not do the work. But based on my own experience as an instructor, I take a somewhat different view.

For starters, we faculty members must remember that we are not teaching ourselves or even the people we imagine we might have been when we were students. While not to say that was Haas’s view, as the examples he gave required students to perform relatively easy assignments, we should always keep in mind that most of us have already earned at least a master’s if not a doctoral degree in the discipline we are teaching. That gives us a level of motivation to study the given discipline that our students might not have. Our curricula—in disciplines across the academy and in institutions across the county—are often designed to serve as gateways to the pursuit of graduate studies, experiences that many of our students do not seek.

Rebekah Nathan’s study My Freshman Year offers powerful insight into the perspective of first-year students at a public regional university in the Southwest, a perspective that’s common among those at many other higher education institutions. It shows that students must constantly juggle different priorities, and the more that we faculty respect that, the more we help our students succeed.

For instance, if we want our students to succeed, we should consider how much work we are assigning them for each class meeting. Can they read all of Anna Karenina for Tuesday, or will they just read a summary on Wikipedia? Remember that we want them not only to read but also to reflect, which means we must assume they need time—and perhaps guidance—for the reflection. Distributing reflection questions with our readings and problem sets will help guide our students to use their time productively and come to discussion more prepared to contribute.

And while it’s true that many scholars, like Haas, have observed that the writing of a research paper is a high-impact practice, it’s not been shown, to the best of my knowledge, that doing so is a necessary component for all courses that students take in college. It’s more important that we as faculty do a better job of assigning authentic tasks that genuinely reflect the kind of work students will have to do in their lives after graduation. For instance, we might ask them to analyze several historical essays on the same topic to identify the ideological perspective or bias in each—something they will need to do to as professionals in the workforce when reviewing proposals or candidates for a job.

We should also consider if our classroom testing is authentic, by which I mean reflective of tasks outside the college curriculum. When I need to order window coverings, I study the information in the catalog and measure as per the catalog’s instructions. I write things down and refer to my notes in the store when talking with the salesperson. Analogously, if I’m going to teach a class about the use of poison gas in World War I, the inequity of health outcomes by race in the United States or how to account for gravity in a physics experiment, I will come to that class with notes. Why shouldn’t students be able to use notes on their tests? We shouldn’t be assessing our students’ ability to memorize but rather their abilities in critical thinking, creative problem-solving, analysis and communication.

When students juggle their daily priorities, if the textbook reading isn’t urgently necessary, they may not do it. Is that their responsibility? Yes and no. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility as their professor to assign work that aligns with my learning goals for them and to create structures in my course that motivate the students to do the work because it’s transparently meaningful to them. For instance, after studying the basic structures of human language in an applied linguistics course —phonetics, semantics, pragmatics and so forth—I ask students to write a paragraph about language usage they have observed that week among their peers or in the media. Then they bring those observations in class for what becomes a very lively observation about language variation, making the material extremely relevant and meaningful for them.

Decades ago, I tended to assign far too much reading, and students gained a very shallow—one might say memorizable rather than memorable—understanding of the material and did not develop or improve many skills beyond memorization. By reducing the volume of assignments, I’ve been able to focus students’ attention on the development of critical skills, practiced through the course content, so that the skills, not the content, become the focus of the course experience we share in our learning community.

For example, in an interdisciplinary course on the sustainability of capitalism, I required students to write a series of persuasive essays arguing for or against a thesis statement of their own design with evidence drawn from our texts. The students knew that they were using the course material to make their own arguments and would be held accountable for demonstrating critical thinking skills, as defined in the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ essential learning outcomes, while using excellent writing skills. And they knew that because those course goals were explicitly articulated both in the syllabus and in the rubric for the grading of the essays.

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As faculty members, we should design our curricula—intentionally designed sequences of learning experiences—to help students develop such critical skills. The formative and summative assessment exercises (alternatively, graded or ungraded learning tasks) should reflect those very skills—not the memorization of content.

Again, that’s not to say that Haas doesn’t teach critical skills—he may certainly do so. What I am recommending is that we intentionally center such skills in the design and delivery of instruction, preparing students for the higher-level thinking tasks (as defined in Bloom’s taxonomy) with lower-level thinking tasks. I do that by administering open-note pass-fail quizzes at the beginning of each class meeting based on the reading assigned for that day and the previous class’s discussion. That way, students take notes on their reading, processing the reading more deeply as they do so, and on the discussion from the previous class meeting (so students take notes in class, as well). Students are thus rewarded for doing the reading and engaging in class discussion, have a success experience for demonstrating that they’ve done the reading (by passing the quiz) and paid attention in class, and are prepared to engage in discussion that day.

My rubrics for grading include points for progress in aspects of each individual student’s work that I have previously targeted for improvement. For instance, when providing feedback to a student, I single out two to four areas for improvement (“individually assigned writing goals”) such as, “Make sure you provide evidence for every assertion you make and link your assertions to the essay’s thesis” or “Review the structure of your next essay to make sure that each paragraph makes a distinctive contribution to proving your thesis statement.” Then, in the rubric, I reward each student who demonstrates progress on their individually assigned writing goals, providing them with new goals for the next essay to encourage them to strive toward even greater improvement. I find this is yet another way to motivate students to engage deeply with both the material and the learning process.

Since I implemented the changes I’ve described here, the number of students earning low grades in my classes has plummeted, and even more important, the number of those leaving my classes with skills gained has skyrocketed. That’s been evidenced, for example, in the number of students in each class who make significant progress in drafting a thesis statement, in using evidence to support that statement and in making logical connections between one point of argument and another.

In history classes, I also see students’ growth in skills in their arguments about perspectives on past events, especially with regard to who is included and who is excluded from the evidence students examine, while in literature classes, I see students’ growth in intercultural competence also reflected in their essays. Student satisfaction and my satisfaction have both increased: students do the work because it is not busywork. It is meaningful for them.

My obligation to my students is to help them learn. For me that means designing my course in such a way that respects them as human beings with lives that do not revolve around my course and gives them opportunities to learn in meaningful and authentic ways. It does not mean teaching in the way that I, myself, was taught.

All this does not mean that I never give a grade of F. It’s very hard to earn an F in a course I teach, but students who work hard at that particular goal will succeed. The consequence of the changes I’ve implemented over the years, however, is that few students make that choice because the materials and tasks assigned—as well as our discussions in class of those materials and tasks—are transparently authentic, compelling and meaningful. It’s a not-so-secret recipe that never fails.

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Benjamin Rifkin is professor of Russian and dean of the Maxwell Becton College of Arts and Sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University. NOTE: Unbeknownst to the him and Inside Higher Ed at the time of the publication of this article, Louis Haas passed away a few days ago, and Rifkin sends his sincere condolences to Haas' family, colleagues, and students.

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