You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Yes, I’ve said it before, but it’s still true: I have the best readers ever.

I had asked for folks’ thoughts on grades and honors programs, and people came through with comments that were insightful and civil. Even better, many of them added perspectives that brought new nuance to the conversation.

In the discussion of D and F grades, for instance, I had made the point that if you care about competency, then there isn’t a meaningful difference between failing a class and simply not taking it. I’ve never taken a German class, for instance, but the lack of one never affected my GPA. But a few readers pointed out the implications for financial aid. Satisfactory Academic Progress has its critics, but it exists as a measure, and students who don’t keep it up lose their eligibility for aid. Simply erasing failing grades from a transcript would make SAP more complicated. It’s a fair point, though I think it says much more about the financial aid system than it does about the desirability of failing grades. As the folks at SNHU can attest, making the financial aid system work with competency-based programming is a bit of a task.

Chad Orzel pointed out that in institutions that don’t expect their students to transfer out, D grades can serve the useful purpose of sending students the message “don’t major in this” while avoiding derailing their path to graduation. It avoids adding injury to insult. It’s a valid point in institutions that fully expect students to stay through the bachelor’s degree. As Orzel notes, though, it doesn’t address the issue of transferability for colleges that expect to send students elsewhere for their upper-division courses.

Several readers pointed out, too, that repeated failing grades in the same class can signal a student that it’s time to try something else. Agreed. Sometimes it takes that cold-water splash of reality to alert us that something just isn’t in the cards. For example, my love of baseball wasn’t enough to make up for a staggering lack of talent. It happens.

STEM faculty really stepped up on the question about honors programs. A few examples:

  • One way (and in my mind the best way) to do an honors course in a traditional math/basic science/engineering subject is to include a project, some application of the theory. It’s my experience that few regular or traditional courses do that. Solving equations is hard—applying the theory behind the equations is much harder. The application, however, is the real world.
  • Honors calculus is easy. I mean, it’s hard, but it’s easy to make such a class. I took one my first year in college (having already taken 1-D and multivariable calculus in high school), and it was run as “intro to real analysis and pure math in general.” By which I mean we were given the 13 axioms that define the real numbers, and we spent the year deriving all of calculus from them. All the homework was proofs—I don’t think we did any derivatives or integrals the entire year.

So when I have honors students, I jump at the chance to supplement lab. I usually have them do the following:

  • Identify a topic relevant to the class that we didn’t explore in lab (e.g., air resistance).
  • Come up with a concrete hypothesis about air resistance (e.g., it scales with the area of an object).
  • Design an experiment, identifying independent and dependent variables, etc.
  • Run a trial of the experiment and determine sources of error, etc. (following good procedure, this is done blinded—without looking at the results).
  • Revise the experimental procedure as needed.
  • Run a final version of the experiment and do a full analysis of results (error analysis, etc.).
  • Write up a full lab report and present results to me.

I usually end up meeting with these students for about an hour every other week to make sure they’re on track (in addition to supervising the use of lab equipment, obviously).

I’d flee that calculus class (and they could calculate my acceleration), but the others sound spot-on. Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

The philosopher John Dewey used to say that the promise of democracy was the ability to harness organized intelligence. In its best moments, the internet can be, too. Thanks to everyone who wrote.

Next Story

Written By

More from Confessions of a Community College Dean