Should Professors Be Talking More (or Less) About Grades?

Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman share reactions they received when writing a new guide for students.

May 4, 2006

It all started innocently enough. We were an academic couple, constantly sharing our excitement at our students' successes and obsessing about those students who were falling short. We would yak endlessly with all who would listen about why some students didn't do what we asked on essay tests, even when we seemingly had made the instructions crystal clear. Or why a student would do only half the task assigned on a paper. Or why some students (despite repeated invitations) wouldn't show up to office hours until the grade was a lost cause.


And we kept wondering what more we could do to help our students do better in our classes and get better grades. Eventually we came up with the idea of creating a pamphlet for students out of the various handouts that we'd developed over many years of teaching at some eight different colleges (between the two of us). But then, this idea took on a life of its own. And so now, some five years later, we're awaiting the publication of our book,   Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College (forthcoming, from Harper-Collins). Or, as the publisher (over?) promotes it, the "first instruction manual for the American college."

While writing this book, we got lots of feedback from other professors and administrators. Much of the feedback was positive. Some professors told us they would love to assign the book to their students or to their first-year experience classes, and admitted to planning to crib tips from us. But others responded somewhat less positively. Since Jeremy is in philosophy, we were expecting -- indeed looking forward to -- some objections to our ideas. But we'd been expecting disagreement with the specifics of the tips we offered. To our surprise, though, the responses to our book often centered on the basic issue of whether professors should be focusing so much on grades, at all. We'd like to share the eight most common objections we received, and some of our best thoughts about each.

Objection #1:"Students are already too grade-grubby. Why rev them up more?"

It doesn't take long for anyone on the college scene to encounter students who are extremely agitated about grades. Who hasn't had to deal with students who are distraught, even to the point of sobbing, about not getting an A? None of us likes to see this. The question is, though, will grade anxiety diminish if professors try to downplay grades and avoid the g-word as much as possible? We're skeptical. We don't think college students will calm down about grades if we don't talk about them (nor will teens will stop thinking about sex if we eliminate sex ed classes in high school). That's because much of the grade pressure doesn't come from us: it's generated by personal, family, economic, and societal pressures over which we have no control (where we live, some parents even refuse to stop paying for college if their kids don't have at least a 2.5 GPA). We feel that the best way to relieve anxiety about grades is to empower students. And that students will feel more in control of their (grade) destiny if we demystify the grading system and give them more, rather than less, information about what they need to do to get good grades.

Objection #2:"Students are already too competitive. Why feed the piranhas?"

On some college campuses it's a dog-eat-dog world. In this world students can see good grades as a zero-sum game and walk over their compatriots to get them. Lynn has vivid recollections from her days as an undergraduate at Princeton of a student who burst into an art history seminar one day and announced to everyone that someone had stolen the notes for her class presentation. (No one was really sure if this was indeed a nefarious deed or just an excuse to get out of the presentation.) But here again, it doesn't seem that avoiding talk about grades will help reduce the level of competition among students. Advocates of reduced competition might want to consider eliminating the use of grade curves (which really do pit one student against another). But this tactic won't work in places where curves are seen as a safety cushion protecting the whole class from doing badly. In the end, it's likely that the competitive types are going to compete no matter what we do (just like, perhaps, some of our faculty colleagues).

Objection #3:"College is supposed to be about learning, not about grades."

Probably nothing bothers professors more (ourselves included) than dealing with students who are clearly in it only for the grade and have no interest whatsoever in learning. These are the students constantly asking, "Will this be on the test?" -- with the clear implication that if not, they really don't want to be bothered. These are the students who walk out of the final exam and throw their class notebook in the trash can as they go (and would throw their textbook out too if they couldn't resell it at the bookstore).While we are the first to decry this sort of crass behavior, we feel that in classes that are properly constructed -- with appropriate tests and paper assignments, and with an emphasis on skills, not just rote memorization -- pitting learning against grades is a false dichotomy. Aren't grades just a sign of the level of learning that the student has achieved? And if a student can get a good grade in a class without learning anything, who is to blame, anyway? Yes, it's not pleasant to see students who seem to be motivated only by grades and not by the love of learning. But if these students really do end up learning, what do we care why they did it? And who knows, maybe some students in their single-minded quest for grades actually will get caught up in a love of the material for its own sake.

Objection #4:"The more professors talk about grades, the more students will be able to just play the professor and game the system."

Any time you provide detailed information about a system, especially one that's often kept under wraps, like the grading system, you provide openings for people to game the system. In our chapter on test preparation for example, we talk about how useful it is to have access to copies of old exams in that class. If a grade-savvy student were to gain access to old exams, study only the material on the exam (not one iota more), and the professor were to give the same exact exam again, then you could make a reasonable claim that this student had gamed the system. But then again, we professors are the ones running the system. It's a fact of life that once we give a test, it's out there. We can have every security system in the book, but there's no way to prevent a copy disappearing here and there -- not to mention what could happen if somebody used his or her cell phone to image the exam.

So if we get gamed here, it's not the book about grades that's causing the problem. Our book also gives lots of information about how to treat professors. And we talk in good detail about the grade payoffs establishing a good working relationship with your professor (rather than just being a butt-kisser, TL-er, or suck up) can bring. But what we're trying to do is help students gain a better understanding their professors' point of view so that they can be more receptive to what the professor is trying to teach them. We don't and wouldn't advocate any sort of manipulation. After all, we consider ourselves, and our colleagues, far too smart to fall for naive attempts to play us.

Objection #5:"Grades? What's to say? I just grade by feel."

Some professors have told us that they don't really have any special grading system. They just read each paper or exam as it comes, and grade it, without any special recipe or template for grading. So they don't think there is anything meaningful about grading that they could discuss with their students.We're pretty sure, though, that anyone who has graded even a small amount has some criteria or standards that they are applying. At least we hope so. Otherwise our grading would be totally random, and there would be little difference between a professor (or TA) doing the grading and someone off the street doing it. But in fact we all have standards and in many cases the very same standards: if not, how to explain the recent art history paper competition in Lynn's department, where three different art history faculty at very different stages of their careers, and in different fields, independently ranked a group of five papers in the exact same order. We think that most professors, after a modicum of self-reflection -- could easily articulate their grading standards and share them with their students.

Objection #6:"I wouldn't dare talk about grades. Anything I say can and will be used against me."

There's no doubt that in the litigious world of 21st century America, many professors have to devote way too much of their time to defending their grades against student disputes. Dealing with these disputes has to be one of the most unpleasant parts of the job. And we are well aware that frankness in discussing grades can lead to extra fighting. As a beginning TA, Jeremy had the not-all-that-bright idea to tell a student she'd gotten a C because most of the paper was B.S.; Jeremy then had to deal with a complaint not just to the professor of the course but the chair of the department. Lynn, who usually avoids talking about how the class did as a whole, got one of the most vehement disputes after she slipped up and told the class how great the papers had been. This, of course, made the one student who had done quite badly feel even worse than he would have otherwise (and led to a very difficult office hour for Lynn).

There's no doubt that professors have to be careful about how they talk about grades. But that doesn't mean that students shouldn't be given a clear explanation of the grading system and standards used in the course. And that doesn't mean that professors shouldn't write comments on papers and essays that explain clearly why the student got the grade he or she got. Students deserve it. If given in the right way -- in a spirit of empathy and without too much scariness -- this kind of information shouldn't generate disputes, and may even shut some down before they even get started.

Objection #7: " OK, we all know there's no ivory tower, but is there no bottom?"

This objection is one we fully appreciate. Here we are, with years of training in our discipline, teaching on the college level -- why should we have waste time (time that could be better spent teaching our beloved fields) to descending into the sordid details of grading? Isn't this grade talk totally unbecoming for professors to get involved with?

We think not. But even if it were, there's simply no way of getting around it these days. Many of our professors were able to get by turning a contemptuous nose at discussing anything other than scholarship. But few of us will be able to pull this off successfully with today's consumer-oriented and information-savvy students. 


Lynn F. Jacobs is associate professor of art history at the University of Arkansas. Jeremy S. Hyman has taught philosophy at Arkansas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Los Angeles


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