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February 24, 2021

What professors really want you to know about college grades

College gradesThe culmination of 15 weeks of higher learning is soon to be reflected in the form of a single letter.

A, B, C, D or F.

As we reach the end of the semester, some students are in panic mode, desperately trying to get professors to reconsider the letter we GAVE them rather than accepting the letter they rightfully EARNED.

Some students have never learned a critical life lesson – you are accountable for your actions.

Accountability is the most important learning objective in every course

Many students come to college ill-equipped to handle accountability because they’ve never had to.  Much to their detriment, a helicopter parent or other enabling adults took care of every discomfort, consequence or challenge they faced. They received praise simply for being, which left them unwilling or unable to understand why others can’t see the perfection in everything they do.

[Tweet “Many students don’t know accountability; an enabling adult handled every challenge they faced”]

When professors force students to be accountable, we’re often met with confusion or hostility because we refuse to let them make excuses or pass the blame on to someone else. Our repeated lessons include:

Didn’t turn in assignments? You had plenty of notice; it was all laid out in the syllabus you received at the start of the semester.  Assignments create points, and points convert to letter grades.  A missing assignment creates zero points, and zero points convert to an F. It’s just that simple.

Didn’t do well on an assignment? We’re back to the syllabus again. You should have budgeted your time accordingly, which means that starting a paper the day before the due date is really poor planning on your part.

Didn’t understand something? That’s on you, too. I made myself available to you during office hours, and I was also available for phone calls. There are also tutoring labs all over campus that were available to you. Unfortunately, no one can help you if you don’t reach out.

 Made lots of mistakes? I know learning is a process, and I never expected you to be perfect. However, you made the same mistakes over and over again and never paid attention to the feedback I gave you.

Didn’t do well on a test? It’s just a theory, but maybe it’s because you didn’t study or keep up with outside reading.

Didn’t get the grade you wanted? You earned the grade you deserved.

The freak-out over being average

Despite the prevalence of inflation in college grades, many of us in higher education still consider a C to be an average grade that indicates basic understanding of a subject. A’s are reserved for students who truly demonstrate mastery and professional-level skill.

Average work earns average college grades.

Statistically and realistically, most students are average.

When students earn their first C, their responses range from confusion to full-fledged anger because no one else has ever considered them to be less than outstanding. Thanks to grade inflation, they see a C as failure because the A is now the most received grade on college campuses.

It’s conditioned students to expect the A and expend only minimal effort to get it, it’s devalued real achievement, and it’s destroyed students’ ability to truly gauge their capabilities.

grade inflation chart
As this chart from the Teachers Education Record shows, college and university grade inflation peaked in the early 1970s, leveled out in the 1980s and spiked again in the mid-90s and continues to rise.

Unfortunately, many still expect the higher grades, even when their lack of accountability hurts their performance.  Thus, it’s relatively common for students to petition for extra credit work to compensate for bad grades. Some don’t even offer to work for it; they simply beg for the grade they feel they deserved because they “really tried.” When that doesn’t work, students sometimes resort to threats and demands to have professors fired.  Some call in a helicopter parent who demands explanations about the unjust treatment of his/her child. * Why? All of these tactics worked for them before.

 (* Helicopter parent conversations are mercifully brief because privacy laws prohibit professors from disclosing any information.)

The hard truth about earning a grade

For many of us, our role as instructors is not limited to teaching coursework. Although it’s not in the syllabus, we also teach students how to be responsible adults who can build upon their strengths, acknowledge and work to improve their weaknesses, and be accountable for their actions.

Consequently, when the grade issue flares up at the end of the semester, we don’t change the grade they’ve earned.

Because learning accountability is more important than a letter grade.

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