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July 19, 2006



So what happens when you try to leave the environment you are currently in and try to compete for a higher degree at another institution? Obviously your formula applies here also; whereas you did fine in one, you would drown in the next place. New pool of candidates of higher caliber. __so doesn't that mean that you need to compete against yourself and not against others? If you get used to competing to the standards of others, then you would probably be unable to survive in a more competitive environment.


Which is why, Bill, it's a mix of objective and comparative criteria. And in order to move on to a better institution, you need to do more than "compete to" the standards of others -- you need to surpass them. Climbing towards the summit has a winnowing effect.

Kat with a K

I basically agree with what you're saying, as far as it goes, but I think we are defining "peers" differently. Since admissions, etc. are, as you say, a zero-sum game, your students' peers are not only the other students in your class, but the other students in other classes and other schools against whom they will be competing. Therefore, I think it would be unfair to knowingly handicap them by deliberately grading more harshly for the sake of it. (Again, I am not at all saying that you are doing this; I don't have enough information to make that conclusion, for one thing. I'm speaking theoretically.) I realize that it's impossible to know how any other possible peers might be graded, unless some sort of standardized tests took the place of papers, and I am CERTAINLY not advocating that route. I don't have a good solution. That's just my major concern.

Oh, and another point I meant to bring up the other day: I know that C is technically "average," but I have never ever heard of it actually being used or described that way. In junior high and high school, especially, C was "bad" and often the level at which papers had to be signed by parents to make sure they knew how poorly we were doing. If your students are coming to you from a similar environment, I'm not surprised that they are upset about Cs. In my experience (both secondary and undergrad/grad), B has always been perceived as "average." Perhaps grades are going the way (or, rather, the opposite way) of women's clothing sizes...


If you want agreement that the system is imperfect, Kat, you've got it.


I think one of the problems with grading is what was pointed out with the "norming" exercise.

From the individual teacher's perspective, everything seems fine: the best papers get As, the next tier gets Bs, and so on. From the student's perspective though, it's a big mess: any variance in the quality of an individual student's work between classes is likely to be drowned out by the variance among graders' policies.

I know that often work I was particularly proud of would come back with an A- or B+, while work I felt was of lesser quality received an A; there was never any indication as to the classwide distribution to let me know if that lower grade was actually more indicative of quality work.


JFP has reminded me that what I sometimes do, with a student's permission, is xerox the best paper in the class (having hidden the name of the author) and distribute it to those who ask what an A looks like. It's often very helpful.


Yes! I like the way you put that comment Hugo. I also agree, you can't just squeeze by, you have to go beyond in order to compete further on.


I'm cynical.

School is a game, complete with a unique set of rules, expected outcomes and required actions on the parts of the players. Understand the rules by which the faculty is playing and you can excel with a certain amount of ease. Different professors approach the grading process differently, looking for different things; understand what the professor is looking for, return it to them, and you will excel without ever actually learning the subject.

By revealing the rules of the game, you've opened yourself up to being gamed.

I speak for experience - I was very skilled at identifying different professor's grading methods and maximizing my advantages them to get the grade I wanted rather than the one I deserved.


Well, disclosing the rules of the game in most scenarios is considered essential.

Glen, you point out the beauty of comparative grading -- I can't be gamed unless the entire class conspires together to do so. My classes of 30-45 students each are filled with students far too individualistic to pull that off. If I list the minimum requirements for a good grade, students will do the minimum. But when they see that at least to some extent, they are in competition with one another, everyone has to buckle down a bit more.


Hugo - the comparative element makes the game more complex but far from unbeatable.

The simplest response is to figure out which of your peers are getting good grades and mimic their work in terms of style and content. I had peers who readily shared their "A" papers – it fed their egos; I also got good at reading people's expressions in response to receiving their papers. I also had many professors willingly rewrite my papers for me then give me A’s – literally grading their own work; the key was to show up at least a week before the due date and say, “I think I’ve missed the central idea. Could you give me some guidance?" Almost every time my professor would read what I'd written and rewrite my paper to his/her specifications.

I also developed skill at creating the “face time effect”; rarely if ever miss class and take good notes, ask follow up questions (if you're really skilled, you can use the professor's words from the lecture - it's an effective mimetic technique that convinces the professors you are listening which is why you take notes), appear interested in the subject, then visit during office hours on a semi-regular basis sometimes just to say, “I’ve been thinking about today’s lecture”, and finally, mention that you’ve done extra reading – especially a book the professor mentioned during his/her lecture; I inevitably got better grades from those professors who I subjected to this treatment without any improvement in my actual classwork. It creates a halo effect for the actual academic work.

Having said all this, there is a base line that has to be met – if don’t have the native intelligence to gain some mastery of the subject none of these other approaches will benefit you. But almost any and almost all professors can be successfully gamed by a student who shows an astute understanding of that professor's character. Between high school, college, and graduate school, I found three professors/teachers who were immune to my approach (the exceptions were a professor to whom I had an intense and immediate personal dislike, a professor who was easily the finest scholar I have ever in my life encountered and even shrewder judge of character than I, and an economics professor who was so old he didn’t give a shit about the students or the topic).

And before you give the obvious retort – I didn’t do any more work than my peers I simply worked in a different way and used the tools which I possesed. In my college major I graduated with a 4.0, when my peers who were certainly smarter but got lower grades. Professors are human - and a psychologically astute student can effectively adjust their grade upward while less astute peers can adjust them downward.



It sounds like you were, how do I say it, actually learning, not just playing a game. Over the course of your education, you developed skills of active listening, improvisation, evaluation of personalities, and the ability to figure out how to maximize your potential in a given context. Sounds like a (mostly) complete education to me, so I'm just not sure what your argument is really about. I'm a college instructor and I'd be overjoyed if most of my students excelled only this much and still had little mastery over the material several years down the line.


Have you noticed any correlation b/t becoming more "strict" in your grading and your evaluations at the end of the semester? I'm willing to admit that b/c I'm not the most charismatic of instructors, I'm worried that grading too harshly may undercut my ratings even more, and like the students are competing for high grades, I know that I'm in a competition for high evalutions...


Indecisive, I'm afraid I have noticed at least a partial link between my grading and my evaluations. My evaluations have generally been strong, but there have been more critical remarks since I stopped being so easy. Of course, I'm getting a bit older, and I may have lost some of my "young Turk" enthusiasm I had a decade and more ago. Students often respond well to the young and the charismatic, and as one ages, it gets harder to play that role.


Indecisive – I really never considered it from that perspective. It always felt as if I were gaming the system by using my interpersonal abilities rather than my academic ones to succeed. It felt to me as if I were studying the professor, not the subject, and then tailoring my work to the professors preferred style and content; I often demonstrated at best a superficial mastery of any topic, but I had a great dexterity at mastering the expected style. When friends of mine figured out what I was doing, I was usually accused of not playing fair – they told me I was getting around the rules rather than following them.

Giant Green Hand

Wow, glendenb - I have never seen such a perfect description of the education "game". You nailed it.

Indecisive - 100% too. The successful outcome of being "educated" is not knowing shitloads about a subject, it is knowing how to gain the acceptance of others, and organisational or social status.

Guess what it's like to have that "pleasantly competitive streak", only to find that after a lifetime of gradings, rankings and evaluations, you're forced to accept that you will never rise above "average". When people are compared against each other, someone always loses. Winning behaviour garners attention, which leads to positive reinforcement, positive expectations from others, and all the rest. Winners tend to win repeatedly. Losers tend to lose. It doesn't matter how many books you read or how many techniques you try. Eventually you run out of ideas. You realise that there is no hope of being a "star pupil", so you give up. I suppose if you have some talent or ability that your culture values, you can fall back on that when you fail in other areas, but some of us have never found a way to excel.

Spare a thought for the domestiques, especially those who still have hopeless dreams of winning.

Then again, I suppose it's not your job to bother with the mediocre. It's their problem if they can't work out how not to be "average" .

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