With just two weeks of classes left, it’s time to turn our attention to that enduring ritual of the end of semester: student evaluations. While I’ve got no personal gripe with these things, I have to confess to some misgivings about them. I’m not convinced students are qualified to evaluate many aspects of teaching, and there is a lot to be said for the notion that student evaluations have played a large role in grade inflation. After all, professors are human (no, really). We like to be liked, and the easiest way to be treated kindly by students is to grade them a little easier. And when upwards of 40 percent of college grades are now As, I can understand why some students complain about my grade distribution.
Probably the most common negative remark on my evaluations is that I am a “harsh grader.” This statement is a proxy comment for “I have to work hard in this course, and I still might not get an A.” But the Courses of Study bulletin clearly states that “C work” is “average,” “B work” is “good,” and “A work” is “superior.” Of course, we all know that’s not true. I doubt there is a course anywhere on campus in which the average GPA is a very average 2.0. And A-level work ought to be superior. If we water that down, we end up in the world of The Incredibles, in which Elastigirl tells her son Dash that everyone is special ““ and he sensibly replies that in that case, “No one is.”
But if I relax my standards for what constitutes an A, I do a disservice to the many students who DID earn an A, now and in the past. In a sense, I water down their accomplishment and that would be unjust.
The complaint about harsh grading is connected to another complaint, which is that it is too hard to “get” an A. Of course, no one “gets” an A ““ you EARN it. And it OUGHT to be hard to earn an A. Many of our students are used to being in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, perhaps doing so without working very hard at it. Welcome to the real world. Someday you will work for an irrational boss, so consider this your warm-up.
Another version of this criticism is the student who says he or she tries really hard, but his grade does not reflect the effort he put into the course. To this person I am tempted to reply that he or she just may not be an A student. That sounds harsh, but I don’t mean anything negative by it. There’s nothing wrong with not being an A student. I wasn’t one as an undergraduate. I didn’t figure out how to be an A student until I was a senior in college.
I’ve told this story before, but several years ago I walked into a final exam and the students were complaining about something, and I casually replied that effort did not equal excellence. They were stunned that I would say such a thing. Many students seem to think that if they study X number of hours for an exam, or spend X number of hours on a paper, they DESERVE an A. But this perspective ignores the very real possibility that the student, while studying long hours, did not study WELL.
I can’t read your minds. I have no way of assessing effort and sincerity. All I have is what’s on the page. Grades are a very crude effort to assess student comprehension and performance, but their very precision is a myth. Can I really say, at the end of a course, that the student who earned an 87.4 is really one percentage point better or smarter than the student who earned an 86.4? Of course not. But the final product is my best attempt to evaluate what is accessible to me in terms of your learning. And it is very possible that someone who earned a B in a course in fact learned more than the student who earned an A.
If I have done my math correctly, you (or your parents) spend roughly $240 per week for one course here at Trinity. You’re not buying a grade with that money, you’re purchasing the opportunity for a great education. Grades are not the most important outcome of that transaction, and they can’t assess what is truly enduring about your experience here.
So, before you write your student evaluations, take an honest look at your role in your education, and what you owe to your teachers.
David Crockett is a professor in the political science department.