Do Good Professors Give F's?

Jason Fertig

As I was evaluating my Inside Academia interview with Andy Nash, I realized that if I argue that today’s C’s are really F’s, then I am suggesting that professors may need to fail more students.  As I thought deeper into what I conveyed, I started to wonder if I am being too harsh.  After all, as a professor, isn’t it my responsibility to help students learn, not to simply sit back and fail them when they don’t?  Thus, I was wrestling with the question – does a good teacher give F’s?

In these days of pseudo-social promotion in higher education, the anatomy of the F grade is worth dissecting.

Consider the following exchange that I had with my wife.  Sunday night, she was watching the Oscars while I was grading papers (I’m not sure which is more enjoyable).  Upon reading a deplorable sentence on a student paper, I jumped up out of my chair and called her over to look at it.  After she read the sentence, I rhetorically asked why this student didn’t fail an earlier writing class.  My wife replied that I was being too nasty and that this student needs help.

That student spoke English as his primary language, but what about those who don’t.  Should I take a hard line with those students or allow for leeway that I would not give to American students?  I wrestle with this issue to this day.

Like management, teaching is a practice that combines science and craft; there are no set rules for addressing the situations that I posed, but professors will need to draw their lines in the sand. If I lined up all the best professors in a given college, I’m likely to see a range of standards and teaching styles, from rigid and authoritarian to flexible and democratic.  Hence, some good teachers will likely give more F’s than others.

Yet, the more pressing issue at hand is that regardless of how a professor conducts himself in class, when it comes to assessing students, it is crucial to define the minimum standards needed to pass a given class because the threat of a C or D grade is not enough to motivate students to work harder.  Furthermore, if a C grade today really signifies failure, then that C student is progressing to a higher-level class without the skills necessary to succeed in that course.

This inflation issue is not remedied simply by trying to grade more accurately.  I contend that much of bottom-up grade inflation is unintentional.  Designing effective assignments is more challenging than it appears, and it begins before an assessment is ever typed into a syllabus.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I began teaching.  Like many other professors, I offered several different types of graded assignments to my students – quizzes, exams, papers, and team projects.  On paper, these assessments catered to students of all “learning styles.”  In practice though, I unknowingly inflated the grades of the weakest students, especially on team projects.  My course design allowed students to perform poorly on exams while getting grade boosts from less rigorous assignments.  What I designed as a confidence booster was really a “get out of jail free card.”

Even my exams themselves were prone to the same type of inflation.  My partial credit on essay exams with 10-point questions allowed students to demonstrate just enough knowledge to pass, but those passing scores were not representative of proficiency in my course. 

My experiences led me to realize that in order to reliably assess my students, every graded question that I asked needs to be a micro version of the class grade.  Regardless of whether an assignment was worth 1% or 50% of a course grade, passing that assignment needs to be reflective of proficiency in what I want my students to know.  I cannot make “writing” 25% of a project because even if a student’s writing was poor, that student could still pass that project.  Tearing apart such writing when it was 1/4 of an assignment’s points only made me feel like I was doing my job.  The average student today sees the grade clearer than my feedback.  This was brought to my attention when several students told me that to them, “C means degree.”

So do good professors give F’s?  Yes, professors who clearly define what it means to pass courses both to themselves and their students fail students who do not meet those standards.

But, the story does not end here.  If “C means degree,” then “degree means competency.”  For example, if students are to graduate with better writing skills, they cannot pass any graded written assignment while writing poorly.  This has to be true in both colleges of business and liberal arts colleges.  Combating grade inflation and increasing standards cannot only take place in individual classes; it must be a team effort coordinated among all professors across the board. Otherwise students can avoid rigorous courses and graduate without them.

I am strongly in favor of such coordination, but it is easier said than done.  In my next essay, I will address why standards need to be planned across the board in order for individual professors to be able to maintain rigor in their classrooms.

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