Published on 2012/04/19
Efforts, Grades And The Future
Just as trying really hard doesn’t help if your sink isn’t fixed, effort should not impact a final grade if the quality of work isn’t up to snuff. Photo by Shawn Richardson.

Drip, drip, drip…

Imagine this. You wake up to find your kitchen sink leaking and dripping all over the room. After a couple of minutes of under your breath cursing, you call a plumber. When he arrives you go into your office to clear your email and wait for the dripping to stop and the bill to arrive. About two hours later Mr. Plumber announces he’s done, presents you with a bill for $195 and heads toward the door. But wait.

The faucet is still dripping, and the kitchen floor is still wet and now covered with dirty boot prints. “I’m not paying for this,” you exclaim. It’s obvious the job was not done right.  The plumber looks you dead in the eye and whines, “But I tried really hard. You need to reward my effort.”

This may seem comical and unlikely to you, but it’s neither.  Over the last couple of years there has been an explosion of articles and discussions online about the issue of grading. In higher education students can be very vocal, and sometimes threatening, when discussing what grade they think they deserve in a particular course. Younger adult students may also have “helicopter parents” adding to the pressure on an instructor to grant a grade that is not truly deserved. How did we get here?

Like many issues in higher education, these discussions are a reflection of what is happening in our culture and society. And while we look for solutions within our academic institutions we must also be prepared for the fact that real answers will require deeper thought and perhaps a bit of social upheaval. The United States, or any other country, cannot compete or collaborate in the global market much longer without addressing the issues around work and merit. The rest of the world, that has so eagerly embraced North American ideas must learn to keep the best (like individualism and entrepreneurial risk) and toss the rest.

In the real world there are no A’s for effort. I have been saying this to students and sometimes business owners for years. The truth is that businesses try to hire the best candidates, clients pay for results and excuses usually get you fired. Our efforts as a society to shield young people and eventually everyone from negative experiences have created an unhealthy dynamic. We expect to be nurtured and rewarded all the time by everyone we meet. This is simply unrealistic. Competition does exist in the marketplace, everyone doesn’t want to be your best friend and everyone doesn’t deserve an A.

One of the problems is that foundation skills are sorely lacking; most students don’t know HOW to study. Being distracted or otherwise engaged while the textbook is open…is NOT studying. I’ve been at this a while, so I am no longer shocked by the total lack of study skills I see in adult students.

For whatever reason (and finger pointing is useless at this time) a huge number of adult students do not know how to:

  • Read for the main point
  • Take notes in a lecture
  • Use a dictionary or thesaurus (paper or electronic)
  • Create an outline
  • Set up a simple word problem
  • Distinguish between fact and opinion
  • Plan or organize a project or study session (or daily schedule)
  • Correspond or talk with instructors in a professional manner

Academics, no matter what department or role, must intervene when we see these deficiencies. Whether or not you have the time or opportunity to provide instruction in these areas will be a very individual decision. However, if you see a student sorely lacking in essential skills then you should at least direct them to the resources for getting caught up. In the “real world” we need to start making some changes as well, and I expect there to be resistance. Effort, i.e. doing your best, should be considered the norm. As children move from the very young formative years we should transfer our verbal feedback from “good try” to “good job” and then for teens and young adults to “could you improve on this?”

Education is only one ingredient in the recipe for becoming a well-rounded, well-adjusted and successful person. Rewarding effort, especially when that effort is misdirected or half-hearted, with no long-term vision of results may make students feel good now, but it cheats them out of real learning. As educators and citizens of the world we must look forward and ask, “What kind of people do we want running our world?” Do we want families, companies and nations led by people who try but are not committed to excellence? Or do we want leaders who not only try but succeed and when stumped they take criticism, refocus and try again with improved methods?

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Readers Comments

Greg Marshall 2012/04/19 at 4:13 pm

The trend we are stuck in that “everyone is a winner” needs to be reversed. Grades should always be given for success in reaching the prescribed outcomes of the class. The amount of effort will very for every individual.

We need once again teach our kids that there are winners and losers in life. That you don’t always win, but, to succeed you must put in maximum effort every time.

I always told my son that if I needed a brain surgeon, I didn’t want the nice guy who tried hard, I wanted the A+ brain surgeon who maybe didn’t get along well with others…

Richard 2012/04/19 at 6:44 pm

Dear Karen,

Thank you for your article, but the issue you describe is not simply black or white. Assessment in higher education is very complex. I feel you have conflated schooling and “the real world” to make an argument that “effort should not impact a final grade if the quality of work isn’t up to snuff.” However, schooling and the working world are different when it comes to assessment.

The assessment of learning is more complicated than simply judging quality of the final product. The analogy you use does not apply to the situation in school. The reward based on performance (ie. money based on fixing your sink) is simply not the same as rewarding a student with a high grade in an academic setting. The difference is that performance, in your example of the sink, is easy to measure: the sink either works or it doesn’t. With learning, quality and performance measures are not so dichotomous. Student effort—at all levels of education—plays a huge role in the learning process and should be rewarded accordingly.

Grades in school are to reward students for learning—it is up to educators and students to define for themselves what this learning looks like. I am not saying that students should be rewarded for poor quality work, but a learning environment that promotes effort as well as performance may be what institutions need to foster the best leaders.

Richard

Paul Maurice 2012/04/20 at 11:45 am

I wonder if that conflation between “school” and “real world” exists because:

a) education should prepare graduates for the real world
b) she teaches at a technical college, which typically emphasize workforce skill development.

I guess the question is whether learning is seen as a process or an end-result. If you see learning as a process, where pieces to the puzzle are being progressively put together – then that’s one thing.

However, I think true learning is exemplified in the result: my learning has been successful because I can accomplish X function.

Just my two-cents-worth

Karen 2012/04/20 at 12:09 pm

Thanks everyone for commenting. The depth of your replies makes me appreciate the care with which you read the article. I do believe that neither grading nor the real world is simply black and white. However, the medium of blogs means that sometimes we must simplify to get things “out there” for discussion. It is true that in the community college/technical college world the focus is on job skills and results and not process. However, I started my own career with what used to be called a classic, well-rounded, liberal arts education and mastery of material and not effort was rewarded. Certainly professors noticed outstanding effort but good study habits were expected. In my own work I do encourage efforts and spend a lot of time on process. Naturally I do not treat students as if they are working for a wage. Over the years I’ve found that the perceived and/or real disconnect between how educators see the world and how business people see it (the other population I work with a lot) is a real sore spot. Creating the perfect learning environment is a challenge–especially when the needs of students are not static. The “real world” and the educational world need to learn to work together for the greater good. Even the sage sitting under a tree needs to fill his bowl with rice.

Jeffrey Phipps 2012/04/23 at 3:00 pm

From my Linked-In reply:

“It’s worth noting – if a student goes on thinking effort is all that matters that this action could possibly kill someone. I am in computer science, and if someone misprograms a medical device or a robot it could conceivably kill a patient or a worker. I’m sure the same is true in many other fields – certainly medicine, engineering, mathematics, etc.

I can think of a few examples, but one has always stuck in my brain the Therac-25.”

http://sunnyday.mit.edu/papers/therac.pdf

Joe Beckmann 2012/04/23 at 3:40 pm

Olin College, the most celebrated of new engineering schools, has no pre-requisite for any course, and a unique admissions system which asks applicants to “invent something” in a group. Any pedagogy which complains of “lack of fundamentals” ignores both current research on “relevance” and the history of students either improperly admitted or with clear academic needs not met by the current instructor. While it may be that no one “deserves an A for effort,” it is equally true that there really should be only Pass and Fail, and that no student should ever fail: it is the teacher’s and the school’s responsibility to coach, and coach, and guide until all students merit success.

Any student forced to fail should get his money back. Why pay for nothing?

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