What’s the matter with higher ed? Too much talk about degrees, not enough talk about achievement.

I’ll have a comprehensive post up tomorrow with all of your wonderful links and contributions to this conversation, but I thought I’d lay out briefly something that I’ve been thinking about this week with respect to the ongoing “crisis of higher education” conversations we’ve been having.  In particular, I’d like once again to address the subset of these conversations in which people whose college years are 20+ years behind them, and who frequently hold degrees from the Ivy League or other elite private colleges and universities, nevertheless counsel the youth of today that college just ain’t worth it, that it’s a waste of money, and that there are plenty of people with bachelor’s degrees wishing they could find a job flipping burgers or washing cars. 

What’s missing in these conversations is any sense of the responsibility that students have for their own educations.  In this respect, the discourse on higher ed very much reflects the discourse on K-12 education, in which teachers have been identified as the only people with any power or responsibilty for a student’s progress in their classrooms.  Similarly, these articles preaching that college is a waste of time foster the notion that mere enrollment and graduation with a degree should be all that’s required for a ticket to middle-class security.  In the case of higher ed, which is 1) not compelled by the state, and 2) costs them cash money, we should ask what besides money the students are pouring into their own educations.

My question is simply this:  why don’t any of these jeremiads about the supposed worthlessness of a college education ever bother to address the question of grades and achievement in the course of pursuing a bachelor’s degree?  I’d love to see a study of recent college grads that breaks down the employment/unemployment statistics by grade point average, because I’m pretty sure that the employment rates of people with an overall G.P.A. over 3.0 (better than a B average) are going to be better than the employment rates of recent grads with below a B or C average.  This post by Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar exemplifies what I’m writing about here:  after meeting with each of her seminar students one-on-one about their research papers to make sure they had a good topic and some solid sources and strategies for getting to work, fully one-third of them failed to submit their rough drafts by the deadline she had specified.  Why shouldn’t future employers discriminate between the students who make their deadlines and turn in decent work (the 3.0+ students) and fail to reward people who squeak through college with a B- or C average (or below?)

I tell my students at Baa Ram U. every semester that what separates the B and A students from the C and D students isn’t intellectual brilliance (usually), or a natural aptitude for the study of history.  It’s the amount of time they spend on completing weekly assignments, on writing their papers, and in preparing for exams.  Now, it’s true that some students have to work harder than others in order to achieve the same results, but that’s true in all other aspects of life in general.  But this is also true in general:  people who work harder get better results.  People who choose not to put in the time also get the results they deserve.

My father worked for most of his career in Human Resources for a big glass manufacturer, and was responsible for hiring and firing a lot of people on the management side.  He used to tell me that he sure as heck looked at G.P.A.s when making employment decisions, not because grades are any kind of superior evaluation of the totality of someone’s skill set, but simply because grades are a measure of how hard someone worked in college.  And quite frankly, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for employers to select for employees who work hard and take pride in doing quality work.

(If there are any studies that breakdown unemployment rates by G.P.A., please let me know.  Some of you economists and/or sociologists must be more plugged into this kind of data than historians are.)

50 thoughts on “What’s the matter with higher ed? Too much talk about degrees, not enough talk about achievement.

  1. Ditto on this. Some of the highest behavioral correlates of low grades in my experience are things like: a) not bothering to figure out, or even wonder, what the assignment in question is asking you to do b) not even seeing *bolded* explicit technical instructions on handout sheets for in-class examinations c) not being in class the day that an exam date is moved and then not being there the day it subsequently happens d) saying something like “my roommate in another section of the course (another instructor) said we don’t have to include citations” e) handing in an out of class final exam for a different course entirely. Things whose functional equivalents in any walk of occupational life would probably have disastrous consequences. The honest “D” by an untalented workhorse is probably a much better predictor of value added once they go “pro.”

    On GPA, the institutional culture of their construction and interpretation can be maddeningly variable. I advised a student yesterday who transferred here in September. The cryptic unofficial printout of her transcript tha’ reg provides each semester for the advising process listed a large batch of transfer credits not under the names of courses she had actually taken at the other institution, but rather with the equivalent courses here that they were deemed to satisfy. The grades for these were listed as “TRANS,” since it turns out there is no such thing as a transferred grade–only an accepted credit. The courses she is currently taken, of course, have no reported grades yet, so I was dealing with a mid-year sophomore (almost a junior) and flying in complete fog with a non-existent GPA and no proxy indicator of success patterns, strengths, problem areas. I’m sure an employer- interviewer can get two transcripts and patch together some kind of a picture, but the institutional culture around “proprietary” issues like grading is yet another adminispheric obstacle to educational functionality. It might also preclude at least any easy possibility of the study proposed of the relation between GPA and achievement.


  2. The work put in to college almost certainly plays a role. While grades play into this I think part of it also that there is a perceived difference in the quantity of work that different majors require. Please note I don’t plan address the truth of these perceptions, only that I believe many people hold them.
    I’ve seen several articles (e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html?_r=1&hp ) articles and had multiple conversations that give me the impression that people see a hierarchy that is roughly:
    most STEM subjects
    liberal arts subjects not explicitly in other categories
    most fine arts, education, most non-stem new degrees(e.g. communications)

    As you may have noticed majors towards the top of this hierarchy *generally* lead to better paying jobs. Part of this is probably do to other issues like demand for the specific skill sets need for certain high paying jobs, but I suspect perceived difficulty has something to do with it.


  3. The thing we hammer away at Ritzy K-12 (as I think I’ll start calling it) is instilling good work habits. We expect kids to do three + hours of meaningful hw a night every night on top of sports or another major outside activity. Even our weakest students do really well in college and our mid-range students tend to do outstandingly in their institutions. The reason? They’ve learned decent time management skills and to them 25 hours a week of work outside of class seems paltry after having had 20 hours a week plus a school day from 8-3:30 plus sports until 6:00 at the earliest, after school jobs for some, etc. etc.. By the end of 10th grade, most of our girls are fanatical about their planners, test calendars, etc.. My seniors had some issues with their first notecard deadline (accidentally situated the day most Early Decision apps were due, but they get five late days in the semester so many used one here.) but the second deadline is a week away and all but one are not only passed it but halfway to the total needed for the third deadline. (We use noodletools, so I can look at and comment on their research as they go. Very handy program. I highly recommend it if your institution will spring for it, in some ways better than turnitin as a plagiarism preventive although the grading features on turnitin are terrific and I use them as well.).


  4. I am a banana slug, an alum of UCSC, when we didn’t have grades, only narrative evaluations. I have a deep skepticism about grades and GPA. That said, the evaluations were an equally flawed metric for evaluating student work, because they were not comparable across instructors or disciplines.

    I think grades do measure things like productivity and a student’s commitment to their own education. I have plenty of students who have to work their asses off to earn a C, but they are not terribly effective students. That hard work usually comes after they have screwed up the midterm or first assignment of the class. Even then they spend the last four weeks of the semester making up for the things they didn’t learn in the first twelve. As a result, they scrape by, rather than excelling. They work hard, but not effectively.

    Most of my A students earn that grade because they are genuinely talented, have an aptitude for the subject, or because they developed solid writing and reading skills in high school. I am not sure its because they have a superior set of study skills. I’d like to see some sort of study about when and how students develop those study skills. My guess is that it is in their junior year.

    I’ll never forget the piece of advice given to me by my fellow students when I transferred to UCSC as a sophomore: “You are in charge of your own education.” I am not sure I would have listened to that advice if it came from a professor; it would have sounded too stern and stentorian. But when it came from my fellow students, it was like a mantra. And I’ve been humming it softly to myself ever since.


  5. So that means the people at Ritzy K-12 have zero time for themselves or for social life / their own creative pursuits, urban explorations, camping, etc. – it sounds awful, to be frank – I think I’d have been exhausted by the time I hit college, if all of my life had been owned by the adults up until that point.


  6. I don’t disagree with H’ann’s major points but I also wonder whether girls, particularly, feel so much pressure to define themselves as valued by getting good grades, that their reasons for achievement can be self destructive. Being able to say: I can choose not to do what X authority figure wants me to because I disagree/have other priorities/etc, and take the B or C and still be a good person, strikes me as a really important thing for girls/young women to learn.

    Not to be off topic but: I find it hard to believe that “three + hours of meaningful hw a night” is a) actually meaningful; b) shown by research to produce positive outcomes (for younger grades, research shows the exact opposite); c) necessary for high achievement. Guess it depends what you are trying to build — someone who wants to learn or someone who knows how to perform.


  7. I think it’s just fine for girls to be motivated by grades. I really don’t have a problem with that, so long as everything is kept in perspective as you suggest, shaz. I think boys should be *more* motivated by grades. Don’t several of you have college men come to you at the beginning of their Senior years and inform you that they want to go to grad school or law school, and then you check their record and see a 2.3 or 2.8 G.P.A.?

    Maybe Colorado is just a super-slacker state. Colorado students and parents seem to be perfectly happy with staying in-state for school. This is true of wealthy and upper-middle class families as much as of middle-class and working-class families. I can’t tell you the numbers of college students I’ve seen in Fort Fun and Potterville who drive sports cars/fancy cars that cost a great deal more than their 4 years of tuition and fees at Baa Ram U. or Moo Moo U. will cost them. When I’ve suggested to some acquaintances that their college student might be better served at a small liberal arts campus, they complain about the “expense” while their kid drives around in a Mustang.

    So maybe this is more of a local issue? And yet, Indyanna’s comments about the failure to follow instructions or even read them in the first place ring very true to me! (And Indyanna teaches about 1,500 miles to the eastward–nowhere near Colorado.)


  8. I went in-state for my undergrad (actually, I went to the U where my dad was on faculty) and I wandered in the wilderness for several years, studying geophysics and interdisciplinary engineering before finding a major where it clicked: where hard work and interest both paid off.

    I firmly believe that hard work and knowing how to work efficiently are keys to success. Aptitude gets you so far. Interest can inspire a lot of hard work. But simply ‘liking’ a subject isn’t enough to ensure success. I did well in history because I was motivated enough to pour extra time and effort into studies that built upon some of my particular strengths.

    I’ve seen so many wonderfully talented students crash and burn. The thesis becomes an insurmountable obstacle. The senior project gets endlessly put off in perfectionist procrastination. Even just handing in a reading journal can be too much for some students. Sometimes it’s life intervening but often it’s an accumulation of issues that lead students to abandon the assignment as hopeless.

    That’s one reason that many of my assignments have a stepping-stone structure. If you submit a proposal, a draft and a finished essay, you have a better chance of producing the best essay that you can at the end of the course. But all of that falls apart if you don’t submit the steps along the way, let alone the final paper!


  9. I’m a senior at a fancy-pants R1. The discourse on campus among the undergrads here is that academics at our school are HARD. This means that everyone complains about how much work they have to do all the time, that many people complain about how harsh the grading system is, and that many people learn to expect lower grades here as a by-product of attending an institution that’s so HARD.

    Now, I think a lot of this is b.s. I find that without being busy constantly, I can do a reasonable amount of work and get good grades without a huge amount of effort, and that the grading system is not nearly so harsh as it is purported to be. I also find that many of the people who complain about how much work they have to do aren’t doing that much work: their lives are perhaps very occupied with time-intensive extracurricular activities like athletics or theater, or perhaps they are actually doing a lot more partying than they realize or indeed than is healthy.

    On the other hand: I thought for much of my college career that I was doing the right thing by being focused on my intellectual flourishing rather than on my grades, and that as long as I was doing good work, it didn’t much matter that I’d got a B+ instead of an A- in that French class sophomore year. Then I started applying to grad school and suddenly GPA did matter: I became acutely aware of the fact that I was applying alongside students with 4.0s, and embarrassed of my 3.7. We could do with a little less of this. I don’t think my work, or my work ethic, is actually of substantially poorer quality than that of my friends with perfect grades–I just had a tough freshman adjustment year–and I certainly hope that no employer or graduate committee will actually evaluate me and my value as a student(/historian/researcher/whatever) on the basis of my grades.

    Those of us at elite institutions are very wrong to expect good grades. Some of us need wake-up calls: either that an A- isn’t the end of the world, or indeed that a C- isn’t going to cut it, and that’s our fault, not the professor’s. But I’m pretty convinced that in the end they don’t mean a whole lot in aggregate. There’s no objective metric for assigning them and no objective way of understanding what they might actually say about a student and her ability to do good work.


  10. token undergrad: I agree with you that a 3.7 vs. a 3.85 or 3.96 matters little. But I’m not talking about A- students versus the A students–I’m talking about the difference between a 3.3 or 3.7 and a 2.3 or a 1.9.

    I completely disagree that there’s no “objective metric” for assigning grades, and again I disagree with you in that I think their importance is very well understood by graduate studies committees (for example), as you note yourself in your penultimate paragraph. While not all employers will care very much about your G.P.A., other professors sure as hell will. Why should we volunteer to work with students who aren’t hardworking achievers already, especially when (in my program for example) most of our students get to earn a M.A. for free because we also offer fellowships?

    I attended a school like the one you describe, where *performing* the ritual complaints and donning the hairshirt about “hard work” was almost as important as doing the work itself. It was silly, but in the end I think it’s more productive than the academic culture my students have, which is that so long as you get your degree, it’s all good. (My college also had a student culture in which drinking and drugs played only a minimal role, and where assault and rape were rare. Go figure!)

    What my students don’t fundamentally understand or take seriously is that college is a very important part of your “permanent record.” When you’re 40, your college grades will seem to have mattered little. But they sure count for a hell of a lot of the opportunities that will come your way from age 22-30 or so, until you have accomplished more and perhaps racked up another transcript recording your grad school achievements.


  11. I am sitting here in my office reviewing the grade sheet for my first-year inquiry class and the patterns could not be more clear. What Western Dave says about preparation is not surprising but I see it right here in my little class of 30. I have students who work hard but just don’t have the basic skills and are struggling because of it. I have students with decent preparation but unremarkable high school records (folks admitted with conditions) who are working their butts off, improving like mad, and are finding their intellectual voices. I have students who came in strong, work hard, and are, together with the rapid improvers, the intellectual leaders in the class. The vast middle, well we all know about them.

    token undergrad: I’m not sure what you want a grad committee to use to evaluate you if not your grades. They are the longest, most diverse picture of you that a committee has. You had a year to craft and edit the perfect statement of purpose. Letters of recommendation are a mixed bag and often full of unhelpful platitudes. GREs serve as a kind of low hurdle. The chair of our grad committee analyzed years of grad app data together with the progress of students we accepted into our program. A handful of classes (grades) stand out, statistically, as predictors of success. We would be silly to not think about this.


  12. I always tell my students that if you come to class regularly, pay attention, do the reading, and turn in all assignments, you will almost certainly manage a B- in the course. And if you don’t turn in assignments, or in upper division classes where the discussion is central to learning, don’t come to class, you won’t do well.

    My students are mostly first generation college, and they don’t always know why this matters. We just try to tell them as often as possible.

    While the grades matter, so too do the kinds of networks you can call on to get your foot in the door. In a conversation at dinner last night, a colleague said to me that a particular student’s aunt had connections at a particular state agency, and he’d probably get a job there. Now, he’s qualified for it, but the connections help too.

    And @TokenUndergrad, most grad programs (especially in academic subjects — can’t speak to the law school/bus school med school ones) will look at the whole packet, and won’t reject people based on a 3.7 vs. a 4.0. We know that risk takers sometimes fail. I’d actually rather someone who took some risks than someone who was always playing safe.


  13. What’s missing in these conversations is any sense of the responsibility that students have for their own educations. In this respect, the discourse on higher ed very much reflects the discourse on K-12 education, in which teachers have been identified as the only people with any power or responsibilty for a student’s progress in their classrooms.

    AMEN. This to me is the crucial point, and one I wouldn’t want to get lost in a debate over grade-related pressures, inequitable grading standards, etc., etc.

    The point is that students who wish to reap the benefits of a college degree need to come to college with with an interest in learning–regardless of what they major in. They should show up for class and do the work, sure, but also plan to take classes and to major in subjects that push them in some way. Learning should be a student’s priority.

    Basically, it’s about challenging the consumerist model of education whereby students and parents expect that as long as they pay their money and take enough credit hours, they deserve a degree and therefore a job.


  14. As the mother of two sons who recently graduated from excellent schools with excellent grades and who are struggling in this economy, I have to disagree with your assumptions. Certainly there is a question of what kinds of attitudes and skills college grads bring to the job market, but there is a demand problem that is far greater than people realize. When the folks at the check out desk in the library have law degrees and the cashier staff at Trader Joes has master of arts degrees, this is a bigger issue than college slacking. Yes, I’m a professor. Yes, I live in a major metropolitan area. I’m not talking about college town life. There is a reason students are down in Zucotti Park and in other big city Occupy places.


  15. Re student investment in learning, well they would have to be in college by choice and ideally they be at a college that suited them. And have some subject areas they are actually eager to explore. Without these things it is more difficult.


  16. @mom In my experience, employers continue to rank applicants, no matter how many there are for the small number of jobs. When I am called to be a reference for job seeking former students, employers hiring at the BS/BA level have certainly looked at the grades before talking with me and want to talk about those, in addition to specific work products. At the graduate level they are interested in additional attributes.


  17. First, I need to issue a correction: It was only (!) one-third, not two-thirds, of my students who didn’t get the work turned in. I had it right in the post, but not in the title. Still, that’s not great.

    I agree with the general principle behind grades and hard work. But again, there’s the class factor: a 3.2 when you’re working 30 hours a week may show just as much initiative as a 3.9 when you only need focus on your schoolwork.

    And, of course, there’s grade inflation. A friend of mine was a grad TA at a Certain Ivy, and was explicitly told that, except in extreme cases, s/he should not assign any grade lower than a B-minus.

    So: agree with you in general principle, but there are a heckuva lot of exceptions.

    (FWIW, yours truly finished undergrad just shy of a 3.2 GPA, both overall and in the major. Some of this was due to lack of hard work on my part, some due to a 35-hour workweek outside class. It would be interesting to know if I would have done better without the workweek, or whether I would have just used that extra time to sit around and drink more beer.)


  18. Notorious–thanks for the correction. I’ll make a note of it above. I think the research suggests that up to 15 hours a week of work makes college students more productive, as they must plan their studying & work schedules & have to be more organized, but that beyond 15-20 hours a week the effect on grades is negative. I think our students just work too much, but in the case of Baa Ram U., it’s often to pay for their adult lifestyles, not to cover tuition and fees.

    And mom–this is not a post about the ills of the world economy in general, just a post responding to the conversations about the “crisis in higher ed” that are so fashionable now. I simply wanted to point out that not all college degrees are equal but that the flat nature of the conversation on the “value” of a college education never reflects this. I maintain that hard work and achievement are elements that make a huge difference.

    The American commitment to college for all is radically democratic, but the fact is that (as Prof. Zero notes) ambition and a purpose are things that not everyone brings to college. I think we’d do well to encourage that more in our students, but they have to pick up the other end of the rope.

    I’ll also note yet again that I graduated into the recession of 1989-91, and well remember the spate of newspaper and magazine articles decrying the low ambitions of Gen X, and the prediction that all of us were happy to be heavily tattooed slacker baristas for the rest of our lives. Then by the end of the 1990s, when the job market and the tech sectors especially were booming, we were all supposed to be dot-com millionaires. I imagine that if and when the economy recovers we’ll see a quick and unheralded death to all of the articles claiming that college is a waste of time & money, and they’ll be replaced by articles b!tching that colleges and universities aren’t graduating qualified job candidates fast enough. . . Somehow, it will still be all our fault!


  19. That was the *first* Bush recession, right Historiann? I remember it too well. @ token u-grad: I think I’d be inclined to bet on the 3.7 gpa with good (credible) recommendation letters over the 4.0 with pro-forma mail-it-in letters written that way because “ze’ll doubtless get in anyway and we’re all busy.” Both are well above my own gpa (3.37, after totally tanking a course cruelly entitled “Utopia” that last spring in school–girl trouble, weed trouble, draft trouble, just plain trouble). But everyone will hit some pretty big rocks early in graduate school, and I’d worry more about someone with no dings or nicks on their paint job than someone with an explainable fumble or two along the way. I think you’d look at the coherence and vitality of the statement of purpose and the patterning of the lower grades, in time, space, and subject matter. That’s just a guess, though, since I don’t do grad admissions.


  20. My apologies, Historiann, Susan, and truffula; I was writing my comment quickly and was less than clear. I do stand by my assertion that grades don’t matter in themselves, and are subjective. The A-/B+ line is always going to be a fuzzy one. But my concern is more with the risks of talking about student success in terms of GPA. Framing undergraduate education in terms of boxes ticked and a score out of 4 might not be the right way for undergrads to take pride in the work they’re doing and understand why it might matter, even if it’s not “useful” in a vocational sense. Many of the students at my university see the work they do only as a means to an end of a good grade, picking their classes strategically in order to boost their GPAs. I might prefer that they value the work itself. It seems to me that there are certain risks involved with using grades (and particularly averaged GPAs; I have fewer problems with a comprehensive transcript) as a measure of intellectual potential or workplace success, even if that workplace is graduate school. (I hope my grade on my senior thesis will matter more to my graduate applications than my averaged GPA, though perhaps I have the wrong idea about what these applications entail.) I do think undergrads (myself included) need to work harder, take their work more seriously, and get fewer free passes, but I don’t think talking about GPA is the way to do it.

    But I understand this is something I say from a position of extreme educational privilege and extreme pedagogical naivete, so I’m sorry for intruding.


  21. It’s late and this comment may be water under the bridge. I am unhappy with this discussion. Here are are complaints:

    This seems to be a new version of the poor are lazy discussion. You get poor grades because you are a lazy student. It really that simple.

    – our teaching techniques and approaches are archaic.
    – our classes tend to be too big.
    – we don’t know who students.
    – most of us haven’t adapted our course material in a long time.
    – the technology we use doesn’t fit ours needs.
    – a lot of what we teach shouldn’t be taught.
    – very little of what should be taught isn’t.


  22. koshembos, I don’t believe that you get poor grades simply because you’re a lazy student. I believe that fits a very few students, overall.

    I also believe a large number of students, especially at a non-exclusive university such as my own, don’t know how to be a good student. That’s the issue of where even all the hard work in the world doesn’t help. I also see many students with the unrealistic expectation that 5-7 hours a week is all the studying they need to do for all of their classes.

    I wasn’t a great student at first, even though my father was a faculty member. I tell students that I had to learn how to be a better student and that I want to give them the tools to do that, too. But they’re going to have to meet me halfway by doing the work. Some do and that’s heartening.


  23. Word, Janice.

    I’m not into playing games or trying to trick my students. I make it very clear what’s expected of them on the syllabus and on every single assignment. I tell them to expect 100-200 pages of reading per week, plus weekly written essays in addition to longer essays and exams. I tell them exactly how many sources they need to use in order to get an A or a B on their papers, and I use a rubric when I mark their papers. No one complains to me after the fact that they don’t know “how” to “do college.” If they read the instructions and follow directions, as Susan suggests above, they can probably expect no less than a B-.

    It’s just disheartening that so many choose not to do the bare minimum, even when they’re perfectly capable of doing very good work.


  24. Despite disagreeing with the “it’s the teacher’s fault” crowd and also the ed crowd, I appreciate koshembos’ comment and I also agree with token undergraduate.

    At one of the places I’ve worked students I was sure were good grad school candidates always pointed out to me that with their 3.7 averages they were severely disadvantaged in comparison with students from institutions where it is possible to get a 4.3.

    I guess they were right although having done grad admissions at respectable, if not top top places I’ll say we do look for specific characteristics and skills not just a good GPA. To get a 4.0 you cannot take any risks. This is not the best indicator of research success.


  25. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but one thing that I am hearing is interesting, and maybe it is not true across the board, but I am struck by the above comments that say a 3.7 is actually better (in some ways than a 4.0) for humanities’ grad programs.

    That is such a stark contrast to what I have heard about med school and the like. There a 4.0 is supposedly nigh a pre-requisite. –I have to admit, I have never applied to med school but my sister did, She had a better GPA than I did at the same school, took real risks (double majoring in classics and pre-med), but could not get into med school. As I said, I had a lower GPA (3.5–higher in my majors), but I was no slacker (see reference to “majors”). I got into a Phd program in the humanities.

    I wonder if this says anything at all about the values of these different fields or if I am making something out of nothing, What does it mean for higher ed when there are such different responses to grades and what they supposedly mean?

    Also, if this is threadjacking, I apologize wholeheartedly and will not be offended if ignored.


  26. Anon, from what I can tell professional schools are a lot harder, or differently hard to get into than PhD programs regardless of field. They seem to have more applicants, for one thing.

    I don’t know how to say this kindly but I also think they’re more interested in general skills (ability to learn) than in specific knowledge plus skills.

    Example: you don’t need a specific major in college to go to law school. That right there makes the selection process different and it has to be more grades/scores/ extracurricular activities driven.

    I’m looking at a good application for the Comp Lit PhD right now. Person has a variety of grades in undergrad courses, especially freshman and sophomore years but:

    – lots of upper division courses in 2 foreign literatures, with good language skills
    – a third foreign language ready to go
    – high verbal and math GRE
    – unchaperoned study abroad in difficult foreign country, undertaken successfully; suggests they can navigate archival research abroad
    – statement of purpose indicates they know what a PhD program in this field is, how they work, why ours in particular fits their goals

    So they’re actually more likely to make timely progress to degree and so on than someone with a 4.0 but only one foreign language, because that person has less of the background they’ll need.


  27. Koshembos, My colleagues and I take a lot of time thinking about how to help our students learn. I think that the real benefit of assessment is it has forced us to think systematically about what we need to teach, and the best ways to teach it. Part of that is teaching things we expected students to know, figuring out what our students need to learn. As Janice suggests, some of that is teaching them to be students.

    Grades are a crude measure of learning, but they are not random or entirely subjective. I don’t like thinking in grades, particularly. For me one sign that I do teach is that students who pay attention generally do ok.

    I know that finding an intellectual passion is key to this. It’s why those moments when you see a lightbulb go on are so terrific.


  28. I have become more and more skeptical of the value of grades the longer I teach. No matter what grade I give students are going to complain that I should have given them a higher grade. For many students it seems the grade is the only thing they care about and they prefer to spend hours grubbing for a higher grade then to actually do any of the reading. I personally would prefer to just go to a pass/fail system and let employers pay for their own selection system for hiring.


  29. I tell my students: ‘grading is explained on the rubrics – you have what you need to make the grade you choose. But it’s your choice. I don’t ‘give’ grades – you earn them.’ I get a lot of performers (entertainment, sports) and do Gen Ed classes, so perhaps one in a class of 30 is a major. But they’ve heard it several times in the first week: it’s about your choices. If you choose to work hard to meet these standards, and actually produce work that reflects that effort, you earn your grade. You don’t get graded on effort, but performance on the day.’

    There are more times than I’d like that their performance indicates that they’ve chosen to work for the C. What they say to a prospective employer to explain that, I don’t know. How they’d explain that to a researcher or a reporter, I don’t know. But for me, they made a choice – I may think it was a poor choice, but it is and was their choice.


  30. I’m doing grad applications for a humanities PhD program and I can affirm we look beyond grades, and are most interested in getting students who 1) know what it means to engage in doctoral work; and 2) are interesting thinkers. Sometimes the most polished applications (generally belonging to Ivy-type students) aren’t the most appealing, because polish isn’t the same thing as creativity/innovation.

    @Belle – I agree with you about the idea of choice. I’m always struggling with finding the balance between force (from me) and choice. Ultimately, it’s always their choice, but there are ways we can build it into the system so they are more likely to be forced to participate/ do the readings. Do we grade attendance? Participation? Make them hand in a written assignment for every reading? I feel ambivalently about these because while I want them to engage the material and learn/improve critical thinking & writing skills, I”m not interesting in policing their engagement. I’m having a lot of trouble with one of my seminars at the moment, and have often wondered if it would be going better if I added more “tricks” to the roster (like weekly papers, student-led discussions, etc, the latter of which I probably would have done if I had thought of it in time). But I thought, heck, they’re senior majors they understand how to do the reading and talk about it. Turns out I was wrong! So am I failing them or are they failing themselves or is it some combination? I know they’re smart, but they just won’t get on board with the class.

    I know I was an atypical student, but when I attended a SLAC, I had professors I found profoundly boring, and at some point I told myself, if I’m not learning something in this class, then *I’m* failing. I can learn one important/interesting thing from this person every lecture. It was my challenge to myself.

    Also, can I just say how much I despise the “terrible teachers!” blame game? Here’s the thing – almost everyone I have ever met in academia cares about their students and works really hard for them (trying new things, offering new courses, constantly tweaking syllabi). But some of us are better teachers than others, just like some administrators are better than others and some architects are better than others and some physicians are better diagnosticians than others. Part of the problem with “good teaching” meme is that is assumes there is an objective Good Teacher (and we are failing if we do not conform to this). Whereas we all know that you can be a fantastic teacher to one kind of student and a disaster to another, because students learn differently and have different needs/skill sets.

    One thing I’ve noticed since I began teaching is how often students are afraid to answer questions or talk in class because they think every time the prof asks a question, she expects a specific, “correct” answer. Even when I say, “There’s no right answer to this question – what do you *think*?” Sometimes that gets them talking, but often they can’t get over their paralysis. I blame NCLB for that – they’re trained in a test scenario where there is an objective correct answer for every question, and they are confused and disoriented by the idea of interpretation.


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  32. I teach mainly graduate classes and work a lot with doctoral students. My topics are quite rigorous and on the face of it one would expect most students to understand the requirement, expectations and the goals.

    It turns out that reality laugh at our faces. The Tower of Babel model is active at work. Students miss major points, go in wrong directions and even miss the crux of the matter.

    It cannot be the responsibility of the students only. We are part of the game as well.


  33. We are a part of the game–but my point is that institutions, teachers, and professors are the only ones whose roles are being interrogated in current discourses about education (K-12 and higher ed.)

    Students have to pick up the other end of the rope, and many of them choose not to. It’s a choice that seems strange to me, since they are all volunteers & not state conscripts as the kids in K-12 are.


  34. A few thoughts:

    (1) I went to a ritzy prep school, and the notion that we would be expected to do 3 hours of homework per night is laughable. Mind you, this was decades ago, so maybe expectations have changed? And I will point out that we *were* expected to do a substantial amount of reading and writing every week. That extensive practice reading and writing argumentative essays is a *massive* educational privilege that continues to benefit me today.

    (2) When I assess grad school applications in the biosciences, the single most important factor for me is the verbal GRE. This is because a high verbal GRE absolutely reflects having spent a huge amount of time practicing as a high-school and college student reading and writing. And facility with reading and writing is the single most important factor for success as a graduate student, even in the biosciences.


  35. token undergrad — GPA matters, but IMO good professors figure in skills as well as content. OTOH, the smartest person in class discussion still has to produce the written work at the right level. As others have said, a 3.7 might not be a killer if it’s clear the grades got progressively better, or if there are other things that come into play. I had a 3.8, I think, and got into a very good grad program in part because I had two languages, including Latin, and a rec saying I would have no trouble picking up others. Plus fairly high GREs.

    But — there is a real, tangible difference between an A- and a B+ in my world, and in the grading worlds of most of the people we know. A B+ is good. It’s very good. It’s solid, does everything it’s supposed to, has nothing missing, covers all major points. A B+ can be close to flawless. But it’s not excellent. It isn’t ‘OMG read this paper, because it’s just such a joy.’ Those are the As.

    It’s not the A-/B+ that’s hard to define; it’s the B-/C+.

    I also don’t think that what H’ann is saying is “lazy students!”. There’s some of that. But it’s also about students who, in part because of the consumerist model, think they should dictate what work they do, and what work is “not important.” I don’t assign things without a reason. I don’t make extra work for myself without a reason. Those reasons might be arcane to the students, but they are meant to give the students opportunities to practice particular skills, or focus on particular topics. And where my students consistently fall down on the job is not due to my teaching, nor is it down to unclear assignments. It is down to things like not studying enough to be able to carry on a class discussion without opening a textbook, or not following directions that include concrete models of what something is supposed to look like — or worse, it is that they did read the instructions and the text, but couldn’t see the difference between the model and their writing, or did the reading, but didn’t know how to organize it to talk about it, or didn’t know how to formulate the questions they need to ask to do better. If a student turns in a paper that is full of information but doesn’t fulfill the assignment, and the assignment is meant to demonstrate content mastery and skills mastery, do you simply fail the student? or do you try to help the student learn the skills? Because really, a lot of college success is just down to RTFM.


  36. “Because really, a lot of college success is just down to RTFM.”

    Yes! Thank you, ADM. And no, I’m not saying that “students are lazy.” I’m saying that they have decisions to make about how to spend their time. I will freely confess that students are subjected to mixed and even conflicting messages about what college is all about, not just from the culture at large but also from their own institutions of higher education. (After all, what does the promotion of semi-pro sports do for the academic mission? Why do universities tolerate or even encourage tailgating? What does the withdrawl of state and federal support for colleges and universities communicate about the importance of the life of the mind?)

    I’m not blaming the students entirely for falling prey to these messages. I’m merely pointing out that those who prioritize their academic work do better in school and in my opinion end up with a better bargain at the far end of college than do their peers who prioritize anything other than their academic success.


  37. As a current college student, I couldn’t agree more with the idea that the amount of time you put in to your school work = better grades. I know the amount of time that I put in to my work is fairly indicative of the grades I receive.

    I hear the slogan “C’s get degrees” all the time. That very well may be true, but C’s don’t get jobs or admission in to graduate school.


  38. I hear these issues about students whinging about grades often, though I confess I rarely receive them. Not never, but comparatively less than other colleagues. I am not sure why. One thing I say on the first day of class and reiterate is that I could be the absolutely best teacher the world as ever seen, but if they don’t care about my class, don’t do the homework, don’t engage, they will fail and there isn’t a thing I can do about it. Inversely, I could be the worst teacher in world history and if they care about their learning, do the homework, engage in the course, they will learn. The most important thing in their education is their choice to learn or not and has next to nothing to do with the professor, who for the most part are good people who care about their students and work to improve their classes and teaching. Yes, that does downplay the responsibility of the faculty more than perhaps necessary, but I do that in order to inform them on Day 1 that they the students are responsible for what happens in the class and their grades.

    Most of the time it works for most of the students. While I have plenty of C students, I have few who actually just fail (D is failing in my book), and a good proportion of As and Bs and very little complaining about the grade received.

    The irony will be that now that I’ve said that….this semester there will be much of complaining.


  39. Your interest in the verbal GRE score for bioscience research is interesting. That’s the only score we look at in our grad admissions, too.

    Cutting-edge novel work in the experimental biosciences is all highly interdisciplinary. The only way to survive in a highly interdisciplinary context is to be able to communicate deeply and broadly with people who know things that you don’t about things that you know that they don’t, and vice versa. High verbal GREs are diagnostic of that capacity, which derives in large part from digesting and generating vast amounts of complex text during years of practice reading and writing.


  40. I agree with CPP about the skills tested in verbal GRE and success at the research level in my area of the natural sciences. My colleagues have the same impression, which meant it was a bit of a shock when we did the statistical analysis of many years of graduate applicant data and discovered that GREs didn’t predict much with respect to graduate work in our program.

    I think this disconnect between what we “know” and what is happening could come from a few places. Most likely, students keep improving with reading and writing and if it is done right, either the MS or the research prospectus for the PhD is an excellent learning tool. Second, one exam–the GRE or anything else–is one exam. There are myriad reasons why something might go awry (although the smart student then takes the exam again). Third, we are a diamond-in-the-rough sort of place and few students with truly stellar records ever darken our door. We nevertheless need some fundamentals from which to build, for example math, which cross-cuts nearly everything we do and has a literacy aspect.


  41. I’m feeling sheepish that I don’t have a clue what my undergrad GPA worked out to be. I know I got straight As in history (I’d learned how to do university pretty well by the time I took my first history course!) but for the rest? Not a clue, now, and no sense it really made an impact on me back then. (Probably because my years as a geophysics and engineering major didn’t pile on the stellar marks. I kind of suppressed those memories.)

    When we admit students to our M.A. program, we don’t use any standardized tests. It’s all based on statements, transcripts and letters of recommendation. With regard to transcripts, we want to see how they did in courses in the discipline, particularly in the last two years of their undergrad study. Were they ‘getting it’ by that point? Were they studying subjects that would prepare them well for success in our admittedly small and specialized grad program? If so, that matters more than all the 4.0s the world can muster!


  42. I can still remember as if it was yesterday (and it was anything but yesterday) the old college registrar being trotted out at the opening convocation of my freshman year, with parents sitting all around, to deliver the “amen, amen, I say to you, you have to work 40 hours a week here to succeed, just like your former classmates who took actual jobs.” And as the shock sank in he added, “and I don’t mean including your hours in the classroom; 40 hours of self-directed reading and other work.” And so I bought a notebook and mapped 40 out-of-class non-meal hours on the inside cover, onto a six day week, reserving Friday nights and all of Saturdays not to do any academics. And dialed it back slowly from there, term-by-term as I figured out what the hell I was actually doing, and watched more than a few national merit scholars sliding away in the rear view mirror.

    On the other hand, I have no recollection whatsoever of taking the GRE. Not even a blurry one. I can remember my first conversation with my advisor about possible grad schools almost to the word. Acceptance letters, rejection letters, deposit checks, flying home to flunk a draft exam, renting a hovel in town, but not anything about the GRE. And unlike SATs and even PSATs, I have no documentary evidence, so I have no idea what I got. The selectivity and even demonstrable inaccuracy of personal memory is, perversely enough, one of the things I like best about the work of the historian.


  43. Well, thank God I didn’t have CPP or Historiann in the grad admission comittee. I got 400 in the Verbal, 720 in Math, and 760 in the Analytical (is that how it was called?). I am not a native speaker, but my MA was not in Spanish (all the coursework was in English). Later I was told that my 760 is what got me admitted.


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