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Re: Defining Student Success

I have many different feelings about grades, honors programs, etc., and most
of my feeling are negative.

We know we have to evaluate students, but we also know the job is too
difficult and too time consuming. If we conscientiously try, there isn't
any guarantee we will be fair nor accurate. Some teachers work very hard at
grading and others don't care. I care, and I work hard, but I often feel
like giving up.

Here are a few opinions and stories written in no particular order.

* * * *

I identify some students as "hurdle jumpers." It's not the knowledge
they're after; rather, they thrive on demonstrating how many hurdles they
can jump or high they can jump. The good teachers are those who keep the
hurdles coming and frequently raise the bar. "Give me more. Let me show you
I can do it."

I was an academic advisor for a recent registration/orientation session for
the Bluffton College freshman class for Fall 2001. A student told me she
was accepted into the honors program and wondered if would be okay to turn
it down. At first I espoused the "company line" and told her some of the
benefits of the honors program. But then she said that all her life she had
done all sorts of things for extra credit, and she had joined all the
correct organizations and applied for all the correct honors. She did this
not only for the recognition, but also to get accepted into college with a
good scholarship. She wondered, now that she's done that, wouldn't it be
okay to quit the rat race and just spend some time learning chemistry and

Wow, this girl had an epiphany. She knew she had been in a hurdle race,
somewhat against her will, and now she was ready to hang up her track shoes
and get down to some serious education. I was not going to stand in her
way. After more discussion during which I discovered her next goal was to
study chemistry and physics and hope to get into a Ph.D. program, I told her
it would be fine to decline the honors program. If she really would devote
a reasonable portion of time to learning about and learning to enjoy
chemistry and physics, she would get into graduate school, get an
assistantship, and be just fine.

It's a judgment call. Maybe she is turning lazy and she needs the honors
program to spur her on. But maybe she has seen the light and realizes
jumping the hurdle isn't the true goal. In the end I told her the truth:
you don't need a bunch of trophies to get into graduate school and get an
assistantship. You need a love of science, and you need to learn the
undergraduate science curriculum.

* * * *

I identify some students as "game players." They find what makes a
particular teacher tick, then they take all the necessary steps to wind that
teacher's clock. We even have counselors who encourage this. I have heard
them say things like, "one of your jobs as a student is to figure out what
each teacher wants, then tailor your work to fit the expectation. Do not
assume the same routine will work for all teachers."

At one point I naively thought there was a single routine that would work:
study hard, learn the material, turn in high-quality work on time. I have
now learned there are quite a few teachers with incredible idiosyncrasies.
Students have become so used to this that when I tell them I want them to
study hard, learn the material, and turn in high-quality work on time, they
don't understand.

I have to admit I have occasionally recommended a student play this game.
This usually occurs when a student is in the middle of a semester, doesn't
like the game, and is ready to give up. I realize it would be better for
their GPA, their pocketbook, and getting through college on time, if they
would persevere. Withdrawing from a course could be the best thing to do,
but more often not. Thus, the student said, "Professor X wants us to do
things this particular way. It's so stupid. Why do I have to do that."
And I said, "Okay, look, I'm not going to tell you what Professor X wants is
good or bad; that would be inappropriate. But if you think you have this
professor figured out, and you don't like it, why don't you play the game
for the rest of the semester. Learn what you can, play the game to get the
grade you need, and if you feel this professor isn't good for you, don't
take any more courses from this professor. But don't quit at this point and
throw away the money and time you have invested in this course."

I am far from perfect, but one thing I try to do is watch myself for

* * * *

This is a continuation of the last section. Sometimes a teacher's primary
evaluation fault is laziness and/or fear of having to justify a grade. We
seek easy evaluation techniques to justify writing something down on the
grade card. An obvious example would be attendance. I am aware of courses
for which the whole grade is determined by attendance.

My daughter was dismayed because her grade in high school band kept her off
the all-A honor role. Actually, she got a C in band and didn't even make
the regular honor roll even though all other grades were A. Yet, she is a
pretty good trumpet player and she is very musical. What happened? Well,
students were supposed to practice a certain number of minutes per week. A
paper was sent home for recording the number of minutes practiced. The
parents had to sign the paper to certify the practice actually occurred.
Jessica didn't even bother to turn in her practice sheets. Why not?

She said. Dad, I don't need to practice that much. I can play the music
and even have it memorized without putting that much time in. If I would
keep track of the time I spend, I would only get a C anyway, which is the
same grade we get if we don't even turn the sheets in. But no one else
plays fair anyway. Some students forge their parent's signature, which I
won't do; and some parents sign the slips without keeping track of the time,
which I know you won't do. So my honesty has cost me being on the honor
roll even though my musical ability ought to be an A.

Gosh, how do you argue with that? I wasn't about to suggest that she play
this game. What we had was a teacher who did not want to attempt a true
evaluation of a student's musical ability. I am not sure how much is
laziness, or how much is not wanting to have to explain why some student got
a B rather than an A. So he set forth an easily implemented policy that
completely separated the grade from any legitimate measure of a student's
talent or ability.

Of course I told Jessica that if she actually practiced the required minutes
that maybe her tone would get better and her lip would last longer. But
that brought a roll of the eyes and the statement, "I can't believe your
taking his side on this." It took some pretty serious explaining to attempt
being supportive of the teacher at the same time I disagreed with the
evaluation method.

Some parents complained, I was one of them, and now the band director has
returned to the previous method of "grading;" everyone gets an automatic A.

* * * *

Bottom line? I expect students to learn the material, turn in high-quality
work on time. Is it difficult to evaluate this? You bet. I do the best
job I can given my time constraints, and I still don't feel good about it.

I try to avoid assignments or grading methods that are primarily hurdles. I
try to avoid grades based upon attendance or other measures of "effort." I
spend hours writing exams (then grading them) in which I try to figure out
what the student really understands. I spend hours writing comments on lab

Am I successful? Only partly so. I think I reach a few students; maybe
even half of them. The others are still looking for hurdles, or extra
credit projects, or wondering why I can't take into consideration that they
came to class everyday.

Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D. Phone/voice-mail: 419-358-3270
Professor of Chemistry & Physics FAX: 419-358-3323
Chairman, Science Department E-Mail
Bluffton College
280 West College Avenue
Bluffton, OH 45817