My GPA Is Ruined!

by Tina Blue
January 17, 2005

            When they get to college many students find that there is a radical disconnect between what they were expected to know and to do in high school and what is expected of them in college. In fact, many end up feeling that their entire educational career prior to entering college has been a misdirection, a waste of time, or even overt training in habits of a sort that will undermine their efforts to succeed in college.

            Most students make good grades in middle school and high school without very much effort, especially in subjects in the humanities. Even in science and math there are usually ways for students to plump up their grades without really mastering the material or performing well on exams or assignments that test whether they have achieved such mastery. It is possible to graduate from some schools without even taking much in the way of science or math, and I have actually heard of students who received English credits for photography classes!

            Although it can be difficult, even discouraging, to teach college students who lack rudimentary knowledge and skills, if the teacher is willing to put in the time and effort, it is certainly possible. But it isn't just the teacher who must put in such effort; the student must, also. Unfortunately, the habits developed in middle school and high school die hard. Many students have never read a textbook in their lives (some have never read any book!), and when they have to read texts for their college classes, they find themselves facing the dilemma I describe in "I Don't Know HOW to Read This Book!"

            Most have developed the habit of procrastinating, because they knew in high school that they could do their work at the last minute (sometimes literally just before the class it was due in) and still get high grades on it. Or else they simply did not do it at all, knowing that the teacher wouldn't actually fail them or even lower their grade significantly for missed assignments.

            But in college they are expected to read, often quite a lot, to turn in all of their assignments--on time--and to know the material well enough to demonstrate mastery on exams and projects.  While it is true that some college courses are as loosey-goosey as most high school and middle school courses, in general college courses are more demanding than that, as well as less flexible about missed assignments, due dates, and grades.

            In addition to the difficulty of teaching students who lack the basic skills and knowledge necessary to do college-level work, college instructors must deal with another problem: these same students are accustomed to receiving A's and B's on work that would have failed a third-grader in earlier eras!  Their feelings are hurt (or their egos are insulted) when they receive a C that is in fact a generous grade, and they have learned that nothing matters as much as maintaining a very high GPA, regardless of whether that GPA reflects actual knowledge or achievement.  No longer is an inadequate student grateful to receive a "gentleman's C." Now anything less than an A is a devastating blow, likely to provoke either hysterics or rage--and sometimes both.

            Schools, employers, and society at large are more to blame than individual teachers for such ridiculous grade inflation, and students can hardly be faulted for fighting tooth and nail for every point they can get when that is so often the only thing they are judged on. For the individual teacher who tries to resist the intense pressure to inflate grades, there is always the sad reality that the student he or she gives a C to could probably get an A, or at least a  B, for the same work from most other teachers. The students know it, too, and they deeply resent the teacher who grades them more rigorously than their peers are being graded in other classes, even if they admit that the stricter teacher's grades are actually fair and well-documented.

            Last semester one of my students wailed, "My GPA is ruined!"  In his mind, of course, it was I who had ruined it. There was no sense in his lament that the C he got in my course was in any way connected to his performance or anything like standards. In his mind it was simply an arbitrary label I had stuck on him (probably maliciously), thus destroying his carefully maintained GPA, which was itself in no way connected to learning or performance, but existed rather in some ideal realm as a pure embodiment of his worth as a human being--and of his chances for a successful future.

            He told me that it was unreasonable to give him such a low grade, because he was not an English major, so he should not be held to such high standards. Actually, that C was a very kind grade, because his papers were marred by sentence fragments and comma splices, as well as by flaws in organization and development and infelicities of style. In the 1950s when I was in
school, no student would pass with the sorts of errors I was finding in his papers.  The only reason he didn't get a D or an
is that all of our students make such errors now, and truly strict standards would force us to fail nearly everyone. So we fail only the worst, give A's to the best (even if they still have errors that really should not appear in college writing), and distribute the others between those two poles according to relative standards. Student work is judged against that of their peers as much as it is judged against standards. In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

            To be honest, my standards are probably not as relative as most, but neither are they as strict as they were twenty years ago. In fact, they are probably not as strict as they were even ten years ago. But although I will find significant errors in grammar and usage, organization, development, and logic, as well as stylistic misjudgments, in almost every paper I grade, I do have to give lower grades to papers that have significantly more of those errors than to papers that have significantly fewer. Compared to the papers that got A's and B's from me, this young man's papers were decidedly inferior, but he simply could not see why that should have any bearing on his grade. The only thing that should matter, as he saw it, was that he needed (read wanted) a higher grade, preferably an A, to maintain that stellar GPA he had been nursing since high school. He was his GPA, and I had ruined it for him!

            See what I mean? As long as our students are only minimally competent (if that), it will take a lot of extra work to teach them.  If they are willing to work and to learn, it makes our task that much easier. Fortunately, many of them are willing, and since they are certainly intelligent enough, though untrained, a humble recognition of their own imperfection allows many of them to make great strides very quickly. But a student who is convinced that he deserves a high grade regardless of the quality of his work is not willing to learn. How could he possibly improve his performance if he refuses to accept an honest judgment about it?

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