July 26th, 2011

Final Lesson: You Don’t Get an A for Just Showing Up


Editor’s note: In the first part this article, the author shared a personal account of this past semester when he was met with student resistance in terms of assignments and grades. The article concludes today.

Students’ expectations for top marks, whether they earned them or not, unfortunately can be coupled with foolish tendencies on the part of some teachers (this writer excepted of course) to play the role of the avuncular professor. The kindly avuncular professor is easily deluded to think that “encouraging” students with exaggerated praise and slight grade inflation will be helpful. It isn’t. How do I know? For me, the tell-tale sign is that often after handing in my grades, I feel a mild self-loathing. This is the feeling I get when I give grades that don’t truly reflect the totality of what I experience from students.

For professionals in the psychology field it is particularly important to be evaluated in this way because our patients give us marks on an experiential level. For that matter, spouses, friends give grades too. They grade us by the feelings we give and receive. For too long I felt an undeserving, inappropriate loyalty to test scores, the totals, the “numbers.”

Not this year. This year I would give grades that would reflect performance as people, as students as professionals. How would they manage the side of them that was good, and the (unacknowledged) part that was not so good, that was snide, selfish and denigrating and well, bratty? I and others had seen that in the class, felt it, knew it was there as sure as the air we breathed.

I anticipated wrath and hatred from students and was frightened. Yet when I allowed myself the very freedom that I gave them, the freedom to exercise just a tad of healthy cruelty, the smallest dollop of therapeutic hate, I felt energized. Why attack myself (through depression and disappointment and the usual despair) why not use the aggression to help the educational relationship that I am sworn to uphold.

So what monstrous, “cruel” thing did I do? I gave them just a tad below what they were expecting. An A- instead of A for the most part, although some did score slightly lower based on their performance.

Shortly after logging in the grades I received emails from five of the students. Some of them were incensed. “Why did I receive only an A-?” One irate student wrote: “I will not accept less than an A for this class. I will go straight to the dean and complain about you.” A classmate wrote something quite similar. Clearly the A- (and in one case, a B+) were attacks on their sense of self, or perhaps just their academic vanity.

I did not answer any of the emails. My silence more than my words, I determined, would help them reflect. But had I responded, here is what I might have said: Why indeed did you get an A-? You got an A- because you did well enough in the class to get an A-, but not well enough for an A.

Woody Allen is famous for saying that 90% of life is just showing up. But that’s just it, you don’t get an A for just showing up. You have to be extraordinary to get an A.

You do not get an A in life for just showing up and complying or even for cooperating. You get an A for adding to the experience, for giving, for risking, for showing enthusiasm, for adding life.

After several days of email messages unanswered, I received one this morning from a student whom I love dearly, but to whom I gave a B+: “I wanted to say thanks,” he wrote, “because you know what … I failed this semester (B+ was a failure for me) [but] it just gives me the fuel to push myself and remember that I have to work for things…, thank you for considering me enough to not lie to me and just place an A because [you and I] have a good chemistry. Thank you, that means a lot and is the ultimate lesson….much love and much respect to you Dr. F.”

My dear students: Hating me is one of the most constructive things you will ever do if it leads to reflection for you and for me. Thank you for your candor and have a wonderful summer.

Simon Yisrael Feuerman, PsyD, LCSW, is the director of the New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies (NCAPS), and an adjunct professor of psychology at Kean University.

  • bgibson135

    Many years ago, I took a class in which there were only 13 students. I don't recall, but it might have been a Real Estate course. The instructor was Col. Joseph Dunn. My heart wasn't in the course, and when the first test was handed back, that was revealed to me. Col. Dunn gave three grades for each test: a number grade .e.g. 83, 78, 92, etc.; a matching letter grade e.g. A+, B-, etc., and he also gave a fractional grade e.g. 2/13, 5/13, etc. I had never seen a fractional grade before, but this is what it represented. At first there were 13 students in the course, and that became the denominator. The numerator was how you ranked in taking that particular test, with number 1 being the best.

    So, on the first test I received two grades that didn't actually matter much. A letter grade and it's matching number grade. But, the fractional grade I received was 12/13. Talk about having to deal with self-image, how cruel to actually know where you stood in relation to the rest of the class. But, this wonderful means of grading was just what I needed.

    The student that received the 13/13ths fractional grade, on the first test, dropped the course shortly thereafter. But, when the second test came around I received a 2/12ths, and surprisingly the same grade on my final exam. I needed that motivator, and am thankful for it.

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  • Bruce Ellis

    Thanks for putting words to something that might be considered taboo. I think I shall add your quote ("You do not get an A in life for just showing up and complying or even for cooperating. You get an A for adding to the experience, for giving, for risking, for showing enthusiasm for adding life. ") to my list of favorite quotes. I wonder if I can get it put on a sign above the door for the students to see on their way out? I look forward to more insights from you 🙂

    • yisrael feuerman

      Bruce, I am gratified by your comment. I wrote the article out of love and respect for the profession of psychology, the profession of teaching and for the love of life itself.

  • eddoc

    Showing up is not enough in class is not enough and I respect your stand. I believe that students learn when they engage, when they experience, and when they take ownership in their learning. Students that ask “why” I think already know the answer they are simply wasting everyone’s time by asking. On the first day of class I make it clear you need to be here and you must be involved! That sounds easy enough I wonder why students struggle with it.

  • Robert Black

    I am an adjunct teaching a "lite" science course that has no mathematics and is only reading & comprehension. Most students come into such a course thinking they will get an "A" for no effort at all, and they are rudely awakened when they fail the mid-term and realize that they might fail the course. Some then bear down & learn the material, but most just slide along without altering their study habits. The worst students also stay mute in the classroom, never questioning anything, so there is no feedback for me as to what their particular problem is When the student ratings come out, they say all kinds of negative things and I find that they are often of little use in improving the class. In short, the utility of student ratings is overblown.

  • Another compelling piece! I completely agree that we shouldn't let students strong-arm us for the grade that they believe they should have been "given", rather than what they actually earned. However, one comment from my graduate school adviser will never leave me: "If you're going to give a student less than an 'A', you'd better have explicit reasons why." What I wonder is, if the student is "downgraded" qualitatively, how can faculty stand behind that, if challenged? Do you have a statement in the syllabus that reserves the right to consider other factors? (I know some faculty do). Thank you for this follow-up piece. Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof http://chattyprog.blogspot.com

    • J. Turner

      With all due respect to your former professor, I disagree. The way I see it, they have demonstrate to me that they deserve the A. I certainly don't have to defend giving anything lower. It used to be that a C was considered "average" and an A meant "excellent." I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't expect all of me students to be excellent (though I'm thrilled with the ones who are). They need to learn that average work will earn them a less-than-excellent grade.

      • yisrael feuerman

        Yes, it is a difficult problem that Ellen raises: when a student is downgraded qualitatively. I believe in academic courage on the part of students and faculty. Some students (and faculty) would like a "frictionless" learning environment — an automated "fast-food" intellectual environment. I am firmly against that especially in graduate school. A little bit of friction (not too much) is good for learning. Too little friction characterized by standardized tests, canned syllabi and antiseptic textbooks creates a an atmosphere of fluff dressed up as learning.

  • Sharon

    Great piece. Also great comments – we need to be stronger in our academic stands – "Get a backbone" – to graduate quality students. I have taught nutrition several times over the years for nursing and health students. Everyone knows nutrition – "We all eat don't we?" Again a class everyone thinks is a practical and "just show up" class. I had a student one year challenge that I actually expected them to read the text and do case studies from the book. I asked her if she just wanted to purchase her grade (via tuition) without doing the work. Campus' are a rumor mill. So we need to stand up and correct the mis-perceptions on campus for the "easy grade".

  • Kathy

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I agree that students should have to prove they have what it takes to be called "excellent". There is nothing wrong with a student earning a C as long as it is his or her best effort. Some people do struggle with some academic content.

    I teach both high school courses and a college course. I am amazed each semester at the lack of math and communication skills my students in college have. I think we need to be stronger in academic standards in K-12 schools, too. Thank you for the reminder!

  • Fair grader?

    Excellent. I wish students read this article also!