Monday, February 15, 2016

Post-hole digging XXI: To fail or not to fail

There are a lot of elements to teaching a university class that I feel fairly comfortable with.  But one of the issue that comes up is how tough to be when marking.  And there’s not much agreement between profs on this, either. I instruct my teaching assistants to go easy on the students, while one of them told me another prof took the JK Simmons approach in the movie Whiplash, which is to say pushing students to the breaking point.  He was probably exaggerating a bit, but still.

          To be clear, this isn’t about handing out A and A+ to everyone.  It’s more about setting a floor rather than lowering the ceiling.  But it’s an issue I think about a lot.  The part that might surprise you is that, in my class at least, it’s very difficult to actually fail a paper. 

          People do, mind you, but my instructions are generally clear: a fail happens when a paper blatantly doesn’t follow guidelines for length, or plagiarizes, or is nonsense, or just shows no effort whatsoever.  If the student puts even minimal effort in, it’s a low D. 

          And it’s conceivable that a person could skate through their degree getting only Ds when they should have been getting Fs, and finish with a three year degree and go out into the world as the holder of a BA, undifferentiated (on paper) from other people with the same degree who got A+ all the way through. 

          The thought bothers me, I admit.  By hesitating to fail people, I may be contributing in my small way to the devaluation of an arts degree.  And in so doing I’m hindering everyone else who has one, myself included. 
         
          There are surely issues in other disciplines, but I think this one is particular to Arts.  Unlike a physics or biology test, there is wiggle room in deciding a grade for a political science essay, even when you’re using a rubric (which I do).    

           I think it comes down to the purpose of having assignments and giving feedback.  I have a friend who subscribed to the idea that there are too many people in university who don’t know why they’re there (which is true).  His point of view was that if he fails someone and they drop out to go do something else like trade school, he’s doing them a favour.  Or at least he can ‘scare them straight’ by jarring them into paying more attention to their work. 

          My own point of view tends to lean in a different direction.  I doubt one bad grade, or even a fail, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: they’re likely to continue in university no matter what grade I give them.  So I focus less on the specific grade than on feedback.  I always tell my students that the feedback I give them isn’t really about the assignment they’ve just written, it’s about the next one.  And I encourage them to come see me as well as giving extra feedback when they do.  If someone shows me they’re willing to put the work in, I’ll do the same in trying to help them get better. 

          I guess for me it’s about the proverbial honey rather than vinegar.  If I lead with the F they may deserve, it shuts them down.  My assumption is that they’re not going to listen to feedback beyond that, and not going to improve.  If I lure them in with honey (not failing), then maybe they’ll take the comments into account and do better next time.  Which might, over time, actually improve the quality of people finishing with a BA. 

          But it’s far from clear that my approach is totally right.  Part of me wonders if it’s just a matter of my being relatively new to this and not wanting to be a hardass.  The power to give an F (or not) is a mild one, but it’s still power, and I wield it with a certain discomfort.      

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