Introduction to Failure: Why Grades Inhibit Teaching and Learning

When Beckie Supiano, for The Chronicle, examined the debate surrounding a NYT article, At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?, this jumped out at me as I read:

Students struggle in introductory courses in many disciplines, but failure rates tend to be particularly high in STEM. Those introductory courses “have had the highest D-F-W rates on most campuses for several decades at least — in fact, most of them persist back into the ’30s and ‘40s,” says Timothy McKay, associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s arts and sciences college. “To me, this is a sign that they’re unsuccessful courses.”

At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?

I have multiple connections to this controversy, including two decades of navigating college students who often find my courses “hard” and my feedback “harsh” as well as almost four decades of resisting a traditional education system that requires testing and grading.

For the record, students are not as happy with courses absent tests and grades (where grades are delayed until the final submission of grades required by the university) as you might imagine.

And despite how conservative politicians and pundits characterize higher education as filled with leftwing radicals, higher education in practice is extremely conservative and traditional — including a mostly uncritical use of so-called objective tests, grading students on bell curves, and not just tolerating but boasting about courses and professors with low grades and high failure rates.

Departments and professors who have students succeeding with higher grades are routinely shamed by department chairs, who have been shamed by administrators. We receive breakdowns of grade distributions by professors and departments and the unquestioned narrative is that high grades (“too many A’s”) are a sign of weak professors/departments and low grades are a sign of rigorous professors/departments.

And here is something I think almost no one will admit: Anyone can implement a course with multiple-choice tests designed to create a bell curve of grades that insures some students fail each course session.

[Please continue reading HERE.]

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P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/