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.

In fact, that is incredibly easy (I would say lazy and irresponsible), and teachers/professors who adopt that model of instruction will almost always be praised as a “hard” teacher and the course will be lauded as “rigorous.”

This is academic hazing—not teaching, and it inhibits both teaching and learning.

I want to extend McKay’s comment above that low grades and high failure rates in introductory (or any) courses is a sign of “unsuccessful courses” because of negligent teachers/professors who hide behind a traditional system of grading.

This debate about who is to blame for students failing a course is a needed discussion, but I fear it will not focus where it should—just what is the purpose of education?

The high-failure-rate introductory courses in colleges are intentionally designed to “weed out” weak students and recruit good students for departments and disciplines.

Again, academic hazing.

I started de-testing and de-grading as a high school English teacher because I found both tests and grades did not support my students’ learning and tests/grades contributed to a hostile relationship between students and teachers. As well, tests and grades are elements in a deficit approach to how we view students and learning.

However, since this debate is grounded in a college professor, I want to focus on how grading practices are particularly egregious in higher education.

As a junior in college just starting my courses in education (my major), I had my first experience with a very modest challenge to traditional grading. My advisor and professor, Tom Hawkins, noted in class one day that college students are a mostly elite subset of all high school students, and since a bell-shaped curve is relevant to representative samples, he anticipated students in his college courses to fall on the A-C range of grades, not A-F (unless of course a student simply did not do the work, etc.).

At that moment, I began to interrogate grades and concepts such as “objective” in multiple-choice and standardized testing.

I, like Dr. Hawkins, anticipate that my students will not only engage seriously in my courses but that they will likely produce A or B work if they trust and follow my guidance. This is reinforced by my teaching at an academically selective university.

Another element of this concern about college courses, professors, and grades must acknowledge that college students are adults.

The teaching/learning dynamic among adults must have consent, cooperation, and common goals.

This brings me back to the problem with antagonistic dynamics among students and teachers/professors.

Building a reputation as a professor or department that many or some of the courses offered are guaranteed to have students fail is establishing antagonism and eroding teaching and learning. Period.

Whether intentional of not, The Chronicle’s headline is almost perfect: What Does It Mean When Students Can’t Pass Your Course?

The key here is “can’t” because there are many courses across the U.S.—disproportionately in the so-called hard sciences and hard-science adjacent disciplines—that predetermine how many students receive specific grades and monitor that grades fall in a proportional way across the entire spectrum of grades from A to F.

That sort of a-statistical nonsense is not just common, but almost entirely unchallenged even though it is being imposed on non-representative populations of students.

To be specific, in my first-year writing seminar with 12 students at an academically selective university, where several of the students were valedictorian/salutatorian (and almost all of them graduation in the top 10% of their classes), a final grade distribution of 1 A, 2 Bs, 6 Cs, 2 Ds, 1 F would be pure orchestrated nonsense, but would almost never be challenged.

When my classes routinely have all As and Bs (because they submit work, have conferences with me after receiving written feedback, and then are required and allowed to revise), however, I am repeatedly challenged for those grades—directly and indirectly—and framed as “easy” or that I “give” As and Bs.

The NYT story about Dr. Jones will be fodder for “kids today” lamenting and the failure of higher education to hold students accountable. Some will likely drag out the tired “grade inflation” nonsense that has been voiced for 100 years (when, o, when, were grades not inflated?).

But the real story is that grades inhibit teaching and learning, but remain a central feature of traditional schooling—yet even more proof that higher education is mostly conservative, not the leftist indoctrination factory conservatives rail against.