Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

12/9/2004

This girl isn’t one of my students, but she might as well be:

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:45 am.

(I got this link from Ernie. Blame him.)

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ailee Slater, who thinks it’s like totally unfair that her professors are assessing her knowledge. I realize I’m firing into a barrel of slow-witted guppies that have already floated to the surface, but what the hell:

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the University system makes absolutely no sense. Students pay teachers to educate us, yet they are then allowed to tell us how much we’re learning.

Stop the presses! Let me make sure I understand this: your instructors, who have Master’s or Ph.D.’s in their fields, think that they’re more qualified to gauge your understanding of their area of expertise than you are? The arrogance! This is where I’ve been going wrong: I should be allowing students who can’t factor quadratics to assess how well they’ve learned how to solve logarithmic equations. There’s my mistake.

The whole situation seems akin to a boss paying her employee to clean toilets and the employee turning around and telling the employer how much she is or isn’t happy with the cleaning job. If I’m paying someone to do my housekeeping, I’ll be the one to tell the receiver of my hard-earned money exactly how well they did.

This has got to be the dumbest analogy I’ve ever heard, and I’m including the Forrest Gump box-of-chocolates one in that comparison. Let’s break this one down: Alice thinks that the role of being a student is analogous to the role of supervising the cleaning of one’s house. Now - if I’m paying someone to clean my house, I’m giving them the tools to do their job, I’m leaving the house and not participating in the actual housecleaning. Does Alice think that the student/boss (a specious and damaging parallel, but nevertheless) is in a similar position - passively sitting in a classroom, not participating in their education, and then returning at the end of the term, all knowledged up - assuming that the teacher/employee has done their job? Ernie says it best:

Teaching does consist of opening your skull and pouring in knowledge. If you don’t work hard, if you don’t master the material, then no matter how good you may feel about your expertise and understanding, you do not deserve an A. Your tuition does not, and should not, guarantee your automatic success. Our job is to help you gain actual expertise and understanding and to give you honest and impartial feedback.

Addendum: I posted a better analogy over at The Geomblog (where Suresh highlights the “I’m paying for my A!” motif):

I have chronic knee problems that flared up four years ago, prompting me to seek the services of a physiotherapist, whom I (well, my insurance) paid. Once I was able to walk again, I thought that I was cured. “Look,” I would say to the physiotherapist during my later appointments, “I can walk! I’m all better!”

And she’d poke around and get me to do exercises, and show me that actually, I wasn’t all better, my knee was far from repaired. In other words…I was being “slapped with the label of failure”.

I suppose it would have been better if my (hired! paid!) physiotherapist had said “You’re right, you’re all better! Take care!” leaving my knee superficially pain-free but far from fixed, thereby setting me up to be in excruciating pain once again three months later. After all, isn’t her job to tell me how well I’m doing?

Back to Ailee:

Although teachers cannot be responsible for the self-failings of their students, it still seems unfair that they are allowed to judge how much a particular student is learning.

Minor quibble: I don’t judge how much my student is learning, I judge how much they know. If they came into my class already having mastered the material, learned nothing from me, but still understand the material well enough by the end of the term, they’ll do well.

Other than that, Ailee: do you not accept that your instructors possess expertise in their subject that you do not have? Could you explain why you do not think that expertise in a subject qualifies someone to determine what it means for someone else to understand that subject at an acceptable level?

I pay the teacher to teach me, and then I get slapped with the label of failure if the teacher deems that I haven’t learned the correct information?

Damn straight. Next:

I think many students have been part of a class in which they became exposed to important educational material and gained wonderful skills of analysis and understanding, however, their grade on a midterm or final did not necessarily reflect this education.

Perhaps your grade on a midterm or final does not reflect either your mastery of important educational material or your wonderful skills of analysis and understanding, but then again, neither does your column. What the hell do you think indicates that you know a damned thing? I’m not seeing anything.

A situation like this is the ultimate spit in the face: Students have paid someone to teach them, they have been taught, but an arbitrary grade makes it seem as though this learning never occurred. Their newfound education is not recognized, and they have, in essence, paid money to be told that they are idiots.

Again with the “I’m paying you to make me feel good.”

You know, “You get a D” isn’t equivalent to “You’re an idiot.” If anything, it’s equivalent to “You don’t know this subject very well. Perhaps you should see me during office hours for some help.” Some of my students get this, and get help from me. Others approach me indignantly telling me that I have no right to tell them they’re not understanding math. Guess which ones are doing better? Guess which ones are going to more successful - both in my classroom, and in life?

If I want to be told that I’m an idiot, I could just get drunk and leave embarrassing messages on the phone machines of attractive men — for free.

Email me - moebiusstripper AT talldarkandmysterious DOT ca. I can give you plenty of phone numbers of attractive men. I mean, if that’s what it takes.

[by e]liminating the system of grading…the purpose of schoolwork will be to garner knowledge, rather than to gain an artificial mark of how much learning one had achieved. Instead of concern about the symbol of achievement, achievement itself will be most prized.

And the achievement would be measured by…?

Here’s what Ailee and others don’t get: most instructors would agree that grades are a crude measurement of mastery of material. But Ailee assumes that if those instructors did away with grades, we’d be left with classrooms full of students who had acquired wonderful skills of analysis and understanding (lord, I can’t even write that without cringing) and who would therefore pass the course, even if they would have received F’s on their finals. In my case, nearly the opposite is true. Granted, I have some students who suffer test anxiety and whose knowledge therefore isn’t reflected on their tests. If I’ve gotten some indication that this is the case, I factor it into my final grade calculation. However, if I were allowed to do away with grades and assess people on “achievement itself”, most of my students would lose, rather than gain. I have a significant number of students who are memorizing formulas and techniques, and squeezing by with C+’s in my class. If I were to assess them on the basis of “achievement”, I’d be able to tell them, “Yes, you did manage to answer more than half of the questions correctly. However, you managed to do this just by memorizing formulas, rather than by really learning and understanding the material. Therefore, I can’t let you move on.”

This columnist understands that a world without grades is a fantasy utopia, populated by over-enthused learners who work hard not out of fear but out of excitement for their own continued education. Reality might instead yield a slew of frustrated students and teachers, not giving or receiving the education they deserve because of low expectations on the part of the university system as a whole. But, just maybe, removing our current system of grading would lead to classrooms of a higher caliber. Students who work hardest would be surrounded by similarly ambitious and intelligent peers…

Whereas the less ambitious, less intelligent peers wouldn’t get university educations. Which wouldn’t bother me all that much, except that it’s no coincidence that the “I’m paying for good marks, gimme gimme gimme” attitude has escalated in tandem with the social and economic reality that there just ain’t much a person can do without a university degree.

Here’s what I think would happen in a world without grades, but one in which the worse and less motivated students (where “worse” and “less motivated” are measured - how?) would drop out, leaving only the “exceptional students who want to learn”: Ailee and company would wring their hands, and devote column space to the fact that professors’ arbitrary means of prompting their lesser students to drop out resulted in some students being left out, even though those students are just as smart and motivated as their peers - it’s just that the professors don’t get that the “exceptional students who want to learn” aren’t actually any more exceptional than the “students who don’t care enough to do a good job in the first place”, STUPID PROFESSORS!

In conclusion - if there are any students reading this: your instructor probably isn’t moved by your claims that you really and truly have learned the material, even if though you can’t [write a coherent essay | graph a parabola | mix two substances together without blowing up the chemistry lab]. We’ve heard it all before. Show us, don’t tell us, that you know what you’re doing. We understand that you’re pressed for time and under a lot of stress; all the more reason to devote your energy to learning, rather than complaining about the injustice of the system.

Lynn Johnson knows my why my precalculus students aren’t performing.

File under: 1000 Words, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:17 am.