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Instructors can use reflective teaching to analyze their teaching, in the hope that they can improve their course for subsequent terms. If a teacher focused on insuring that all students earned A's, would that bring about unintended negative consequences.

Here are some examples:

  • If some students did not earn an A because they failed to understand some material, the teacher would attempt try harder in the next term to explain this material more clearly and to also identify or correct the course readings.
  • If some students did not earn an A because they were uninterested and unmotivated, the teacher should try harder to make the lessons more interesting.

Assume that students only earn an A by demonstrating that they have achieved the course goals, the teacher never lowers their standards for what is an A, and students not made aware of this goal, would such an "all A's from everyone" focus create any intended problems?

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    At my university it isn't even possibly to have everyone get all A's. Marks are scaled to a Mean of 65% and a standard deviation of 5-10%. So if everyone in the course new there stuff and the exam/test average was 85%, then it would be scaled down such that the average was back to 65% and probably only people who got >95% in the exam would get a A. – Lyndon White Sep 7 '14 at 5:24
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    @Oxinabox that would be a case of changing the standards for what constitutes an A from year to year. – David Z Sep 7 '14 at 6:36
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    @DavidZ No, it just means that the standard for what constitutes an A is "The student is in the top X% of the class." – David Richerby Sep 7 '14 at 14:58
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    @DavidRicherby: Yes, but David Z still has a point. The standard that you quoted is a relative standard. David Z means that if grades are purely relative then they do not have a consistent standard in absolute terms, i.e., relevant to mastery of course material. Most people I know want some kind of absolute standards as well: if you hire an A calculus student at an engineering firm and find out they can't take the derivative of xsin(x), contact the instructor and hear "Yes, but the other students were even worse", you would be justified in being unhappy with the grading scheme, right? – Pete L. Clark Sep 7 '14 at 15:03
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    @PeteL.Clark It is vanishingly unlikely that a whole class of students would deviate so far from the mean so your question is based on an essentially false antecedent. – David Richerby Sep 7 '14 at 15:58
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No, there are no negative consequences.

The key is this sentence right here:

Assume that students only earn an A by demonstrating that they have achieved the course goals

That being the case, grading becomes evaluating the following:

enter image description here

If everyone in the class is able to do everything that they should be able to do... mission accomplished


Edit: I teach pilots how to land airplanes safely. Students only earn an A by demonstrating that they have achieved course goals (they land the plane), and I never lower my standards for anyone (you don't get an A unless you land safely). As for the third criteria, I don't make students explicitly aware of my goal, but let's face it, it's implicit in the training.

My argument comes from seven years of personal experience:

  • Are there any negative consequences of me making sure that all my students are able to land the plane safely? No.
  • Are there any negative consequences of me not making sure that all of my students are able to land the plane safely? Yes: flame and then newspaper headlines.
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  • @DavidRicherby - I've edited my answer to provide some argument from my personal experience. – Steve V. Sep 7 '14 at 15:34
  • @SteveV. Thanks. That makes a much better answer. Having said that, it seems that landing planes really ought to be a pass/fail grading. What would it mean for a pilot to get a B? – David Richerby Sep 7 '14 at 15:48
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    @DavidRicherby - Flight checks are pass/fail, actually. Letter grades are used as a (somewhat crude) tool to indicate training progress toward flight check success, e.g. C = You will not pass your flight check with performance like this. B = You might pass a flight check if you fly like this. A = You should pass a flight check if you fly like you did today. Letter grades are therefore not very valuable alone, and always come with secondary comments, which is where the real evaluation happens. – Steve V. Sep 7 '14 at 16:15
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The potential disadvantage is that wanting every student to get the top grade results in the teacher spending all their time with the weaker students. The stronger students, who can get an A without extra help, don't get stretched and find the course dull and unmotivating. Thus, the next generation of people who might take the subject farther, even to research level, get switched off and do something else.

You're also assuming that every student is capable of getting the top grade, and they're not. However much time and effort you put in, you will not get the weakest students up to the level of the top grade. Your time and effort are valuable: it doesn't make sense to invest them beyond the point where they've stopped having any effect.

Also, what does it even mean for every student to get an A? If your entire grading system is essentially a single binary decision of "Can do X" versus "Cannot do X", wouldn't a pass/fail system make more sense?

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  • Upvoted for the first two paragraphs, which in a 'standard' academic setting are absolutely correct. Regarding the third, any objective-based grading system is ultimately pass/fail, where A = "can do X", B = " can do some subset of X" and so on. – Steve V. Sep 7 '14 at 16:31
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    Surely you mean A = "can do X well", B = "can do X", and so on! – JeffE Sep 8 '14 at 2:36
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It's not clear to me how a teacher would know whether students missed an A because they "failed to understand some material" or whether they were "uninterested and unmotivated".

If most people are getting an acceptable mark then repeatedly changing the course to try and make it more interesting to a small portion of the class could lead to:

  1. actually making the course less interesting to a larger group of people - not everyone will find the same things interesting.
  2. making the teacher(s) less capable of teaching the course well since they're now less familiar with the outline.

Also, if a specific course gets a reputation for a high level of As being achieved, it could potentially attract people that want to take the course because they expect an easy A. I don't think that's really much of a problem though, and shouldn't put people off making an interesting and well explained course.

So: while there are probably no real disadvantages to aiming for all students to get an A, a poor implementation has potential disadvantages and if "all students should get an A" becomes some kind of department standard (or maybe even just a personal goal), it has potential to cause stress, annoyance, and low morale as it may be an unobtainable goal for staff to meet.

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