Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Here's something I didn't expect when I first became a teacher: you get more guff from students over A-minuses than you do over Ds or Fs. I would have thought that the worse the grade, the more likely you are to get guff over it. But it turns out that I get literally no guff over grades in the D-plus to solid-B range, and two to three times more guff over A-minuses than I do over failing grades.

Of course, it actually makes a lot of sense. A person who gets an F usually doesn't care about his grades--or, if they do, they know how much work it takes to earn a passing grade and they know they didn't do it. A person who gets a D thought he was going to get an F, so he's happy about he D. But a person who gets an A-minus cares about her grades and wanted to get an A. The person who gets an A-minus doesn't see it for what it is: an extremely good grade whose literal meaning is "near excellent" or some such thing. All they see is "not-A+" and they freak out.

People are weird animals.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

This is a well-known psychological result, and it's not necessarily because of student interest in grades per se. If a person really wants to win a race, and tries her hardest, it's easier for her to feel good about being in second place if she's a good margin away from first place than if she's really close. The idea is supposed to be that it's harder to accept not winning if you came really close than it is if you didn't come close.

Euthyphronics said...

People are weird animals.


Anonymous said...

i once got a series of emails from a student that had received an A- that honest to goodness offered things like running errands for me as extra credit opportunities. the students honestly thought they had disappointed me or something and were apologizing for 'failing to meet my standards'.

This was after I flunked about 8-10 of the 85-90 students I had.

verification word: asycock. that should be the word used to refer to such students in the future.

Glaucon said...

The worst grade-grubbers tend to be pretty good students -- or, rather, students who tend to get good grades but who seem extrinsically rather than intrinsically motivated and who seem to think that a '-' will keep them out of medical/law/graduate/etc. school.

Here's a relevant, funny bit from Funny or Die, the Philosophy Teacher.

Anonymous said...

word verification: tryst

Has the "mildly salacious" word verification function accidentally been turned on?

Anonymous said...

The first university I taught at actually eliminated all minus grades from the scale -- no kidding. You could only get A, B+, B, C+, and so on. Talk about grade inflation. But I did like that there was no A-: even though, psychologically, you'd think that the B+ would just become the new A-, it didn't.

I also found the following policy workable for me (though it might not work for everyone): a week before the grades were posted for real, I posted them on Blackboard, and then held a series of office hours during the next week. Students could appeal their grades, but only in person (or in the direst of emergencies, by telephone). No e-mail appeals allowed.

I found this cut out the impulsive "What gives?" e-mails I would usually get after posting grades, and the people who had a real case could still appeal. Deadline for all appeals was noon on the day before grades were then posted for real (to eliminate summer appeals when I wanted to be on vacation and not deal with that crap).

I also made it clear that, upon examination, grades could be revised up or down. This set up a sort of game-show environment ("Well, Bob, would you like to go home with the B+ you have, or risk it and try for an A?"), and cut out a lot of the jokers who debate their B+ just because it doesn't cost them anything to do so.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago at my small state school a professor was sued by a student for getting an A- on the basis that the syllabus did not make that possibility explicit. And this in spite of the fact that the catalog for the whole institution (we are multi-campus) did explicitly set out + and - grading as the norm. The result is that now all professors are expected to put the + and - grade ranges into syllabi. Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I've had similar results with my own teaching, but I actually get by far the most complaints from the B+ students in philosophy courses. They seem to be students who generally get an A/A- in most other classes, but just didn't quite have the talent for philosophy. The B+ drives them bonkers.

Anonymous said...

Glaucon is spot on--the students who are most likely to complain about such things are good students who are primarily externally motivated. I would add, though, that they probably also usually come from a culture of entitlement.

I did my graduate work at a private school in a wealthy area in the northeast, and this problem was rampant, and extremely annoying. When I moved to my current institution in the southeast, the grade scale did not include minuses--but rather than adjust the A range downward, I maintained the practice of only giving As for scores of 94 and above, and extended the B+ into the low 90s. One would think that this would make the complaints even more prevalent (how pissed would the student who gets a B+ with a 93 average be?), but I hardly ever got these complaints. The students down here just don't have the same sense of entitlement--they seem instead to have an odd combination of more respect for authority figures and a more laid-back attitude toward grades (many have more of the latter than the former).

For whatever reason, though, I have more students at my current institution who ask for extra consideration when they are on the cusp of failing...

Anonymous said...


I have the same experience at my university. Students come from other departments at the university, and, I think, are expecting that introductory philosophy courses will be easy A's. When they receive a B+ from me I sometimes hear complaints in my office. I think they are used to the easy grades they receive in their other courses and are surprised that philosophy requires real work. I don't like to turn them away from the discipline by giving a lower grade, but when I review their material I almost never find grounds for changing my mind.

Anonymous said...

I recently taught an honors philosophy course for non-majors. I ran a similar course for majors a semester or so before that. Many of the students weren't philosophy majors that semester either. The principal difference was that one was honors, which makes it exclusive to those in the honors college.

The class was on a topic with broad appeal. After the first couple of weeks, some people in the honors college let me know how pleased the students were with my course. But then came the first assignment--a simple practice paper. I tend to do these in small classes so I can help the students work on their writing. In my other classes, I'm repeatedly thanked for the helpful feedback. But my honors students weren't having it. I lost the class the moment I handed back the first paper.

I, too, think that Glaucon is mostly right. The honors students were good by some standards. They were studious and did the reading. But they seemed to be principally grade motivated—boring, conventional, and non-intellectually curious. This is exactly the kind of student I least like teaching. And, yes, I've taught all kinds.

Their lack of intellectual curiosity was bad enough, but they also bruised easily. Whatever the cause, most of them were completely unwilling to accept any feedback on their written work. I don't think they had ever had any genuine criticism. For some, it was devastating. But I'm not a bully. I make sure to include all sorts of encouraging remarks. My other students don't get upset. Only the honors students sulked.

I suspect that most of them had been coddled for years, constantly told how smart they were and how interesting their inane thoughts were. They all felt free to speak their minds in class. None of them lacked self-confidence. Typically I'd get a slur of some associative rambling or an account of their feelings; that, or, some sophomoric relativist nonsense. It must be that the problem was that they had too much confidence built on unwarranted praise. (Not all of them are like this, but most seemed to be.)

In several years of teaching lower and upper-level philosophy as well as lots of gen ed course, I've never had such an awful experience. . . . I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience with honors sections. Are the general students like this at some universities?

Anonymous said...

I'm 6:57.

I don't teach in the honors program at my university, but I recently heard a colleague describe his experience when he was asked to guest lecture in the program. He said that he was lecturing and discussing with the students and pressing them on several of their responses, and he had the distinct impression that the faculty in the program thought he was being too tough on them. He said that he felt the students were being coddled and not challenged very much. I don't know what to think about this. I sometimes have honors students from the program in my regular philosophy classes, and the students aren't all that impressive. This may be because students are admitted into the program based on GPA and test scores, but not especially their writing abilities. I regularly have students who do well in their regular courses but who lack writing skills and then have trouble in my course.

Anonymous said...

My experience with students from the honors program has been exactly what anon 6:17 describes. On one hand, I love having the honors students and teaching in the honors program, since the students actually do the reading, speak up in class, and understand the basics of English grammar. But they turn in rambling papers that are poorly reasoned or even plagiarized, and then they expect an A+ and an award for them. And when I raise objections to their arguments or interpretations, they react as though I insulted their mothers.

Anonymous said...

I got an A- yesterday, and I can relate. I could certainly care less about which member of the alphabet appears on my paper, if I am indeed proud of the paper. The problem is that graduate school cares about those letters. And with the state of the job market in philosophy, getting into one of those schools that actually cares whether I get an A or an A- makes the grade matter.