Wednesday, July 18, 2012

College is the new kindergarten

I've been teaching an online course this summer, which more or less requires me to use Canvas. (I guess I could have built a website and such, but Canvas is there, and set up for this kind of thing, so...) But what I've noticed, at least at my school, is that the Canvas gradebook totally enables the instant gratification neediness in students. They freak out if their grades are not posted RIGHT AWAY. They send me emails asking WHY grades have not been posted. They are SURE that there must be some mistake that accounts for that void sitting there in the gradebook.

Me, on the other hand, I hate posting the grades, because as soon as I do, the grubbing starts. The demanding-to-know-why-I-only-got-an-A-minus starts. Which makes me want to not post grades. I'm required to let my students know how they're doing before the drop deadline each term. Freshmen and transfers get midterm grades as well. But I'm not actually required to let them know how they're doing at every moment, and I'm disinclined to do so because of the grade-grubbing and the whingeing and whining.

On the other other hand, the gradebook feature is handy and easy to use, except that it is visible to students. It's not that I think their grades should be a complete surprise to them at the end of the term. They should get enough feedback to know if they're doing OK, or not. And my assessment and pedagogical strategy is to give them more frequent assignments rather than a couple of high-stakes ones. But that only increases the frequency with which they are inspired to complain.

I suppose I could do what I did before Canvas, which is keep my own grading spreadsheet, and make students ask me about their grades. I'm curious about how the rest of you deal with this, and if you see the same instant gratification syndrome in your students.



Anonymous said...

I tell my students at the beginning of the term, as well as whenever the question is asked (i.e., "Will you post our grades online?"), that if they have any questions about their grade, they should come see me during my office hours or schedule an appointment.

I'm not sure if "forcing" students to see me during office hours with questions about their grade is the best practice. However, it does have the benefit of preventing them (in most cases) from spinning some story concerning their grade before they speak with me.

Anonymous said...

What would be the equivalent of forcing your students to come to your office hours when you are teaching an online course though? A live chat during a specific time?

Anonymous said...

I'm unfamiliar with Canvas, so maybe my suggestions won't apply. Why don't you just give them a sense of when the grades will end up being posted? You could say something like, "Quizzes will be graded within 24 hours, and if your grade doesn't show up within that timeframe, wait another five hours before contacting me." Of course, exams or other essays would take about a week.

Another idea is to not post grades until you're ready to post all of them. If you are grading things one at a time, then some students may be able to see their grades earlier than other students. When the former students talk to the latter students, the latter students will demand that their grades be posted as well.

It is best to deal with grade grubbers in person, but that might not be feasible if some of these students are very far away. For the grade grubbers who are far away, it might be a good idea to send a long and detailed e-mail explaining every mistake the person made. I've done this in the past (for an essay assignment) and found that doing it once was sufficient for getting the student to leave me alone. It was time consuming, but it was worth it.

CA said...

It has never occurred to me to seek to limit student access to their grades in any way. Seems to me that instructors have an obligation to keep the students informed of all evaluation both individually and cumulatively. I wonder whether the problem with "grade-grubbing" isn't a symptom of something else, such as students' uncertainty or sense of vagueness in the evaluations. (I've found that over the past years that grade complaints and "grubbing" decrease proportionally as the amount of information about grades and grading standards (rubrics etc.) increases. Sure I get a couple of annoying cases each semester, but for the most part if students understand what I expect of them and get prompt and clear feedback on their work and a clear sense of where this places them relative to my expectations in the course as well as relative to other students, the queues of students asking for clarification of grades or hoping to eke out a few points disappear.

I teach at a SLAC and I get to know every one of my students over the course of the semester, both of which facilitate this sort of communication. On-line courses may present significant difficulties in this regard, but I can't see that restricting student access to their grades is defensible, if the sole or primary reason is not wanting to be bothered by requests for clarification and justification. Obviously I don't have a helpful solution, however. . .. If students are freaking out because they want grades to be posted right away, then regular communication updating them on the progress might prevent their inconveniencing you. (I've gone so far as to build hard deadlines into my syllabus (I will return all papers by the class one week after the due date) thinking that if I hold students accountable for deadlines, I ought to hold myself accountable and students ought to know when to expect my feedback and grades.

Anonymous said...

"The demanding-to-know-why-I-only-got-an-A-minus starts. Which makes me want to not post grades."

Do they not know why they got an A minus? They should, if you've provided them with a rubric beforehand and specific enough feedback on their assignment. If they don't, fix that first.

If you mean that they're asking why they got points off on particular questions and are complaining about your particular grade assignments, then ask them to email you with what they think they ought to have gotten with a written argument to that effect. Let them know that the email needs to be specific, coherent and grammatical, and present an argument for their case.

If they're already doing that, then your use of the term "grade-grubbing" is unfairly pejorative and you ought to stop whinging yourself.

Justinfromcanada said...


First, thank you very much for stepping in with such a great post! It made my day.

I'm in agreement with CA as to how best to deal with the situation. 6:47, you seem to think that nobody would be a grade grubber if given adequate information. I can tell you from experience that that is almost certainly false. I have made my grading standards extremely explicit, both in my syllabus and in class, and given comments on early assignments that were almost as long as the assignment themselves. People have still come to my office to haggle, and when I asked how they responded to my comments, they said that they hadn't finished reading them yet: they just 'know' that they deserved better. Yes, there really are many people like that! They feel they have nothing to lose by doing this, presumably because it's worked for them in the past.

Of course, ensuring that they _do_ have something to lose (having a rule that if they come to haggle, you'll look at their work exactly one more time, and they can gain _or_ lose points on the second reading; and if they formally appeal the grade, the second grader can also reduce their score) is a good way to drastically reduce this.

I also hate the whiners. I‘ve found it effective to deal with them in the following way:

1) Make it painfully clear at the start of the course that they have a very real chance of earning poor or even failing grades in your course, even if they do all the assignments and come to all the classes (many students tell me then that in other departments, they are guaranteed at least a B for the course if they turn everything in and have perfect attendance -- surely, that makes their expectations more comprehensible!). And make sure they get it: have them write it down and show you.

2) Make clear also that you are unimpressed with grade grubbing, and that they have something real to lose by doing it. They will impress you if you see they are there to learn; they will give a very bad impression of themselves if they are seen as whiners.

3) Make clear to them exactly why 1) and 2) are reasonable policies to have, why it makes the course better for all involved (including them and their future employers, the reputation of the school and hence the worth of their degree, etc.). Most students seem never to have considered this when they are starting a philosophy course.

4) Give them a couple of short, easy-to-grade assignments early on, and make sure they get their grades before the first drop date (at my school, there is one date at which they can drop without a W and a second one at which they can drop without an F but with a W). Make sure that the assignments are ones that complete novices have a low chance of doing well. Grade them _almost_ as harshly as fairness allows: try to avoid giving anyone over 75% if you can justify it. Then add 10% to that score. Give Fs to anyone who deserves it. Then, at the next class session/communication, tell them that most people didn't do the assignment well, and that they're going to have to work much harder. As they might not have realized how serious philosophy is, you'll graciously give them another assignment in case some can do better this time and redeem themselves (in which case you won't count the first one). Explain exactly what you do want them to do and why they got it wrong before.

5) Some people will come to complain for this first assignment no matter what. Calmly offer to look over their assignment, and reduce it by the 10% by which you lowered it. Make your reason clear. Let them know through whatever signs you can that they are greatly overestimating their present skill at philosophy, greatly underestimating the amount of work the course will involve, and kidding themselves if they think grade-grubbing will get them anywhere with you.

I've tried this formula at many different schools, and it works: the die-hard whiners get lost, and the people who stay in the course -- way more than you would imagine -- make the remaining weeks a dream.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by 635 and 647. Either they know what grade grubbing is or they didn't read Zombie's post in the most charitable light. By laying the problem on Zombie's feet they seem to assume the problem is with Zombie's teaching. I'm not assuming incompetence or poor teaching on Zombie's part, I've read this blog long enough to know that I shouldn't assume that. I've also taught long enough to know that there are ALWAYS going to be students who think they are the exception to the rule and who will complain about grades no matter how well you have explained things beforehand. These students, I take it, are the problem.

The problem isn't with not giving the students the students enough information (at least not in Zombie's case, I'm willing to bet) but instead with the ugly combination of entitled students *and* an online course. Entitled students believe that they are special snowflakes, that even though you explain that their work is not "A" quality they still 'deserve' an A because they 'tried hard' or believe that you misunderstood them. When you combine that kind of attitude(something a select few students will always bring to the classroom) with an online environment you have a recipe for disaster. I interpreted this post to be about that special, and horrible, combination.

We all know that students have a strange sense of informality and bravado when communicating online with their professors. When that is the only means of communication things get even worse.

In my mind the only way to ease this problem Zombie is to make clear, from t he start on your syllabus, what your policies are and what the requirements are for grade revisions. You should feel free, if this is a large class, to write that you won't even respond to e-mails that are simply asking you for a grade change. You can mention that you will only consider grade changes when a student writes up an argument that specifically notes areas where they can show that they have done the things your comments claim they did not. You can even demand (in the syllabus) that these comments be typed up, in academic prose, and that they demonstrate a student's mastery of the material in question. The more hurdles you put up the more you can cut out the fishing expeditions but there were always be some. Adding a note that grades are likely to go up up *or* down upon revision can help as well.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the previous commenters might be excessively coddling (or advocating the coddling of) students.

Students ought to have enough self-evaluation and inference skills to have a pretty good idea of why they got an A-. They got an A- because they did really solid work that wasn't quite excellent enough to warrant an A.

You don't need a flippin' rubric and page-long explanation to tell you that.

I'm all in favor of giving students feedback, but there's a limit. Pointing out every single mistake is tedious and time-wasting.

Anonymous said...

"Do they not know why they got an A minus? They should, if you've provided them with a rubric beforehand and specific enough feedback on their assignment"

I think this is ridiculous. Along with others that I know, I don't mark a paper with an A unless I see either some originality of thought or some exceptional level of engagement with the material. As such when I am asked 'Why didn't I get an A?' all I really have to say is that despite the fact that the paper was well written and showed understanding of the material, nothing in the paper was special in any way. Should I put in a rubric a line which allocates 7.5 percentage points to 'Special Stuff'? Are we supposed to pretend that in so doing I have somehow helped the students in some way? A student told 'Your paper had nothing special about it,' will likely not understand what they are missing. If they did understand then presumably they would have given me a paper that had it. The only thing I can think of to do is keep exceptional papers and show them (without the name on it) to students, and hope that they can see the difference. Breaking down a paper into parts, all of which can be done completely as long as enough time and effort is expended (what I take rubrics to do) undervalues an 'A' grade and leaves us unable to differentiate those students who are hard workers from those students who are hard workers and exceptional in some way.

Anonymous said...

I feel obligated to point out that this is Zombie's first post since March 29.

Let the name-calling and demands for his resignation begin!

Anonymous said...

4:52 here (yikes! that must be from a far away time zone)

It seems to me like 9:35am is overestimating students' abilities while 1:24pm is underestimating their abilities.

Students sometimes aren't able to tell the difference between an A- and an A because they aren't experts. Consider the difference between "Author x says that determinism is true and that nobody has free will" and "Author x says that if determinism is true, then nobody has free will." Some students will think that each sentence would be an adequate paraphrase of the author's point and will write papers that make some small mistakes like these. They aren't too stupid to see the difference between the two sentences, but they need to be told the difference when they make the mistake of conflating the two sentences.

I'm not saying that confusing a Libertarian for a Hard Determinist is the difference between an A and an A-. I'm just saying that novices are often not in a position to appreciate the subtleties of both language and philosophical thought and that these things sometimes need to be pointed out to them in order for them to understand their grades.

Part of being a good teacher is being able to communicate one's expectations in a way that students can understand, and that's part my problem with rubrics (they seem sort of like a checklist, but I don't go down a checklist while grading or reading a paper). Similarly, my problem with saying an A is distinctive or original or whatever is that it really gives the student nothing to go on. You might as well tell them that their papers need to have pizzazz or moxie.

Anonymous said...

I also feel required to add:

Lisa: Look at me! Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I'm good, good, good and oh so smart!

CTS said...

Anonymous said...
"I feel obligated to point out that this is Zombie's first post since March 29.

Let the name-calling and demands for his resignation begin!"

Yes! And demands that he create a system whereby a more worthy blogger can be selected - one in which we all get to vote, anonymously.

CTS said...


Most systems with which I am familiar allow the instructor to make the grades visible to students when s/he chooses. IFF the system in q has this function, you can either (1) tell students that you will not post grades before a certain point after they have received their comments/etc. or (2) tell them you don't post any grades other than those they cannot discover through your 'return' of their work.

And, I do think insisting that they read your feedback before demanding to discuss a grade with you is absolutely fair. (There will always be someone so bent out of shape that s/he won't do this voluntarily and you will have to stand by the rule.)

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:24,
You said in response to 6:47, "I think this is ridiculous. Along with others that I know, I don't mark a paper with an A unless I see either some originality of thought or some exceptional level of engagement with the material."

Several people on this blog have posted similar comments that they reserve "A" grades for truly exceptional papers. I have been lucky to teach (as a graduate student) at an elite private school for several years, and I have read one student paper that fits your description. So I'm wondering what your standards are for "exceptional level of engagement."

I'm also interested in Smokers' opinions about the following question. If a student can reconstruct an argument from a difficult text in such a way that the argument appears valid, and if she can point out ways in which the argument might be criticized (by identifying questionable premises or inferences that would become invalid if an assumption were modified slightly), then is there any reason not to give her an "A" grade even if her paper is not exceptional?

I guess it's me, but I am most interested in teaching my students particular skills (careful reading, logical reconstruction and analysis of arguments, etc.). If all of my students indicate to me that they have acquired those skills, then I would have no problem giving all of them A's.

For the record, I have taught a small class in which all my students earned A's. I also taught a small class once in which no student received an A, and only one received a B. In the former case, all my students mastered a certain set of skills; in the latter, none did.

7/19 at 4:52 said...


FWIW, your middle paragraph pretty much states everything I'm looking for in an A paper. I'd only add that the student must reconstruct the actual argument rather than one made of straw.

jmc said...

"Students ought to have enough self-evaluation and inference skills to have a pretty good idea of why they got an A-. "

But the fact that students ought to have this doesn't mean that they do. Part of our job is to help them develop these skills, isn't it?

Maybe this is coddling, but I don't think it is.

Anonymous said...

"Let the name-calling and demands for his resignation begin!"

her resignation, I believe.


(Still like the sarcasm, though.)

Xenophon said...

In an online class I think you're stuck posting all the grades, and doing so fairly promptly. I can think of two things that might make your life easier.

(1) Have just 2-3 high stakes assignments, and then rather than lots of low-stakes but evaluative assignments, have lots of formative assessments. If you give a student a grade of "if this counted it would be a D" then they'll realize you're trying to help them learn your standards, and they can't really complain.

(2) I think anyone who makes fine-grained distinctions in grades is going to catch grief from it (I don't know whether you do that). If you only assign a small number of grades, let's say A, A-, B, C, D, and F, then it makes it easier to to avoid questions about why it was a B rather than a B+. You can say "it was better than most Bs, but it just wasn't an A-." That validates their assessment, but still focuses them on trying to understand _your_ standards.

Anonymous said...


No, it isn't. My job is to teach philosophy. Part of teaching philosophy certainly involves feedback, and I'm more than happy to talk with students about their papers.

But helping students develop basic self-evaluation and inference skills isn't part of that job. I'm not a life coach. If they don't have enough skills to have at least a minimal understanding of what an A- means (a *minimal* understanding...I'm not demanding the full expertise, by any means), then they should take a step back and ask whether college is for them.

Anonymous said...

I used to give many low-stakes assignments, and one high-stakes assignment at the end. Students complained about having too many assignments, and not enough time to develop any of them. Then I switched to few high-stakes assignments. Students complained about too few assignments, with too few chances to improve their grades.

Over time, I decided to stay with the latter. Students will complain no matter what I do. So if I can grade fewer assignments, then I win.

4:52 said...

@ 7:08

Teaching philosophy is a very small part of your job.

But never mind that. Where are these students supposed to get a minimal understanding of what an A- is in a philosophy class? It doesn't seem likely that high schools are teaching their students what the standards of every college discipline are. To a student, an essay is an essay. It's up to us to teach them what the specific standards for philosophical writing are and how they differ from the standards of other fields.

Or maybe you think that your comments speak for themselves and that the commentary on the paper should reveal exactly why the student got the A-. That sounds fine, provided that your comments are clear and informative. In my experience, though, a lot of the comments that I've made on papers that I thought were crystal clear have often been misinterpreted by students.

Anonymous said...

I've found that it really helps to change the dynamic, so instead of me justifying the low grade, students need to justify why they have a high grade. They have to email me (using basic grammar + paragraph structure!) explaining in specific terms why they deserve a better grade. But I'm very clear at the beginning of the semester: this doesn't just mean "I thought the paper was really good," much less "I worked really hard on this." Specifically, it means either showing me that one of my comments was wrong, or that the guidelines I give for what counts as an A paper, a B, etc. on the syllabus doesn't match up with their letter grade and the comments I made. I also warn them that since ours is a philosophy class, presenting irrelevant information or appeals to emotion will be viewed as evidence they haven't learned the basic critical thinking skills we're trying to develop in this course - so likely to hurt them in my estimation rather than help them.

I also try to do whatever I can to create a "remove," so it takes some work for the student to access the grades. I use a third-party website,, and students can sign up for an account allowing them to view their grades but they need to do it on their own time, email me for details, etc. Only the most motivated typically bother, and even those that do have to log into a new website to view the grades. That helps. I also print out gradesheets at intervals for all the students, typically after every paper/exam is graded.

Finally, I actually enter zeros for missing work and tell my class that if they don't see a zero that just means the assignment hasn't been graded yet - and that I can spend my time grading the work or replying to panicky emails, but not both.

In my experience that's worked pretty well. But I'm still a doctoral student/teaching fellow, meaning I am teaching students that attend a school of that caliber - maybe I'm just not getting the bad cases you're seeing?

Anonymous said...

take a look

Anonymous said...

My students find out their grades when I hand their papers back to them, usually 3-4 weeks after I receive them. They usually don't complain that it's so late, either, although some of them mention it on their evaluations at the end of the semester. I rarely get grade-grubbing, but I do get students wanting to do extra work when they would be much better off spending that time doing a better job on the work they already have.

Anonymous said...

Why the pile-on against 635 and 647? The latter just said that if Zombie is calling someone who sends an email that is "specific, coherent and grammatical, and present[s] an argument for their case", calling it grade-grubbing is pejorative.

What 835 has described in their post (condemning 647) is just that: "You can mention that you will only consider grade changes when a student writes up an argument that specifically notes areas where they can show that they have done the things your comments claim they did not. You can even demand (in the syllabus) that these comments be typed up, in academic prose, and that they demonstrate a student's mastery of the material in question."

There's a big difference between whining "I can't believe you gave me an A- because I tried soooo haaaard!" and giving an argument for why you think your answer was graded unfairly/inaccurately. It seems like the problem is that the original post doesn't explain what kind of policies are already in place. What 647 has done is try to understand what is actually going on and in what context, since that's not immediately clear.

Anyway, the standards for an "A" or "A-" are not some kind of magical context-independent, a priori thing (and even if they were, there's no guarantee we could access them) so I don't understand the complaining about rubrics and policies in this thread.

CA said...

I was not calling into questions OP's diligence or competence as a teacher, though I was expressing my surprise that concealment of grades was being considered as a reasonable solution to the problems of grade-grubbing and students seeking understanding or even information about their grades. If the latter are problems, then, I would argue, they must be addressed through other means than deliberately restricting access to grades and evaluative information. I think even placing hindrances is questionable.

On the other hand I do wish that we had a way to express grades as ranges through on-line gradebooks. A standard way to say "at this point you are earning a 72-85% which means that you can earn anywhere from an a C- to a B in this course--and automatically compute that from the grades entered in the gradebook. Students do not always get the indeterminacy of their final grade--they want to know "what am I earning now" as though there is a simple answer to that question in the middle of the semester.

I think Fidessquarens has useful advice in the first paragraph for changing the dynamic. I would add that providing clear guidance as to criteria and then expecting students to make arguments and provide evidence from their work for the change of grade is a powerful pedagogical move--it encourages self-reflection and internalization of the norms of the discipline. It also provides the faculty member with the occasion to correct their misunderstanding of these norms.

Though I suppose some will say that "such pedagogy doesn't fall under their job description"--to which, I guess, "heh."

Anonymous said...

One way to reduce grade grubbing is to make it clear early on that you give out lots of bad grades. Explain that philosophy classes have about the same average grades as chemistry classes, and that your classes are no exception to this, and that a great many students will receive C's even though they do all the work diligently. When students hear this it "anchors" their expectations, and they complain less.