January 20, 2015

Let’s play a little Jeopardy-style game. The category is “Grade Disputes, Questions, and Re-Considerations.” Here’s the answer:

A Delorean, a hot tub, a mailbox, and a phone booth

What’s the question?

“There’s one week left in the semester and I can no longer mathematically earn an A in this course – how can I get an A?”

Bonus points if you can identify each movie referenced by the time machines above…

Nothing can tarnish the end of a semester more than the sour taste left from dealing with grade disputes of this nature. I’m guessing this question, or some variation of it, is all too familiar to many of my colleagues. And so, as we embark on another semester, I’m suggesting that we spend some time up front addressing the underlying issue of grades so that we may enjoy the end of the semester even more. When asked on week 14 of 15 about what can be done grade-wise, there’s not much anyone can do about it, other than find a time machine (a Delorean, a hot tub, a mailbox, or a phone booth), go back to week 1, and plan one’s studying and work for the course with a better purpose to earn the desired grade.

Only one thing can be truly learned by the student in the moment they ask this question- plan ahead and plan better in the next course. So, like formative assessment, let’s see how we can help students address grade issues and goals within the course itself.

1. Add a statement in your syllabus encouraging students to plan ahead if they are determined to earn a particular grade, if that is their focus or perceived need.

  • Explicitly state that questions at the end of term about what one can do to earn a grade when mathematically impossible won’t be considered, and provide an entry point for grade conversations with you (and your GSIs). I.e., “Grade-focused conversations are welcome when they are proactive (still enough time in the course to impact a grade), realistic (the math adds up), and framed around concrete goals for the course (needing an A to get into graduate school is not a reason for extra grade considerations, but wanting to achieve content/skill mastery is).”

2. Speak to that statement on the first day of class and explain the importance of planning out one’s work for a course. Maybe even offer students some tips on planning out their work for the course (i.e., “A” students typically report preparing for exams at least 2 weeks ahead of time and begin drafting papers 4 weeks ahead of time.)

3. Harken back to that message throughout the semester both before and after assignments.

  • Before assignments as a reminder for students who may not be paying close enough attention to where they are and where they want to be. (When it’s week 3, it can be hard to think about the impact this assignment will have come week 14, but now’s the time when a change in study habits or renewed focus can actually make a significant difference.)
  • After assignments as a reminder to students to take account of where they are, where they want to be, and what they can still do/what they should do to get there (or to begin adjusting their expectations).   

4. Encourage students to utilize the services of the Student Learning Center (SLC) where they can seek the additional support needed to reach their course goals. Reference the SLC at these key intervention points during the semester – a couple weeks before and immediately after assignments. (http://slc.berkeley.edu/general/index.htm)

If you find yourself sometime in mid-April facing an anxious, well-meaning student who says something like, “We have only the final exam left in the class, and even if I get 100% the best I can do is get a B+ this semester. I really need an A for (fill in the blank job and/or graduate program here), so what can I do to get an A?” First, explain to them that their only option at this point to earn an A is to find a flux capacitor (those aren’t easy to find), a Delorean (a simple web search can land you one of these), and some uranium (also difficult to come by). Then, start working on your syllabus for next semester and follow the steps above.

As an aside, I would be remiss not to point out that we do have a grade change policy on campus that prohibits grade changes due to re-evaluation of student work. Read it, bookmark it, know it, and utilize it.

What do you do to address student grade expectations early in a course?

How do you focus your students on learning versus grades?

Time Machine movies:

Delorean – Back to the Future

Hot tub – Hot Tub Time Machine

Mailbox – The Lighthouse

Phone Booth – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure