withinI was saddened to hear that there are still professors that inform their student at the beginning of the semester that that they don’t give As. It’s sad because it seems as if little has changed since I sat in my undergraduate classes and heard exactly the same thing. How long will this go on? That these men and women, who have studied so long and so hard–who have given their lives to the education of young people, would be brought so low as to toss in the towel on the very first day of class. The degree of their despair is so great that they resignedly suffer the humiliation admitting to their students that they will not be able to teach even the brightest of them. I for one will no longer stand by and do nothing. I will modestly propose 5 practices which might bring some hope and dignity to these beleaguered scholars. Each is a component of effective pedagogy and engaged assessment and the cumulative effect will be more learning, which means higher marks–hopefully not a few As. If your students aren’t getting As, try:
- Clear expectations: these usually fall under the categories of knowledge, skills, intellectual habits (and, if you are in a liberal arts university which still understands its historic raison d’etre, character). These must not only be clear to your students, they must be clear to you, for everything you do hangs upon these learning objectives. You can’t point to those six objectives you put on your course syllabus; these are certainly expectations, but you have more, lots more, and students need to know what these are as well. Perhaps your students’ poor performance is simply because your expectations have not been clearly communicated.
- Appropriate expectations: Perhaps you are confusing appropriate standards with low standards. As are not a designation of perfection. Perfection can never be achieved, not even by a professor (the editors will back me up on this). An A represents excellence at a specific level. When it comes to writing, I teach English 9 students pretty much the same thing as English 12 students–I teach both how to write using strong controlling sentences, correct MLA documentation, manipulation of language, sentence variety, transitions, the conventions of Standard English, and a lot more. The high standards by which I assess each is different because an appropriate standard for grade 12 is not the same as that of a 9th grade student. Perhaps you are a better teacher than you think you are. Perhaps your students are earning much higher scores than you realize because your expectations are inappropriate for the level of the students with whom you are working.
- Modelling excellent work: You may understand exactly what you want for an essay, or a lab report or a chapter review, but they don’t. This can be quickly remedied by showing them examples of excellent work. Show it to them and ask them to articulate what makes it exemplary. Perhaps the reason your students aren’t getting As is not your due to incompetence, but because they don’t really know what A work looks like.
- Helping students to understand their specific academic failings (and strengths). Very little learning can occur when students are locked into self-fulfilling generalizations like, “I suck at essays.” Real growth occurs when they understand that the reason they are getting Cs on papers is because they underutilize transition words within paragraphs, but they excel at academic voice. How do they come to be aware of this valuable information? We go back to numbers 1-3 above, and possibly add some peer review to the mix. By doing this, students know exactly where to direct their efforts for improvement, and improve they will.
- Assess your effectiveness: You can’t just ask the class, “Are you with me?” and assume that because the keen one in the front has nodded assent that you have taught anything. There are a plethora of methods to check for understanding, but for heaven’s sake don’t count them for marks. At this point, these are more an assessment of your teaching than their learning. By using some methods to daily assess how well you’ve been understood will save you the tremendous disappointment of discovering after the final exam that you’ve been completely ineffective as a teacher.
These are some of the practices that I have found that translate into more learning–higher marks. Importantly, these are only the first step, for they will only help you’re A students get As. That’s the easy part. You will you need even more skill to help the C students to get Cs, but let’s save that for another day. For all you university students. If one of your professors is discouraged and has told your class that there will be no As, feel free to forward them my 5 practices.