5 Ways to Help Profs Who Don’t Give As

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I was saddened to hear that there are still professors that inform their student at the beginning of the semester 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 must be great for them to resignedly suffer the humiliation by 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 the following:

[click_to_tweet tweet=”5 practices to give hope and dignity to university professors who do not give As. ” quote=”5 practices to give hope and dignity to university professors who do not give As.”]

  1. 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, but they must also 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.
  2. Appropriate expectations: Perhaps you are confusing appropriate standards with low standards. An A is not a designation of perfection. Perfection can never be achieved, not even by a professor (the editors of your books 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.
  3. Modeling 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 due to your incompetence, but because they don’t really know what A work looks like.
  4. 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 that they underutilize transition words within paragraphs, but they excel at the 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.
  5. 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 just some of the practices that I have found that translate into more learning and 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.


  1. sandee volkenant

    I couldn’t agree more – the fact that some teachers are unwilling to assign A’s in their class is more a statement about their own shortcomings…what they don’t realize (or maybe they do but they just don’t care) is that their message communicates to students that they’ll never be good enough – why would anyone bother? It’s like telling an Olympic athlete that no matter how hard you train, you’ll never have an opportunity for a gold medal…..

    • Trent

      Some students will rise to the challenge, but most will be discouraged and fail to learn. Education is no longer a system of sorting students into those who will rise and those who won’t; it’s become a system by which we educate–fancy that! Thanks for reading, Sandee.

  2. RK Henderson

    I’ve always liked the French system. They grade on a 20-point scale. 20 is impossible to get. 19 is impossible to get. There have been only three or four 18s in the history of the Republic. Which makes 17 the functional “A”.

    I like this because it keeps everything in context. It recognises the impossibility of human perfection while rewarding diligent work in clear terms. There’s no onus attached to bringing home 17s; quite the contrary.

    On a related note, I still have PTSD flashbacks to the 1990s, when we were ordered to give no grade lower than a B or face discipline. (For being bad teachers. Someone has no idea how teaching happens, or under what conditions. Or, for that matter, why we grade.)

    Seems to me if you’re going to award a priori grades, whether high or low, it’s dishonest to do it any other way than the French method. And it’s not a bad way to get an important point across without punishing or underrating your students for their incorrigible humanity.

    Thought provoking piece!

    • Trent

      That sounds like a workable system–at least it doesn’t suppose that there is a discernible difference between a 74 and a 75%.

      No grade lower than a B? I think they are mixing up two different scales: The A, B, C, D, F scale and the “Participant” designation.

      Thanks for reading, Robin.

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