Monday, May 23, 2011

Musings on Grading, Course Criteria, and the Importance of Challenge

Gotta love the day after the final grades have been posted. The grade-grubbing emails are nothing short of awesome. Here's one recent gem:

Professor GMP:
I just checked my final grade for YYY 123 [course number] and it's an AB. I just want to know if this is a right grade for me. I did a hard work for this class during the semester, I did all homework assignments, and the three exams were not bad. I'm sorry to bother you with this, it's just, I'm a freshman here and I'm planning to transfer to another college so GPA matters a lot to me. So, I just want to make sure everything's correct. Have a nice Summer!

Why thank you, Stu, for your concern. Yes, everything is correct. I love your assumption that the three exams are not bad without having actually inquired about how you did on the final. And I love it how the fact that you *need* a high GPA to transfer to presumably an awesome school should be brought to my attention as a reason to give you an A, because clearly this particular need trumps every other possible type of need to get an A. By the way, you ended up being in the middle of the AB range.

Sometimes (all the time, really) when I grade I fall into the deep depths of despair.
My exams are "fair" and "not too hard" -- so say the comments on my RateMyProf profile. Yet, when I see that a whole bunch of people don't do even 50% with the help of all the materials -- lecture notes, exam prep questions, review sessions in which I go over the exam prep questions -- I ask myself "WTF"?

Where I went to undergrad, to get the top grade (equivalent of an A in the US) you had to get 90% or more, no ands, ifs, or buts. Tough exam? Tough luck. You needed 50% to merely pass. This semester, I gave essentially the same exams as the year before. Only 2 people had a total score over 90% this semester; last semester I had more than 10 people in this range. So naturally I had to curve the hell out of the grades.

One thing I often wonder though is how fair all this curving and chewing material into bite-size pieces is to really talented students. They probably never get their asses kicked by really challenging material until they go to grad school; unfortunately, for many it may be too late as they won't ever go to grad school. I have seen several students like that who sail through coursework essentially bored and never develop a real passion for anything, because everything comes so easy to them. One such kid was totally jaded and kept saying how everything bored him; you should have seen his statement of purpose for application to grad school -- it was a mixture of "everything bores me because I am so awesome", "I am awesome and some subfields are totally boring and I would never bother working in them", and "I have no idea what I really want to do because everything is so effing boring." I had him come to do a research project with me over the summer and then I showed him some serious butt kicking by a research problem. He was completely flabbergasted, and after the initial shock dove into the problem with great zeal. It was also news to him that I expected him to calculate everything all the way, not just sketch a solution and know how to do it "in principle" (don't get me started on the evils of partial credit in STEM courses.; that's a whole ranty post right there). Last year the student graduated with a BS and went to a top private school; he chose an advisor in a specialty similar to mine, with words that this subfield is the only one that he has ever found challenging enough. I am glad he'll stay in my subfield, but there are plenty of other challenging subfields: it's just that no one in any other subfield has ever had a chance -- since chances are largely limited to coursework -- to really challenge him to the point of discomfort that helps people grow.

I think it's important that someone show you where your limits may be and force you to push them. The earlier that happens, the better -- you will have more time to get over your huge ego and actually realize there is a whole world of interesting problems and unbelievably smart people working on them out there. That's why I think challenging coursework is important at the undergraduate level -- if we rely on summer research projects or going to grad school to provide for the first time adequate challenge to smart students, that's too late. We will have lost many of them to sheer boredom. Unfortunately, unless the classes are very small, it's hard to tailor the coursework to student abilities -- especially at R1 institutions, this type of approach would simply require the time no research-active instructor would want to invest.

For the record, I think that graduate school education in the US is the best in the world. However, undergraduate education leaves much to be desired. I understand that this comes primarily because undergraduate education serves a different purpose in the US than many other places -- a rite of passage for the middle class, a chance to explore and become independent, as well as a chance to broaden if not deepen one's education. The latter, I feel, is honestly only needed because the public K-12 education (as I see now with my kids) is painfully nonuniform across the country (even within a single state!) and also leaves a great deal to be desired. But my feelings about K-12 in the US are also a topic for a whole different ranty post...

For comparison, however, let me just tell you what the system was where I did my undergrad (it was in a small country in Europe and before the Bologna convention). I think I received a very good and very broad education, but all the breadth was thanks to my butt having being kicked in grades 5-12. For example, in high school, I had courses in world literature, two mandatory foreign languages, plenty of math, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history, social sciences, music, art, and gym. I even had one year of Latin in high school. (I still have nightmares involving my high-school history and biology oral exams.)

College was free, which is another major difference with respect to the US. Once I started college, majoring in physics, the education was extremely technically focused. Apart from the courses in physics, the only other courses were math (4 semesters), chemistry (2 semesters), and English (2 semesters). There was no homework and no midterms, just the final. You had to go to discussions and work on problems on your own, if you didn't it's your funeral. You could take the final in one of the exam periods (June, September, or January). If there were N courses in a given academic year, you needed to pass no less than N-2 by the start of the next academic year (October) to be able to advance into the next year. If you didn't, you would fail the year and would not be allowed to take any of the next year's exams. (You could still take the remaining exams from the year you flunked.)

A number of courses were 2-semester long (fall+spring), so you could first take the final after the two semesters were over (some major were much worse -- my friend with a degree in literature had 4-semester courses and a 6-semester course in aesthetics -- yes, you go to lectures for 3 years and only then get to take the exam; it often took people several years to prep for it and pass it). If you wanted to "clear the year" (pass all the exams before the new academic year starts) taking exams required a bit of strategizing: you take the exams for single-semester fall courses in January, the exams for single-semester spring courses exams in June, and then spend most of the summer preparing to take the finals for the two-semester courses in September. Each final consisted of a written and an oral part: if you pass the 4-hour written exam (passing means scoring 50% or higher) you get to go to the oral. The orals could be very long: you draw typically 3 questions, write a long and detailed answer (derivations, proofs, etc) for each, and that's the beginning of a discussion between you and the professor, typically with you in front of the board. Your own oral easily lasts an hour or more, and that doesn't include waiting for your turn which can take all day. (Addition: If you failed an exam, you could take it again in the upcoming exam periods, but after failing 3 times I think you had to start paying to take that exam again. And if in the meantime the instructor changes, that's your problem.)

First and second year math courses were among the early gate-keeping courses: a number of students kept taking math exams repeatedly but unsuccessfully; these students eventually never finished their studies. Getting a degree was never a guarantee, getting it in 4 years was very rare (show-off alert: yours truly did). I remember my first-year math exam; it was a two-semester course containing linear algebra, single variable calculus, vector calculus, ordinary differential equations (ODEs) and systems of ODEs (also Fourier and Laplace transforms). I had studied for it all summer and had passed the written part in early September with flying colors. The oral part was in a room on the top floor; it was still very hot outside and everyone was roasting. I drew my three questions and wrote the necessary proofs, and spent the vast portion of the day sitting, waiting for my turn, and listening to other people's orals. The prof looked over my proofs and asked me questions about details, and then whipped out his list of questions -- more like a booklet with some 200 questions, and started quizzing me on them, flipping through the booklet . The whole thing lasted for an hour. One classmate of mine looked really queasy and almost passed out near the end of his hour-long roast (he's a very smart guy but never had much stamina and I think it eventually limited his career reach).

When I mentioned this to my postdoc, he got all defensive and said how at his BS school (a very good US school btw) there were all these mystery kids who never showed up for any classes but had all A's. My comment was that it's because the criteria for an A were not made for them -- and that it would have been better for them if the criteria were higher and they actually had to strain a few dendrites along the way. Perhaps there are only a handful of schools that can afford to uphold superhigh undergraduate standards in the US, but most places don't -- I know my present place of employment doesn't -- because we are all about enticing people to enroll, enticing people to pick our major, and making sure they get out in the time allotted. If we don't, our department becomes unpopular, and it all translates into low enrollments and we all know what low enrollments mean -- reduced funding or even nixing of programs and departments.

I do my best to tailor the material, whatever I teach, to the class that is in front of me. Often, that means some or a lot of remedial work so we'd get to a point where we can intelligently start discussing the material. I never think students are stupid but I often wish they had more structure and more strict criteria in their education leading to college. Once in college, I wish we as instructors were in a position to establish firm non-negotiable criteria for what must be learned at all cost, and I wish we had the ability to fail students who do not meet them instead of just letting them pass on with marginal grades. There is a strong disincentive to be a hardliner teacher -- apparently, you can only get away with it at certain schools. Where I am, it would be teaching and career suicide. If all your other colleagues who teach the same course just dumb the material down and grade on a curve, you do it too.

I teach at the level at which the students need me to, but boy do I wish we had the freedom to make the courses more challenging and the students a little (or a lot!) more uncomfortable, without negative consequences to our own careers or the financial standing of our departments... Because I think many students would surprise themselves with how much they can really do if pushed really hard.


Alex said...

I'm sure that having meaningful standards would elicit surprising performance from the top students, but the rest of the students might have their feelings hurt, and that would be very un-American.

Examine your "culture with actual standards" privilege!

Inhospitality said...

Wow, that sounds like a really good education. But, do you think that frontloaded, demanding systems like that heavily privilege people who inherit the right attitudes? E.G. when I was younger, just like my father, I felt that everything should come easily to the sufficiently intelligent, and that hard work was a sign of weakness. I'm now a productive student in a top department, but it sounds like your system would have flunked me before I knew what hit me, as it would smart kids from 90% of american families.

Alex said...

The best thing about the American system is that you can try again. So, yes, the system should privilege those with the right attitudes, the system SHOULD flunk those who think that working hard is a sign of weakness, and those who flunk should have to start all over again and pay the price of time.

Instead, what we have is a system that waters things down so no precious little snowflake has to pay a price for laziness and/or stupidity.

GMP said...

it sounds like your system would have flunked me before I knew what hit me, as it would smart kids from 90% of american families.

Maybe it wasn't clear from the post, but after you fail an exam you can take it again in the upcoming exam periods (although if you fail more than 3 times I think you have to start paying to retake it, but it's been a while so I don't remember the details). If you didn't have the right attitude, you would probably be hit hard in your freshman year, fail some gatekeeping courses and flunk your freshman year; but then you would probably get your shit together, study hard during your repeated 1st year, pass all the exams and then end up finish everything else on time, so be out in 5 yrs. So there's a penalty of time but not too severe. This scenario happened a lot.

On the other hand, if you never did get your shit together you could be retaking a course or courses for years and eventually never finish (this scenario happened a lot too).

Anyway, I don't think the system that I went through was ideal or that it could be transplanted to the US (would require a much different K-12 system than what the US has). But it goes to show there are different systems out there, with people surviving them, and that they may offer something to think about/learn from.

Clarissa said...

I don't grade on a curve. I believe this is unfair towards the hard-working, dedicated students. If I need to fail lots of people, then I'll fail them.

I caught myself a while ago in teaching for the stupid ones. While I was chewing over the really basic stuff, the smart kids were bored out of their heads. This was a huge waste of time anyways because those who don't want to learn will not learn no matter what you do.

Students are adults and they need to live with the consequences of their choices. If they don't want to make the effort, then they'll have to be prepared to fail.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I wonder what would be served by flunking a higher percentage of the class. Grade inflation is a problem, yes. Dealing with whiny students is a significant downside of our jobs, yes. I don't believe in lowering standards for the pre-med who "needs" that A.

On the other hand test taking abilities have a low correspondence with research or job abilities. My parents went through a rigorous test based education system, and did very well in it. Then they came to the US, and saw that their American colleagues had a lot more of the skills needed to practice in their fields than they or their friends did. They had all learned to be good test takers.

Similarly, teaching a middle class student that they have to work really hard in class to get an A may not be a useful life lesson for them, depending on their future career choices.

Our job is to present material on a subject clearly, and to mentor the future generation in our field. It is not to teach students to work hard or face the consequences. So if the median student in my class gets an A- by department policy, so be it. What the student does with their inflated grade after I am done with them is up to them.

Clarissa said...

" So if the median student in my class gets an A- by department policy, so be it."

-You have a policy that tells you what grades you have to give??? I would never agree to that. If people know better how to grade my students, then they should go and teach them instead of me.

Alex said...

Certainly test-taking abilities are not always the best predictors of research abilities. Hence classes in the US often have labs, projects, papers, presentations, and other components in which a student is graded on something other than test-taking ability. Grades in such courses might still be imperfect at predicting research ability, but they don't seem to be completely worthless for that purpose either.

As to this:
Our job is to present material on a subject clearly, and to mentor the future generation in our field. It is not to teach students to work hard or face the consequences

Do us all a favor and don't take a job that has undergraduate teaching responsibilities. I'm sure you're a great researcher, I'm sure you can do good things in the lab, but don't ever take a job with undergraduate teaching responsibilities. Please.

Anonymous said...

Two completely unrelated things:
'I think that graduate school education in the US is the best in the world'. I disagree but basically because in my (small European) home country, doing a PhD isn't really considered 'going to school' nor 100% 'education'. Sure you are supposed to be learning a lot during the 3-4 years it takes you to get there but the whole thing is not organized as a school. Maybe the reason why in the US graduate schools need to provide such an excellent (and structured) training is because the people arrive in grad school after low-level undergrad studies so they need to get their ass kicked to be brought to the same level (at the end of grad school) as their European counterparts which had decent undergrad education?
Second point: Anybody else wants to speculate about the 'small European country' that GMP is coming from? 'Small' excludes about half of them and 'two mandatory foreign languages' in college should further narrow down the list. I could imagine Netherlands, Switzerland or a Scandinavian one. Where is English mandatory when studying Physics?

Science Professor Mum said...

I am expecting a bunch of exam papers to land on my desk for grading today. Interestingly, I teach a final year undergraduate module and have students from the UK and visiting students from our partner university in the US. The module has 30% coursework and 70% exam. Now, this cohort is not necessarily the best I have ever taught judging by their coursework marks, however they aren't the worst either. Some of the UK students get 50% and upwards. Generally they don't bother commenting as they can see where they went wrong. this year, in the first assignment, all 3 US students made a large error for which they were penalised heavily. At the time they were happy with my explanation and the help I gave them. In the second assignment, one of the US students came top of the class, but the other two scored around the 40% level (our pass mark). This prompted a concerned email from one who was devastated at "failing" having only got A and B from the US based modules. There isn't much I can do if they just didn't get it, but it was a comment buried within the letter that caught my attention: "at home, 50% is for people who just turn up and don't do any work - i've done loads of work therefore I should get more than this". Now, I appreciate that some people who score 50% do so because they don't put the effort in, but there are also some, as in this case, who just don't get the answer right (or get it very wrong). This is an interesting issue for students who have modules in overseas universities in particular!!

BTW, UK undergraduate teaching is fighting the consequences of increasing modularisation in our secondary school system too... boo...

prodigal academic said...

The large class to class variation in ability to master subject material was a huge eye opener in teaching the second time through. I incorrectly figured I could just find the "right" pace and use that every year. Now I realize that I have to pay attention to the ability level of the class and tailor accordingly if I want most of them to learn anything (and I do).

I agree with you about the level of mastery of US vs international students entering grad school. This was something I noticed in my first year at PhD U. However, I don't think it is entirely due to "making up" for problems in K-12 education, though I do think the unevenness and weakness of K-12 education in the US is a huge problem. Most US schools subscribe to a more liberal arts model that requires courses in arts and humanities in addition to science and engineering for a significant portion of the total credit hours. Even if the K-12 was top notch, the fact that US undergrads spend at least 1/3 of their course time on distribution requirements means less time for their core field.

I do like the liberal arts model in some ways. As a postdoc, a friend of mine from the UK was really jealous that I got to take history and literature courses from renowned experts, even at the cost of a year of two of catchup in our field at the end of it all.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 1:34 am, you have a big blind spot in your European geography. GMP could also be from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary (though I do not quite envision Hungarians calling their country small, so probably not :-) ), Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, the list could go on and on... My apologies to all the inhabitants of small European countries for not mentioning their own :-) BTW, the University in my "small European country" had English mandatory when I was studying Physics there, though I am quite sure it is different from GMP's "small European country", so there must be at least two.

Timo Kiravuo said...

When I have been teaching, my philosophy has been that for the big introductory courses the passing grade is set by reading the borderline exams and being able to say "I don't feel ashamed when this person says that they have been taught by me on this topic" and the maximum grade is set by "I could use these answers as the specification to build something".

For smaller advanced courses the grading is more like "this person has learned something". I feel that at the latter part of the studies it is not that important what you learn exactly, as long as it is relevant to the field and shows that besides knowing things you can analyze, evaluate, discuss, innovate etc. things that differentiate a university from Wikipedia.

In my country students don't pay tuition, and I have a firm belief that the _paying_ customer is the king. So I am working for the society, not for the students. And part of my task is to prevent the useless from graduating. (I don't really feel that way, but I have noticed it makes other teachers happier when I tell them that we are not supposed to graduate anybody just because they happened to get into the university.)


Anonymous said...

Why would a 90% = A standard be magically more rigorous than anything else you could do? When I was an undergrad at MIT - not exactly a place known for easy grading and low standards - a 90% = A standard meant that you were in a class easy enough that at least a few people could reasonably be expected to get a 90%+ average.

I also hate the system where your whole grade is based on a final. One high-stakes test? What kind of way is that to measure anything? What is wrong with having multiple tests over the course of a semester? And what about projects, about lab work - measuring whether you can apply your knowledge to actual problems and not just paper?

I entirely agree with you about the need for challenge. I just think that you're conflating things that are orthogonal to challenge with actual challenge. Some of the most difficult classes I've ever taken have had exams count for very little of the grade, or non-absolute grading scales.

Anonymous said...

Very excited about this post as you've basically described the education system in my home country, so I guess I know where you are from :) I also did my BS there, though in math, and now I'm doing my PhD in the US. Have been reading your posts since you started blogging, but this is my first time commenting. I did like that I was always challenged during my BS, and felt that that worked pretty well for me, but I don't think it was that great for the majority of students. I also feel that there was too much emphasis on being able to reproduce every proof there is at the expense of developing intuition for the subject.

Gears said...

GMP, I studied for my PhD in Europe and I've seen the classes where there's only one exam at the end. You end up with so many students that don't pass the exam in any of the 3 exam periods and then they just retake the course. I'm sorry, but I don't fundamentally think students should have an indefinite amount of time to take a course. The US system definitely has its own problems but it does do a good job of weeding out the really terrible students because they aren't allowed to fail more than 1 or 2 classes.

You are totally right though, what we call an A here is not a 90% in Europe.

GMP said...

Anon at 8:12: University in my "small European country" had English mandatory when I was studying Physics there, though I am quite sure it is different from GMP's "small European country", so there must be at least two.

I am pretty sure that having foreign languages required pre-university and English at the University is quite common throughout Europe, even in big countries (e.g. I know German kids have French and English in high school.)

@ Gears: I'm sorry, but I don't fundamentally think students should have an indefinite amount of time to take a course.

I don't either, honestly. But it is what it is. The fact that students have to start paying after failing some number of times is a bit of disincentive; actually if you flunk a year twice, your schooling is no longer free, you become a paying student and those tuitions are extremely steep...

Money is a factor everywhere. Unfortunately, in the US you may have talented kids from poor families who are unable to afford college entirely; and plenty of unmotivated kids from families who can afford it, and expect to finish just because they pay...

Anon @ 9:08: I entirely agree with you about the need for challenge. I just think that you're conflating things that are orthogonal to challenge with actual challenge.
And what about projects, about lab work - measuring whether you can apply your knowledge to actual problems and not just paper?

True. I don't think there is one recipe for a challenging curriculum and I think one of the best things about US STEM curricula are the projects. And I don't think having midterms (as opposed to one huge final) is necessarily a bad thing.

What I would really like to see among my students is more independence and more ownership over their own success in the class. For instance, nobody would do any homework if it didn't count for a grade, which is a ridiculous waste of resources and time (paying a grader), whereas the homework is there for the students' own benefit. There are great shiny textbooks with lots of problems and no one will bother to do any of them unless they are for (graded!) homework. I guess the thing that grates on me is that students expect that just because they put some effort in, that should count for a grade -- I am not impressed just because you lifted a finger; show me what you know, not just that you tried. Conversely, if effort does not directly result in a grade percentage, it does not get put in. That's what pisses me off big time.

Prodigal: The large class to class variation in ability to master subject material was a huge eye opener in teaching the second time through. I incorrectly figured I could just find the "right" pace and use that every year.

Agreed. It is for this reason alone that I am partial to absolute grade criteria. For instance, last semester I had a really strong class, this semester pretty weak. A mid-range A from this and last semester are like apples and oranges, but there will be a hostile uprising if only 1 or 2 people get an A, so I curve. That does screw over people who did well but happened to be in a good class -- a B from a good class is easily better than an A from a weak one.

Alex, several Anons, Barefoot Doctoral, Clarissa, Timo, Science Prof Mum (I am sorry if I missed anyone!), many thanks for your thoughtful comments!

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous you tried to censor a few weeks ago, when you were looking for advice on to how to get along with natives. I suspect I am from the same Eastern European country, although mine is not as small as we like to believe, and Latin was (is?) taught there in the 8th grade. I find there is a connection between the two threads of discussion, in that, in my country at least, 1. unlike Americans, people like to whine about things that can't be changed, and 2. students learn a lot, but make less money because 3. my fellow countrymen have very low social skills and end up exploited in the West, by those "uneducated" Westerners, who did not read Homer. I am no Serb, but think about Edison and Tesla - who was the genius in science and who was the genius in finance. After 20 years, I am drawn to think that changing from communism was a naive approach, as it was not communism that prevented those Easterners from being happy. (I.e., Tesla lived way before communism.) Twenty years after, they are still the unhappiest nations on Earth.

Again, you have a large charge of negative karma, that projects back to you. Most American college teachers will just live and let live. It is in your blood to think otherwise, but it won't help you. American schools are the best in the world in the eyes of the Americans, so they will stay this way. Concluding my comments from both discussions, I will quote a friend who said about my move to the US: "You emigrate only for the good of children, the first generation is never happy."

pika said...

I am from another small European country than GMP (because we once discussed this and found out that we are not from the same one) and I had the same system at the university, including obligatory English for STEM studies. I think this is rather common practice for almost everywhere in continental Europe, except perhaps France or Italy?

However, I find a lot of what you describe here (independence of students and unwillingness to make any effort on anything, except for what counts for a grade) now, when I have moved to Western Europe. My colleagues from my original country report a similar thing, although perhaps to a lesser extent. So I am wondering if this is perhaps a temporal phenomenon, not a spatial one (yes, I do feel old writing this)?

GMP said...

Anon at 12:37 PM, first of all, this is my personal blog and I am completely within my rights to post or delete whatever I see fit. Do you think that people who moderate comments let everything pass through?

However, that having been said, I don't moderate comments and have so far never deleted any comments that are pertinent to the discussion (occasionally there are some comments with add spam which I nix). I assure you I am not censoring you; it took me three tries to post my own comment above because Blogger is often temperamental with comments, and that's a known and annoying issue. Even this time you ended up in Blogger's spam because you commented as Anonymous, but a copy of your comment did go through to the email so I caught it and have reposted. Also, I have noticed that there is dependence on which browser people use for posting. If you want to reduce the chances of being caught in Blogger Spam, don't comment as Anonymous, although even some trusted commenters with blogspot profiles do occasionally get caught in spam.

Bottom line: after posting make sure the comment actually did post (go back and refresh the blog page). If it didn't go through, try posting again or email me directly.

Now that we've covered this, I will completely agree with this statement of yours "You emigrate only for the good of children, the first generation is never happy."

To wrap this up, I would appreciate it if you refrained from talking about my "negative karma" and what is or isn't in my "blood". You don't really know me, nor I you. I actually suspect we are not from the same country, but even if we were, that doesn't mean much a priori, since I am sure there is more to both you and me than our ethnic identities. So please go easy on the personal attacks and restrict your comments to the post in question.

Pika -- YEY!!! You are back!!! I'm so glad to hear from you again!
I find a lot of what you describe here (independence of students and unwillingness to make any effort on anything, except for what counts for a grade) now, when I have moved to Western Europe. My colleagues from my original country report a similar thing, although perhaps to a lesser extent. So I am wondering if this is perhaps a temporal phenomenon, not a spatial one (yes, I do feel old writing this)?

It may be an effect of the Bologna declaration, I don't know (I've been in the US for well over a decade now so I don't follow the changes in Europe closely). But I know what you mean about feeling ancient... :-)

pika said...

Hi GMP, yes, I am here, but trying to decide if I should start posting again. There's been too much unbloggable stuff at work going on and too much personal stuff, and I just couldn't muster energy to select what's appropriate to blog about and what not. But I have never stopper reading and I do occasionally comment, as you see.

Oh and I don't think it's Bologna, because where I am now, Bologna didn't change anything at the BSc/MSc level. The only change here was extention of the 3-year research only PhD into a 4-year structured PhD (which is modeeled after Nordic countries and basically means 1 year of obligatory courses, which in my opinion is good). But this is all very off topic, so I'd better stop taking over the comments. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, it is not about you as it is about me. I sometimes make great efforts to avoid exploding when, e.g., grad school grades seem unfair. I need to remind myself that people who ended up leaders in their field had less than A in their coursework, and that these social skills, that the America society imbibes their children with, are more important for succeeding in their world. Their country, their rules, whatever pays the rent or mortgage.

The other sin that I confess is talking badly about Eastern Europeans. That, of course, turns against me. Other minorities are smarter are talking up themselves. It is no use to say college is great in Ruritania, if you don't follow up by going to Ruritanian mentors or hiring Ruritanian postdocs.

Anonymous said...

To Pika (at 1:05), and GMP (at 1:18), have you considered the option that it's neither a spatial, nor a temporal effect, but just a changed point of view? As students, you both probably were in the tops of your classes, were very enthusiastic and curious about the material etc'. This led you to higher degrees in science, and eventually to positions in academia. Unless you can say that most of your undergrad classmates had comparable achievements, then you're not the characteristic undergrad student. You looked at the undergraduate studies from the eyes of the science-enthusiast, and now when you teach undergraduates you see the whole 'curve' of students, in which the average is not as talented as you were. So in a way maybe you just compare the average student of here and now, to the top students of then and there.
I wrote it in a very long way, but what I wanted to say is that maybe you can be more optimistic. The good students are still there...

GMP said...

Anon at 12:27 PM, you make a very good point. We faculty sometimes (often?) forget that we were not the typical/average students in our own cohorts.

Massimo said...

Actual e-mail from a while ago:
"Dear Professor, I have just received my grades. I need to come and see you as soon as possible to discuss with you my grade in your course. You may not be aware of this, but I am a graduating senior, and anything that could jeopardize my status must be avoided. The grade that you have given me does not suit my needs."

Alex said...

I'm hoping your response was:

"Dear student, I have just received your email. You are correct that anything that would jeopardize graduation must be avoided. Unfortunately, you performed miserably in my class and hence you did NOT avoid something that would jeopardize that status. Consequently, your status as a graduating senior is indeed jeopardized. The request that you are implying in your email does not suit my academic integrity needs."

EliRabett said...

The problem is that university professors were usually the best in their class from kindergarten on but teach classes with a variety of students, some of whom were never the best in their class and less. Your memories of what you did and what the group you ran with did are atypical

Alex said...


Being on the quarter system, we're still in classes and I'm grading my last midterm right now. I'm from a long line of alcoholics so as a matter of policy I don't drink, but with I'm seeing on this midterm I'm seriously thinking of trying some booze.

Did I mention that all of these kids are taking the course for the second time? I agreed to re-teach the course as a special extra assignment, after failing 1/3 of them last quarter.

I don't completely object to partial credit, but I think that if you can't ever get anything fully correct, not even once, you shouldn't pass. Unfortunately, if I graded in accordance with that philosophy I'd probably fail more students than internal politics would allow.

Massimo said...

Alex, I don't even go down that path, I have nothing to gain, really.
I usually tell the students that once the grade has been submitted, it is out of my control, and that if they feel that my grade does not properly reflect their performance in the course they can always appeal to the faculty of undergraduate studies (FUS) -- and that is the truth.

They sometimes write back to me telling me "but I worked really hard....", to which I can only re-iterate the above.
I tell them that if their complaint is found to have merit, the FUS will contact me, ask me how I came up with the grade, and if they should indeed find that I graded unfairly they will change the grade. It is possible in principle, and I am sure on occasion it does happen.
In 15 years, have never been asked to reconsider (much less change) a student's grade by the FUS. However, clearly a lot of them come from HS with the idea that whining works.

Anonymous said...

I agree. High school & university where I grew up gave me the foundation in math and science I still thank for every day (I'm a prof now). US higher education is really pathetic. Grad school is good here.

I teach to the best kids in my class. I care a lot that they get something more than what I have to give the average student. I have seen consistently that the best students in this country's sad educational system are brilliant, dedicated and able to function at the levels I am used to seeing university students function (both n terms of intellectual ability and maturity). Have you considered arranging your courses such that you can engage more with the best students? Or teach smaller electives? The latter is my choice but the university is discouraging small classes due to budget cuts...

If I had kids I'd have to really worry about where to send them to school. It's one of the first things that come to my mind when I think of kids.

I'm sure some Americans think I am elitist, but they just do not know another system. And if I am critical of education here, it's because this is now my country. I live here, and I do care about its future.

Z said...

I am from US, but studied at one of those universities where standards were really high. I understand about having to meet students where they are, and so on, but I've decided to move completely to foreign style grading (i.e. hard, inflexible) at least in the first two years of the curriculum. This is because I have discovered, to my great confusion, that many of those who are having "academic trouble" really are just trying to fake the professors out: they don't have the book, or do but have never opened it, etc., and then come in with these complaints about how the methodology does not fit their "learning style" and whatnot, and want tutoring and extra explanations. Also, they ask for handouts because they "can't understand the book" and then it turns out that this is because they haven't looked at the book (I do have copies on reserve at the library for the poor, but many are also "too busy" to go to the library and look). So - no pity.

Z said...

@pika - yes, faculty in W. Europe are now complaining that they have the same problems with their students now as we have in US.

@the issue that we were the best students and don't relate to average students - I've heard this again and again but I don't think it washes. I'm totally good at getting through to very diverse crowds - different skill levels, backgrounds, interests, etc.

The most revealing conversation I had this year was with a student I failed. He said: "I failed because I did not study. I have passed all my other courses these three years because they covered material I had seen in high school. We did not have this subject in high school so I had no prior knowledge of it on which to rely."

Dr. Sneetch said...

Tooooo much hand-holding in the US system.

Anonymous said...


I have recently started reading your blog and really like it. I would be really interested in reading about your views of the K-12 system in the U.S compared to your home country.