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:
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.