An A for Effort

I did a thing this week that I hate to do more than almost anything else when it comes to my education. I did a thing that makes me cringe. I disputed a grade.

Grades Venn
I got back a homework assignment and, despite having all the answers correct and the solutions written out carefully and neatly, a (in my opinion) disproportionate number of points were deducted on several problems for what amounted to a lack of detail in my solutions. I do all my homework in a spiral-bound notebook and then I transfer each solution onto loose-leaf notebook paper, in pencil, painstakingly and neatly, to turn in. I spend hours on my homework. I take pride in it. So to have points deducted for not doing something that I take pains to do didn’t sit well with me.

I think it’s appropriate to dispute a grade if you truly feel there has been an error or if the grading has been obviously unfair. The reason I hate to do it, and rarely do it, however, is because I have watched so many other students do it. It’s painful to watch. It’s whiny. It’s entitled. It’s a result of the “everybody gets a prize” culture that we’ve created. It’s the attitude that everyone deserves an A because they paid their tuition and an A is what they’re owed.

And so professors give in. Their reputation is on the line. If too many students do poorly, it reflects badly on the department, on the program. Every department is in competition for the meager cash that exists now that state education funding has been cut back to almost nothing. Students and their parents are paying skyrocketing tuition costs in exchange for degrees that no longer guarantee jobs. Everyone is questioning the value of a traditional education. And so students think, at the very least, they deserve an A for whatever effort they’ve put forth, even when that effort is exceedingly small.

Everyone gets a ribbon! And a fancy one at that.

Everyone gets a ribbon! And a fancy one at that.

So I rarely dispute a grade. I work really hard, I learn the material, and I usually do well as a result. If anything, I usually feel the grading is too lenient. I am routinely shocked by how few points are deducted if I make an error. I want to feel I’ve earned my A. I don’t want the guy two rows over who only shows up to class half the time and comes to the test hungover to get the same grade as me. That just doesn’t feel right. But sometimes that happens.

And when it does, it makes me think. What is an education worth? How does anyone truly measure what a student has learned if grades don’t accurately reflect it? Grade inflation is so rampant in high schools that students have to run themselves ragged participating in sports, extra-curricular activities and volunteer work just to get into college because having straight A’s no longer means anything. Everyone has straight A’s. You have to prove your worth in other ways. Is that seeping into college as well?

I would hope that in a field like engineering, grades still mean a least a little more than they might in, say, a liberal arts major, but they don’t mean everything. I’ve been advised to do multiple internships, join student engineering teams and participate in engineering fraternities in order to bolster my resume. And while those things are great and are probably valuable for any student and for that student’s future employer, they make it that much more difficult for someone like me to feel adequate.

I work full time. My full time job provides me with a tuition break, health insurance, dental insurance, and a retirement match (which, at 32, I can’t afford to neglect), to say nothing of rent and groceries. While I would love to quit my job so I could take classes full time and do a different internship every summer, that’s really not very realistic. I can’t fall back onto my parents’ health insurance. I can’t pack up my apartment into six boxes and move them into my parents basement while I take a summer internship halfway across the country. I might be able to take a three-month leave from my job to do one internship locally. But that’s going to need to be good enough. I need my hard work and my high grades to mean something. And they do, but how will anyone else know that?

So even though it probably does nothing to stem the larger problem, I try not to dispute grades. If I do badly, it’s usually because I deserved to do badly, and I leave it at that. I resolve to do better next time, to work harder, to seek more help.

As it turns out, I got some of my points back on my homework assignment. A number of students complained and as a result our professor emailed a much more detailed list of homework requirements so that we can better meet expectations on future assignments. That was appreciated and helpful.

I had already started writing out the solutions for next week’s assignment when I got his list of requirements. I went back through the solutions I’d started and realized, to my dismay, that they were really not as clear and detailed as I thought they were. I made a number of corrections and additions and I think my new solutions are much clearer. I probably deserved the original grade on my last assignment.

What does this teach me? I’m not sure. I suppose it teaches me to be even more of a perfectionist than I already am (not really a positive development). But I suppose it should teach me that what will make me successful in my future career is not the act of doing everything perfectly, but the act of caring about the detail, about the clarity, and about the communication of the solution. Being an engineer isn’t about being a robot, but about solving real problems for real people. If I can do that, then I’ve proven my worth is about more than just good grades. And that would be a success.

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5 thoughts on “An A for Effort

  1. I also might submit that there was learning simply in the ‘disputation’ (my word) and that the entire process – the stating of clearer expectations and your introspection of your own work – benefitted from your entering into the “overlap of the circles.”

    • Yes, I think I agree. I probably wouldn’t have realized how much better my solutions could be if I hadn’t been given the reason to go back over them and look at them critically.

  2. “I would hope that in a field like engineering, grades still mean a least a little more than they might in, say, a liberal arts major…”

    A liberal arts major myself, I read this and thought, “Hey, wait a min–!” before sighing and grumbling about you being right.

    • Hah! I was an art major once, so I can relate to your “Hey, wait a minute!” But after seeing how subjective even engineering grades sometimes are, the liberal arts grading seems just that much less predictable.

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