Are A’s only for achievement?

Erin O’Connor posted recently about a college that requires its teachers to grade “effort” in the first two years. Commenters quickly voiced their concern about eroding standards in college. Even a couple of Harvard grads pointed out that the best way to get an A there was to suck up to your TF (TF? Teaching Fellow, I guess?), so in a way, even Harvard grades on “effort.”

Seeing the chorus of nodding disdain in the comments section made me wonder: Is “mastery” really the only relevant factor in grading? What benefit is there to rewarding students who don’t “know” the material? Wouldn’t it be better to only give A’s to those who pass the final exam? In fact, shouldn’t the students who already knew the material in the first place get the best grades, even if they never show up to class? If they know the “material” best, they should get the best grades, right?

I guess in the end, it comes down to what the “material” of a class is. I used to teach writing. Many students came into college able to write quite well, and many others started with almost no writing skill whatsoever. When they finished my class, I knew things wouldn’t have changed much. Maybe I should have just given them a test on the first day and been done with it.

Of course, that’s not what I did. I tried to teach the students some systematic ways to improve their writing. Over the course of three months, even the most studious student isn’t going to “improve” much, but if they practice the system I’ve showed them over the next several years, they can improve. Doesn’t it make some sense to grade students on whether or not they’ve tried to apply my system? Isn’t that “effort”?

I’m not saying we should casually pass every dummy who comes through a classroom; I’ve failed plenty of them. I’m just saying that I think college is about more than just “mastery.”

As for those lame Harvard suck-ups, I can only feel sorry for them. Them and their six-figure salaries, their internships with Conan, their Beamers and their Hummers. My tears fall for you, undereducated Harvard grads!

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