Saturday, January 3, 2009

Self-Esteem Is Great, But It Doesn't Yield Points

I'm a teaching assistant. I'm going into my final semester of graduate school this spring, and I've never really been bothered by the job that pays my tuition and delivers a decent stipend. However, this past fall, at the end of the semester, I was flabbergasted by a flurry of e-mails I received from students in a class I assisted with (both the class and the students shall of course remain anonymous).

After the final exam grades (and final course grades) were posted for one of the classes I assisted with, I received e-mails from frantic students who suddenly realized they hadn't put as much work into their studies as they should have during the length of the semester. Of course, there was absolutely no way any of the students with low grades earned their points — it had to have been a mistake on my part. Now, mind you, there were students who received an A in the course, so it's not as though the class itself was unreasonably difficult.

The e-mails ranged from students thinking I forgot to add their seven points extra credit (yes, the professor I TA'd for was nice enough to allow almost a full letter grade of extra credit on the final exam) to students who thought they deserved an extra grade up to help their GPA or chances of graduating this year. Some students thought I must have made a mistake in calculating the average of their four exams in the course or that I didn't give them credit for doing their outlines of the chapters (even though I had never failed to do so at any point during the semester with previous chapters). Overall, though, there was one recurring theme in the e-mails — the students felt confident about their answers on the final exam, so therefore the grade posted could not be correct.

Before I give you some examples, let me just say how I still can't wrap my head around this. Since when does self-esteem ever translate into a grade? You can think you're great, and it'll likely help you be less nervous during exams and such, but to get credit — yeah, you actually have to choose the correct answers.

Sorry, I know you (the current generation of undergraduates) have been groomed all your lives to think you are so awesome and that everyone in your generation has always received a trophy (regardless of any actual performance), but that's still not how grades work — at least in classes with professors/TAs who have any sense. Maybe some pinko commie liberal professors out there will try to keep everything zen and reward you for your positive energy and pitiful attempt at critical thinking — but plenty of us out there still want you to actually learn, which means you have to actually study more than a few minutes and do more reading than just skimming the chapters.

Here are quotes from some actual e-mails I received at the end of last semester (along with what I wish I could've responded with):

"I was wonder if my (failing) grade could be rounded to a D- ... I need these hours to graduate in May. I realize that I have no one to blame but myself..."
(Yeah, you're right. You're the only one to blame. Did you bother coming by my office after you failed any of the first three exams to get help? Nope. Then don't expect it now that I'm on winter break.)

"This (grade) surprised me because I did not feel like I was unsure about that many questions."
(If you felt so sure about wrong answers, then do you really think you deserve a higher grade?)

"I thought I did really well on the final exam... is this (grade) not right? Or did I do horribly on the last test? Thank you for any light you can shed!"
(Here's my lantern of light shedding — nope, under further illumination, you still bombed the final exam.)

"I felt confident after the exam, so I'm surprised I scored so low."
(Me too. After I had extra office hours the whole week before the exam to help people out and then factoring in that it was such an easy exam, I couldn't believe you scored that low either.)

"I know this maybe (nope, not may be — probably failed English last semester as well) a minute problem, but I'm really concerned with my grades and low marks. Please let me know if there is something I can do if this is the final grade that I have received."
(Well, I'm concerned as well. There actually is something you can do. Study next time. Come by my office and ask questions. Read the assigned chapters. And yes, this is the final grade you have received.)
I suppose these e-mails surprised me so much because I was a good student as an undergraduate. But if I started to have difficulties in a course, then I asked for help. I went to the instructor before it was too late. And I never even dreamed that I did well on an exam if I didn't. I knew coming away from an exam if I had difficulties choosing answers or not — and I think today's students still know that as well. You can't tell me that all of the erased bubbles traded in for different answers on this multiple-choice exam represent confidence.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe I'm expecting too much. But I don't think I am — the students before you didn't get by on feelings, so why should you be an exception?

Quit expecting life to be handed to you. If you don't take anything away from your college experience, please learn this — those who work hard will be rewarded. Those who do not work hard will experience a feeling for sure — a feeling of regret, but also a feeling of a lesson learned.


Molly said...

Amen! Next step is realizing the workplace isn't fair, and then they'll be all set.

DW said...

SCATHING! So I guess this is what I'm in for this semester - a bunch of whiny undergrads?

JD said...

You heard it here first, Debo.