Initial Publication Date: February 23, 2007

Fixation on grades

Tom Koballa, Kelly Rocca, and Steve Semken
Each semester our university offers several large-enrollment (n ~ 220) sections of a lecture-based introductory physical geology course. Although the course can be counted toward a geological sciences major, it functions mostly as a service course that provides non-major students science credit necessary for graduation. Rightly or wrongly, it is perceived by many students as easier than the equivalent introductory chemistry or physics course. The students enrolled in the course represent a broad cross-section of majors outside of science or mathematics. Some of these, particularly the business majors, are hard-working and serious students, but they view this course only as a means to an end, and are fixated on the highest possible grade as the only meaningful outcome. The problem was exacerbated two years ago when our university instituted plus-minus grading. Where previously students argued and pleaded to raise their course grades from Bs to As, they now fight fiercely to raise an A- to an A or an A to an A+.

The specific dilemma arises when an obviously good student, who is perhaps managing a high B average, visits or e-mails the professor - not to ask for help learning or understanding physical geology, but for advice on how he or she can bring that grade up. How can the professor encourage this student to keep up the good work AND develop more interest in learning for learning's sake?


Alan Boyle, David Mogk, Karl Wirth, Suki Smaglik, Lisa Gilbert, Kathie Owens, and Lew Brown
Affective Causes

  • Uncertainty of grading criteria and learning goals
  • Fear of "failure"
Possible Solutions
  • Post examples of "outstanding" work
  • Discussion or reflective journaling on the behavioral dimensions of grading
  • Have students help define the grading criteria
  • Use VARK (more info) to help them understand their learning style preferences
  • Use alternative grading system that involves revising or additional assessments
  • Avoid "curving" grades at the end of the semester

More Responses

Written at the October 2007 POD workshop

We're answering as the teacher.

This dilemma does not have to be an either/or between grades and learning: we don't have to see student interest in grades as not being interested in learning. Teacher can say, "This is the learning you will have to do to earn the grade you want."

Why do I have to learn this? Do we have a good answer?

  • Be transparent about our goals and reasons for them. Put the objectives of the course in the syllabus, talk about them.
  • Teachers need to learn from the students just as the students need to learn from the teachers. They need to talk with each other, listen to each other.
  • Students don't know they need gen-ed courses, but we know they need them: they need the basic skills. Tie grading system to rubrics that describe what kinds of behaviors you're looking for.
  • Make personal connection with students who come to office hours (large class): interests, your goals for your education. Get the student to talk about what they can get out of this class: long term goals.
  • Write assignments and rubrics that refer to real world outcomes so students will always see the relevance. Include affective outcomes, questions asking students about affective goals and outcomes.
  • But goals and outcomes still need to be assessable, students need to be accountable.
  • If we want students to be focused on learning, we need to make learning a central part of our conversations with them. Ask students to write about their affective outcomes: How did you learn this?
  • Start where your students are.
    • Develop interactive activities (clickers, for example), connect with where they're at.
    • How do you learn in areas you're good at (sports, art . . .)? What can you bring to the learning in this class from that?
    • Learning portfolio: reflect on why you're in this class, what you want to learn, what you have learned, how it fits into the larger picture of your life?
  • Let students hear from other students.
    • Email successful students after the course and ask them to write a little about how they did it, what they learned, what it has done for them. Get this to the new students as part of the new class.
    • Get one or two students to write a little bit about each reading for a course: What made it interesting and/or valuable to you? Give this as an introduction to the reading.
    • Find a email list with current, specialist discussion of the topics in the course, use parts of these discussions to show students that what they're studying is in fact vital, contemporary, important.

Fixation on grades  

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