February 25, 2013

Begging For Grades in College


Most of us in the reality-based community agree that education is valuable. We see a secular public education as an antidote, at least in part, to religious indoctrination. So it is understandable that we would support science education and prefer the teaching of evolution in science class to the teaching of creationism. It is also understandable that we would have some interest in the overall quality of our system of public education.

One of the many disturbing trends I've noticed over the last several years is that some students actually beg for grades. I am not talking about a student who attempts to argue about how his or her paper or essay exam was graded. No, I'm talking about the student who acknowledges that his or her performance in a course corresponds to the "F" range of the grading scale and simply asks the teacher for a higher grade because receiving a failing grade is undesirable. Believe it or not, I see quite a bit of this at the college level.

I have to wonder what would possess a student to do this. It never would have occurred to me to ask a professor - or any instructor - for a higher grade just because I wanted it. I do not remember any of my peers in college, including the ones who ended up flunking out, trying anything like this. I think they would have been far too embarrassed to do so. I suppose the sort of student who does this figures that they do not have anything to lose. They are going to fail the course anyway, and even if their begging is successful only 1% of the time, there is still some chance of success.

I suspect that another factor involves the short-term focus some students have. They might not think through the implications of a failing grade until it is too late and they are confronted with losing a scholarship, not graduating on time, or some other adverse outcome. They wait until the course is over and then want to know, "Is there anything I can do about my grade?"

It may strike some of you that my choice of the word "begging" is overly harsh or misleading in some way. I have thought about that, and I can find no other word that comes close to fitting some of the requests. I'm not going to share some of the emails I have received from students, but I will say that some of these requests use the word "beg" and even "pray." Some even involve repeated use of "please," as in "Can I please please please have a C?" You get the idea. Begging strikes me as an apt description.

This sort of begging is not a new phenomenon, but it seems like it has become more common over the past 5 years or so. It used to be unusual enough that it surprised me when it would happen. I've since come to expect it to happen a few times in every course I teach. This makes me wonder what is happening at home or at the high school level.

Some of my colleagues are quick to point out that students would not do it if it wasn't successful at least occasionally. As difficult as it is to imagine a teacher giving into this sort of thing, I suppose some may do so. Others point to our "culture of entitlement" where we raise our children to believe that effort should be rewarded at the same level as actual achievement. I have to admit, I've heard the "But I studied for several hours for that exam" argument on multiple occasions.

It is really unfortunate to see this sort of thing happening in our educational system. It makes me wonder what will happen to our ability to compete globally. In the meantime, I'm just left wondering what - if anything - I can do to reduce the frequency with which it happens.