If I Promise to Try Real Hard, Can I Be A Brain Surgeon?


I'm not good at chemistry. And biology bores me, so I don't really do well at the memorization. But if I try -- you know, do the homework all the time and go to class -- can I still be brain surgeon? No? Then what's the use of the grading policy at Benedict?

That policy, known as Success Equals Effort, or SEE, requires faculty to take into account the efforts of freshman and sophomores in calculating grades.

So, I'm guessing this isn't the same thing as having "class participation" as part of the grade? Merely trying hard is enough?

But Stacey Jones, dean of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments, said it is imperative that faculty and students get on board to make the SEE effort work.

“It’s a transition; it’s a paradigm shift,” Jones said. “They (the students) are coming from high school, and it’s a whole different way of thinking. We’re hoping that the connection between excellence and effort correlate with the connection between excellence and knowledge.”

I'm all for the notion that effort is correlated with excellence (as measured by being competent in a subject). But if it were working for some students, wouldn't we see their grades going up anyway? Effort that doesn't result in higher grades means that the marginal return on, say, an hour of studying is relatively low compared to seeing grades go up for an hour of studying in another class. It's essentially wasted effort since it produces little to no return. Why should wasted effort be rewarded as a meritorious thing in its own right? If the returns to studying are low in one subject, the student should find another subject where the returns are higher. If no such subject can be found, perhaps the student isn't ready for college.

Rewarding effort as useful absent an improvement in grades might be a nice sounding idea, but it essentially masks the problem by reducing the amount of information transmitted by low grades. This information is useful to both students and those who need to objectively evaluate grades. A potential result: Your B+, achieved through little work since you happen to be an ace physicist, is to an outside observer the same as my B+ achieved through hard work though I scored far lower on practical tests. Taken further: your physics degree will appear the same as mine, despite your being far more adept and appropriately trained. Which person would you rather have continuing on to take more physics classes, or to have work at your lab? The student isn't able to fairly judge their progress, and evaluators aren't able to discern differences of ability.

The love of a subject is not reason to excuse low abilities. If effort is so closely correlated with "excellence", and if a student is truly interested in a subject then the improved performance should be enough of a reward to motivate the effort. I'm sitting through math classes I avoided earlier in life not because I think the professor will say "Hey, that guy's worked hard, so lets give him an A for effort and weight that in with his test scores", but because I think this time my effort will result in a facility with tools that I can then apply to something I'd love to do. Getting higher grades without a commensurate growth in functional ability would be a disservice to me, as I think it is to the Benedict students.


There's at least one additional argument against SEE as well: awarding SEE credit is entirely arbirtrary on the instructor's part. Hard to imagine a policy more likely to undermine the integrity of the academic process, raise suspicions of unequal treatment on the part of students, and put the instructor in a potentially compromising position.

One wonders if the opposite effect would be more appropriate. If Mary, with no effort at all can score a B+ in Physics, and I have to bust my butt to achieve the same objective test score, then clearly Mary has a much higher propensity for physics than I. When the heat is turned up and we move on to more difficult classes I will be out of my depth, whereas Mary will have some slack in her capacity to do the hard stuff.

If grades are to measure you ability and capacity in a certain field then extra effort by the student should in fact devalue the grade acheived, not enhance the value.

Perhaps the solution might be to grade academic subjects objectively, and also grade as a separate subject effort. "I got a C in Physics, but an A+ in effort." Since effort is a valuable asset to measure independently for people who care about your grades (employers, parents, grant managers etc.)


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This page contains a single entry by published on February 2, 2005 11:03 AM.

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