I know what I did last summer

Like most of us, I don’t always remember where I was or what I was doing exactly a year previously. This time I do. I was in New York City hoping to spend time with friends and family but instead I was responding to students’ emails about their grades. Some might replace the word “email” with “whining,” “complaining,” or “begging.” The majority of my first 36 hours in the states was spent politely but firmly letting students know that I would not be changing their grades. I felt terrible and it was not exactly how I wanted to start off my summer break. It was also pretty much a new experience for me. It was actually one of the worst teaching-related experiences that I’ve ever had. (Considering that I’ve been teaching for a while, I think I have been extremely lucky.)

How did I get myself in such a situation?

It wasn’t exactly a day at the beach.
#ELTpics photo by @cecilialcoelho

It started during my winter vacation, actually. I was asked if I would teach “Business Communication,” which is a course offered by the Department of Business Administration. It was sort of an emergency situation because the scheduled instructor had apparently left suddenly and the other instructors in the department were already extremely busy with classes.  Having little knowledge of what the “Business Communication” course entailed I was more than a bit reluctant. But, being new in the position and trying to make a good impression as a team player I accepted but made sure to say that I was by no means an expert.  Perhaps it really was an emergency and I was selected to teach the course.

The course went relatively well. I mostly enjoyed it and felt the students did too and I think we all learned a lot. It was not ideal for me as the teacher to be just one week ahead of the students in terms of content knowledge but I guess this is not all that uncommon. I invested a lot of time into preparing myself for the lessons. I was pretty comfortable teaching 55 students and asking them to “to do stuff” in class, which was apparently a new experience for many students.  Quite a few students mentioned that they really enjoyed my “non-lecture” or “interactive lecture” style. Overall, it was almost an enjoyable experience.

What made it less than enjoyable? As I mentioned above, the grades were a major issue. I didn’t find out that the course was required to be graded on a curve until the 5th week of a 15 week semester! This was unfortunate. Also, because of the emergency situation I didn’t have time to plan the syllabus in the way that I would have liked and I basically “borrowed” most of it from those who had taught the course previously. I am quite sure that it worked for the other teachers but the syllabus didn’t really work for me, especially when it came to assessments, which leads us back to grading.

The course was designed to have the bulk of the assessments at the end of the course, which means that students’ final grades were heavily based on their end of term projects and presentations. It also meant that they were left up in the air in terms of what their grades might be for a long time. One of my darkest moments as a teacher was actually being happy to note that one group forgot to include a component to the final assignment because it meant that I could be (somewhat) justified in giving them a lower score. I needed to give a certain amount of C’s and this group gave me a “good” reason to give them the lower score I needed to give in order to balance out the curve. This was not lost on me in the moment as I said to myself, “Mike, you know you just did a fist pump when students failed to complete an assignment, right?” I knew it but it seemed to be the only way out. So there I was happy to give C’s to students that really deserved to get B’s (or higher).  It was kind of heartbreaking to get emails from this group mentioning that scholarships might be in jeopardy as result of one simple forgetful mistake on their part (and one that I would have usually been happy to remind them about and wait a day or to get the full assignment).   The sordid tale unceremoniously ended when I was told (well after grading had finished) that international students (of which there were a few in the class) did not count against the curve and that I had a  more A’s and B’s to play with. These small changes gave my some peace of mind but I still feel bad about the one group that simply forgot to include one of the final components and thus received a lower score than they would/could/*should have. The whole thing really left a bad taste in my mouth and made me want to prevent a sequel.

I learned a lot of lessons from this whole experience but the biggest ones were related to transparency in grades, knowing as many of the details as possible when starting a course and making sure to “make a course my own” before teaching. Lingering questions include the role of assessment and how it matches to my teaching beliefs as well as how my teaching beliefs, goals, and expectations match with those of my institution.

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13 comments

  1. mrchrisjwilson

    Thanks for this Mike, I really feel your pain though I’ve luckily never had to give X number of As/Bs/Cs.
    I had a group of young teenagers who are a very high level of English and used many of the language functions they would need to complete a test, However, the subject matter was above what they would normally talk about in school. When it came to the writing section they all did really badly not because of the language, but because of the subject! I felt so sorry for setting that practice paper but I knew they would have to face a similar topic in their actual end exam.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Chris! Sorry for the delay in responding… vacation has been more time consuming than I could have expected. The situation you describe is another painful one! I guess a lot of times such assessments do more harm than good. Thanks again for comments and see you on the internets.

  2. livinglearning

    The grading curve – how often I’ve complained about it. Why, if 80% of the students earn ‘B’s, do I have to give half of them ‘C’s? Why do grades need to be so competitive? When students worry about marks, their focus is not on learning. This is not helpful for anyone involved. I’ve realized this more and more, especially after three semesters of grading university students on a curve. The students’ needs changed from “How can I get the most out of this class?” to “How can I get an ‘A’?” I found students were less willing to take risks and be wrong, for fear that they will damage their grades. As a teacher, I also felt responsible for teaching them how to get an ‘A’ rather than how to learn English. And no matter what I did, the complaints poured in at the end of every semester. 😦 Not an ideal situation for any teacher.

    • mikecorea

      “When students worry about marks, their focus is not on learning.”
      This.

      I have no idea why it needs to be so competitive or whose interests are served from such competition.

      In my current teaching situation I am able to give all A’s if I wish for half my courses. The other half, thankfully are pass/fail.

      It might be just what I want to see or am expecting to see but when freed from the tyranny of the curve I feel that my students are much more hard working and creative.

      As for the complaints…that is a serious bummer. I think that part of this is due to the rumor that teachers are more likely to change grades when pushed/begged. Really terrible and something I’d love to avoid.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. breathyvowel

    I hear you. I’ve had a similar experience over the past few days. The worst was my best class, one F, two low C’s and then the other 16 were separated by 8 points. Everyone put in a great effort, and I felt awful giving Cs to those who deserved Bs, and Bs to those who deserved As. I’ve also struggled with the grading system, which was only fully revealed to us when we came to input the grades. I totally agree with you that full disclosure is the only way, but sometimes the administration doesn’t make it easy.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Alex. Your point about admin not making it easy is a good one. Full disclosure can surely help but it can’t solve all the problems, I guess. I feel your pain about giving C’s to Ss that deserve B’s. Hopefully the fall will be smoother!

  4. Tony Gurr

    Mike,

    Love the way you “put yourself out there” in this way.

    As I read through the post, it reminded me of lots of the LEARNing I did over the years. This thing with “grade curves” really has to “go” – and go forever! Been there, too! Actually, I wish we could al just do away with grades totally (some places have – and it works out just fine) 😉 I never quite got why it is bad for every students to get an “A” – especially when most grades, in fact, mean very little 😉

    As you say, “transparency” is the key – but (and this is why I would say “do not beat yourself up too badly”) this begins at the institutional level – not just the teacher level 😉

    Be good 😉

    T..

    • mikecorea

      Mr. T,

      Thanks so much for the comments (and sorry for the delay in responding). I was beating myself up pretty badly last year but this year I am feeling slightly better about it (and yes, I think the institution needs to be accountable). Well hopefully by sharing LEARNings like these we can help other people avoid the traps.

      Ahh, speaking of traps..I wanted to tell you that I am presenting at JALT on “Avoiding common Pitfalls in observing and feedback” Thanks for the support and insights!

      Take care and be good,
      Mg

  5. @kevchanwow

    Mr. Griffin,

    A grading curve? For real? I had no idea that there was still such a practice going on. And to get trapped in a situation where you have to give students a grade they don’t deserve…that’s tragic for all concerned.
    Still, fist-pumping students missing a deadline is funny in an early Ben Stiller kind of way.

    Kevin

    (and Bubbles says hi)

    • mikecorea

      Sir,

      The grading curve is alive and well in Korean unis…sort of separating the wheat from the chaff or something but not a practice that I’m interesting in participating if I have a choice. I just chalked it up to a lesson learned in a painful way.

      A friend includes something like this on his syllabus:

      The grading curve is a reality here and is something that i must follow…regardless of my beliefs so X% of you will be getting A score and Y% (and so on). If you disagree with this policy, please do not take it up wit me but instead with the relevant university officials. I am happy to help with any correspondence.” I like this a lot.

      Thanks for the comments and sorry for the delay in responding!

      peace you and bubbles,
      mg

  6. Vicky Loras

    Hi Mike!

    I know I’m gonna sound like a broken record, but your blog deserves it – yet another super post : ) Super from the aspect that once again you share your experience with us and you handled it in a great way, considering that you had minimal information about how to go about with the grading and so on. And yet, you dealt with it superbly and had exactly the feelings every conscientious eduactor would have.

    It is a shame that the lessons, which you taught and the students enjoyed immensely, were shadowed momentarily by the whole grading system. As Tony said, grades mean very very little – the point is that you did a fantastic job and I am sure that you will remain in the students’ minds as one of the best educators that has ever taught them. Plus, they learned great things in the process!

    Thanks for another great post.
    Vicky

    • mikecorea

      Still blushing even though your comments came a few weeks ago.. I really appreciate the kind words, Vicky. It is quite a nice push knowing that people are reading and that they are taking something from it. Thank you for the reminder that the students will likely remember the class and not the grading fiasco at the end! I suppose there were lessons learned all around. Thanks again for the comments and the support. I only wish I knew you last year!
      Cheers,
      Mike

      • Vicky Loras

        Hi Mike,

        Now it’s my turn to blush ; ) My pleasure, it is the truth : ) That is the great thing about social media, we get connected to teachers everywhere and the support, help, ideas and conversations going on are super!

        Keep up the super work,
        Vicky

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