understanding grades and methods

In many respects, grades are an unfortunate part of the learning process. Many students,
especially those new to college, do not have a clear understanding of what it takes to be
successful in the college environment. For other students, the focus is too easily shifted from
learning to grades. For the college teacher, assigning grades at the end of the semester can be
simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. 

When a student has worked hard, challenged himself
or herself, and shown evidence of deep learning, it is very gratifying to assign a high mark. In
contrast, it is very trying to assign a low mark to a student who has great potential, but who has
demonstrated surface learning or has made little effort to improve. Although a single letter grade
does not adequately represent the sum total of a person’s potential or abilities, it is a widely
accepted method for summarizing a student’s performance in a particular course. Overall
performance in a course is undoubtedly a function of many things, but can be distilled down to a
student’s native ability and motivation (as indicated by attendance, preparation, attitude,
curiosity, effort, and retention). Although greater effort (working hard) in a course can result in
improved results (learning), this is not necessarily always the case. It is important not to confuse
these two very important, but different, dimensions of performance. Effort alone does not
guarantee success. Conversely, the most outstanding student in a classroom is not necessarily
the individual with the greatest native ability. Look over the following table (Table 6)

, modified
from well-known papers in The Teaching Professor by J.H. Williams (1993) and Solomon and
Nellen (1996) to evaluate your own behavior in the classroom. In which aspects do you excel?
Which ones need improvement? Remember, time-on-task is the single variable most highly
correlated with learning. If learning is not your highest priority, then you should not expect to
Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn 23
receive an “A” and you should work toward a more attainable grade. Lastly, remember that not
every professor has the same standards for grading and that it is your responsibility to know
which standards are in effect.
Finally, it may not be obvious to you why there is so much emphasis on writing in college. 

Writing provides an opportunity to explore old ideas and find new ones. Simply stated, what you
write, and how you write it, is evidence of your ability to think critically (Paul 2004). When you
write vague sentences, or fail to provide detailed examples to make a point, it indicates that your
understanding of a topic lacks clarity or detail. When you fail to provide a detailed logical
analysis in your writing, it suggests that your conceptual understanding may be weak. “A” level
work requires a clear demonstration of the elements of critical thinking, including evidence of a
mind that has “taken charge of its own ideas, assumptions, inferences, and intellectual processes”
(Paul 2004). To the extent that a student needs assessment by another individual, they are not
thinking critically or engaging their metacognitive skills. As a student you should strive to be an
independent, self-directing learner.
Remember, the choices that you make in college may result in habits that affect the rest of
your life. Skip Downing, author of On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and
in Life (2005) has provided a list of characteristics of successful and struggling students (Table
7). Look over this list. How do you measure up? Are you where you want to be, or would you
like to make some changes? The choice is yours and we’re here to help

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