One of the issues that is often ignored in the criticism of post-secondary education, Morrison says, is the democratization of access and that since the Second World War, Canadian universities have seen mass participation from women, new immigrants, and lower-income families.
As a result, she says, often in her own classes she deals with students whose parents never went to university but who have been repeatedly told that a university education is a key to success.
“Higher education is supposed to be a tool of social mobility…so that is where we have an ethical obligation to really reach out and teach those students, particularly the ones who are struggling because often they come from less privileged backgrounds.” (Prof. Aimée Morrison on The 180, CBC Radio, March 27, 2016)
You are a dedicated teacher. You want your students to learn. When you take that ethical obligation seriously, and work hard to make it possible for students to learn and do well, it can be frustrating when students seem not to make the effort. It’s as if they don’t even care if they only get a B (or a C) in your class.
Students set priorities, too
While you will have a few students who are a bit like you were as a student, the vast majority will not be. Some students may, of necessity, have to put considerable effort into non-academic pursuits like a part-time job, raising their children, or living on a very low income, just to be able to attend university at all. However, all students have the right to set their own priorities. You cannot assume that their priorities are those that you would set in their place.
Students may choose to prioritize classes in their major subject over electives and ancillary courses. This is not because your subject is not important in general, but because it is less important to them specifically than other subjects are.
Students may choose to prioritize a university experience that includes significant participation in sports, politics, theatre, music, journalism, or something else in addition to the courses required to graduate. Those extra-curricular activities may be more important to their eventual career than the coursework. Even a focus on social activity may be building important networks, or may just be a priority because once they are finished university they will need to buckle down and take life more seriously.
They may not care about getting into grad school. While many employers will require them to have a degree, most of those employers won’t really care what kind of grades they have, or only care about a limited range of subjects.
In other words, their limited efforts in your class are not necessarily a reflection of your teaching ability or the value of the activities you have designed. They don’t indicate a need for you to work harder, redesign the course, or shift your priorities further in the direction of teaching.
Students who get B and C grades are still learning
You have probably been praised all your life for your straight As in ways that related them to your innate ability or intelligence. Although you also recognize that you work very hard, and sometimes resent the way that hard work is invisible, it would not be surprising if one source of your frustration is the gap between the evident intelligence and ability of your students and the grades they are getting in their work. Just because someone is capable of doing A-grade work does not mean they will get A grades. And they may be okay about it. B is not a failing grade. Anything that is not an F indicates that learning has happened.
It may be that you have not been fully operationalizing this fact. You may diligently begin your comments with a positive statement but are you really seeing the positive learning in all the Bs and Cs? There is real value in defining the positive learning embodied in average or C-grade work. Not only will it change how you feel about your teaching and the work your students do, but it might also change the nature of the feedback you give. After all, if a student is happy with their grade and has no desire to improve it, why would they read comments focused on how to improve?
Not all students are struggling
You really do “have an ethical obligation to really reach out and teach those students”. You are already designing your courses thoughtfully and being responsive to the students you actually have. Any extra effort you put in can be focused on those who really are struggling.
Allowing students who want to get a B in your course to get a B is not an ethical failure on your part. It is recognizing their autonomy. Your ethical responsibility is to teach in a way that makes an A accessible for those who want it and who do the work required to get it. You also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that those who are only willing to work hard enough to get a B (or even a C) are still learning something valuable.
When priorities and boundaries feel like cutting corners: Grading Edition This post contains journalling questions about what it means for you to be “thorough and fair” which will help you with much more than grading (the focus of the post).
Priorities or, why being a straight A student isn’t necessarily a good thing An overview of how your own educational experiences may be affecting your ability to manage your workload.
All or nothing thinking might help quiet the gremlins who think that the ideas in this post will just make you an awful teacher who doesn’t care.