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FAQ Grading

Grading, Grieving, and "The Lake Wobegon Syndrome"

Q. I've heard nobody really gets an F in college. Is that true?

A. That's absolutely untrue. F's happen. I've given them, and I've gotten them. One can get an F for procedural reasons such as non-attendance, and one can "earn" F's through consistent underperformance. It all means one thing: time, money, effort, and credit hours wasted.

Q. Well, I've never gotten less than a (insert lowest grade here), so I don't have anything to worry about, do I?

A. Of course you do. I hear this one a dozen times a semester, generally from freshmen and sophomores--"I've never gotten less than a B in my life." Learn this:




Past performance may provide a guide as to what classes one will do poorly in (I myself barely passed my math classes in high school and --surprise!--failed one in college), but I've also had students inform me that though they despised Government/PoliSci classes in the past, the particular material they discovered in college interested them more, challenged them more, and inspired them to higher levels of performance. Put simply, this class is this class, and you've never had this class before, so past performance is of limited use as a predictor.

Q. But I have to get an A in this class because--

A. Whoa! - Hold it right there, Pink Ranger.

You have to have air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink.

You want an A in this class.

These are two very different things - need & want - that you have confused in your expression. You may well have legitimate reasons for strongly desiring an A in this class, or you may simply want to satisfy your vanity. Either is irrelevant to me.

I often wonder why students recite to me these long lists of reasons why they have to get an A, B, whatever. Do they expect me to be moved by some sort of individualized compassion? Do they expect me to say, "Well, my lad, that's pretty much C work there, but since you've got little Tiny Tim to support at home, I'll just wave my magic red pen and make it all better. God bless us, every one." I evaluate your coursework, not your life circumstances.

Let me try to get my point across another way. I've had students weeping, really weeping, not just sniff-sniff-could-I-have-a-tissue, over a B. A B was not acceptable to this one student. I explained that the university I worked for considered a B a respectable grade. She insisted than anything less than an A was not acceptable.

I informed her that that was between her and her mental health professional.

She failed to see the humor in my response, so I asked her about her past performance. Did she always get A's in high school? No, she told me. Did she always get A's in Government in high school? No, she told me. Then what, I asked, made her think that her university Poli Sci classes would be easier?

Another student told me his girlfriend was going to dump him if he got a C. I told him that, first, he didn't need a woman who would treat him like that, and, second, if she insisted on such behavior, she should come talk to me herself and bring a writing sample.

He also failed to see the humor in the situation.

The great Delta blues man Robert Johnson once sang, "If you'd cry about a nickel, you'll die about a dime." If a person gets highly emotional about the little things in life, like PoliSci classes, imagine how that same person will react to more serious life catastrophes?

Q. Well, that's fine for you to say. You're the Professor. How do you expect us to act when we get our work back and find that we're ‘Average' or ‘Below Average' or a ‘Failure?'

A. The short answer is, "With dignity."

The long answer is that many students live their academic lives with the volume turned up very high, so that what are in the long term temporary setbacks seem like the stuff of Italian opera. The most important advice I can give you is don't make it personal. I can help you through this as long as you don't decide to make me the enemy. Once you do, nothing but unpleasantness can follow.

I never looked at work a Professor returned until well after class, for two reasons.

a) First, it helps me keep my emotional distance from the process of grades, reminding me that my self-esteem does not come from red marks on paper.

b) Second, should I have an unpleasant surprise waiting for me, I have no choice but to reread the paper and comments--I can't just walk up to the Prof like she were working the drive-through at Burger King and demand a short, pithy explanation and a side of fries.

By the time I've done this, most of the questions I had have been answered. I may not feel much better, but I also haven't made a public scene. As a way of promoting this kind of thoughtful, objective approach to the grading process, I usually insist upon a 48-hour waiting period before discussing your papers and exams.

Recently, it has occurred to me that the process a student goes through when getting a bad grade is a little like the process of grieving a lost loved one. I am not equating the two events, of course, merely suggesting that the emotional process has some similarities.

In that spirit, I have taken the four stages of grieving as described in current writing on the subject and adapted it to the classroom. I'm serious and kidding about this at the same time. These emotions are real when you feel them, and understanding them only helps you keep from acting out; it doesn't make them go away. Alternatively, it's sometimes pretty gallows-humorous to hear a student talk about the long hours he worked, the long nights spent tending and feeding his term paper, only to have it tragically ripped away from him at such a tender age.

            * Stage 1: SHOCK, DENIAL, AND NUMBNESS

    * Emotions: disbelief, denial, rage, guilt.

    * Behaviors: crying, sighing, loss of appetite, sleep disruption, lack of concentration, inability to make decisions, emotional outburst(s).


"I can't believe I got an F! I worked my tail off on this paper/test!"

"This can't be right!"

            * Stage 2: SEARCHING AND YEARNING

    * Emotions: despair, apathy, depression, anger, guilt, hopelessness, self-doubt, very sensitive to stimuli.

    *Behaviors: restlessness, impatience, poor memory and lack of concentration, social isolation, crying, anger, loss of energy.

"We need to talk about this paper/test right now."

"Where is your office again?"

"I think I need to leave now."

"I'm just stupid. I can't do this."

"What do you mean by ‘Very funny?' Am I a clown to you? Do I amuse you?"


    * Emotions: depression, guilt, disorganization.

    * Behaviors: low compliance with instructions of professors, isolation, a desire to try to live as if nothing has happened, restlessness, irritability.

"Why should I bother? You're just going to give me another F."

"No, I don't want to study with a group. I'm stupid, and I'd just hold them back."

"It happened, now let's ignore it and get on to something else."


    * Emotions: sense of release, no longer obsessed by grade, renewed hope and optimism.

    * Behaviors: renewed energy, stable sleeping and eating habits, relief from physical symptoms, better judgment making, increased interest in goals for the future.

"Okay, I see what I have to do now."

"There are two more papers/exams to go this semester, two more chances to bring this one up."

One more thing before I leave this subject. The first exam or paper in any class almost always causes more hurt feelings than any other. In that honeymoon period, before that first real grade comes in, you and I are pals, fellow scholars, almost equals. We are in a state of grace, so to speak. Then that first grade hits and I'm a jackbooted stormtrooper of a fascist regime bent on crushing the spirit out of all who come under my iron heel.

The temptation is to read the first major grade like tea-leaves, searching for prognostications of doom and hope. Here's a free lesson.

The first set of grades are always pretty bad – not because I am tougher on them – but because you don't know how tough I am yet.

It's a matter of determining how high the bar is, something you can't really do until you run up to it and try to jump over. If you get plowed under on the first paper, roll with it. Use it as the diagnostic it is intended to be. If you do really well, don't get complacent. Often the students who do really well on the first grade ease up a little and take a hit on the second one. Your semester's fate has not been sealed by the first grade, one way or the other.

Q. Okay, one last question. What the heck is "Lake Wobegon Syndrome?"

A. Lake Wobegon is a fictitious community in Minnesota that writer/storyteller Garrison Keillor has used as a setting for his material in books and on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Each story ends with, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

That last phrase is what has caused many educators to apply the name "Lake Wobegon Syndrome" to the problem of grade inflation that has bubbled up from the high schools and junior colleges to burst in the country's universities, a complex issue that you can go to the library and spend days reading about if you're interested.

The short version is that in an era that worships at the altar of self-esteem, many educators have become cautious about practices that ‘label' or ‘send a negative message' to students about their performance. They want all the children to feel they're above average. Many students feel (and far too often carelessly express) that a college course costs far too much for someone to arbitrarily decide their work isn't good enough to count. The "I paid good money for this course, and who are you to tell me I'm going to fail it" argument is dealt with thus: The taxpayers of Texas subsidise your education by some 80%: they pay $80, you pay $20.

That means they decide the minimum standards, not you, mommy, or daddy. The best way I know of to prepare you for the realities of university education is to give you some truths.

   1) A means Excellent. Excellent means you're better at the task in question than most people you will encounter in your life. How many things are you Excellent at? One? Perhaps two? A does not mean Adequate. A does not mean Good Enough. A means Excellent.

   2) C means Average. Average is what most of us are at most things. We don't like to think of ourselves that way, but when we're honest with ourselves, we admit it's true.

A friend of mine told me how they explained this to him at Texas A&M Fish Camp. They gathered the thousands of them together in a field around a bonfire and asked how many in attendance had graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class. This is College Station we're talking about here, so nearly every single hand went up. OK, the next question was how many had been in the top ten in their class? Over half of the hands were still up. And how many had graduated first or second in their class? About a third of the hands were still up.

"Look around," they were told, "This is your new context for comparison. A C is not a bad grade."

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