I had just passed back their graded exams. As the students were filing out of the room, one stayed behind, clutching her paper and looking sheepish.
“Yes, Ashley, what is it?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “I’m used to getting a better grade. I’m an A student.” She tipped her paper toward me so that I could see the grade: a C.
“Is there a specific question on the test you’re concerned about?” I asked. “If there’s an item I marked wrong, and you feel that it’s right, we can certainly talk about that.”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m just used to getting a better grade.” And she looked at me expectantly.
“Did you study?”
“Oh yes! I studied really hard. And I expected a better grade.” And another look of anticipation.
I asked her to sit down. “I sympathize with your feelings,” I said. “Sometimes I’ve worked hard on something, and not gotten the grade I wanted. But you see, the grade is based on performance, not potential or effort. There’s no way for me to measure those things; only whether you put the right answers down on the paper.”
“Listen,” I said, “there’s a grade dispute procedure in the syllabus. If you can identify something that I marked wrong, and you feel that I did so in error, you can make a case for that. I’ll consider your position. But I can’t increase your grade just because you’re dissatisfied with it.”
She said she understood, and left the room looking disappointed. I know we complain a lot about grade-grubbing students, but she got me thinking, pondering my own words. I can’t measure potential or effort, only what you put down on the paper. I thought about how my professors and advisors might apply those words to me.
I’ve got a great dissertation - but some of it is still in my head. I’ve got to get it down on paper and show it to others; they can’t evaluate my ideas if they’re just knocking around in my brain. And they can’t award me a Ph.D. just for being an intelligent student and pleasant colleague - I’ve got to put the proof down in writing. We could argue the merits of this system - measuring performance instead of effort or potential, judging us according to our productivity. But this is what we’ve all signed up for.
It often happens that I learn from my students, and this was one of those times. I really can relate to her feelings; I’m an A student too. But the only way to earn that A is to demonstrate what I know - so I’d better get back to work.