Should everyone in your class be able to earn an A?

This question was inspired by a very interesting post in Computing Education Research Blog (anonymous, but probably by Mark Guzdial). There are (at least) three ways in which you might be interpreting it:

  1. Is it OK if everyone in the class earns (and receives) an A?
  2. Should the standards in your class be low enough that every student, even the weakest, can get an A by working hard enough?
  3. Should an A represent learning rather than excellence (i.e., the delta from the student’s starting point instead of an objective standard)?

Let me dispose of the first interpretation first. Behind this interpretation is the argument about “grading on the curve,” a practice that has never made the slightest sense to me. Essentially grading on the curve means that your grade, as an individual student, somehow depends on the performance of your classmates. If you happen to get a bunch of excellent students as your classmates, you suffer. If you happen to get a bunch of weak students as your classmates, you do well. What sense does that make? None! Your grade should depend solely on what you have learned, on how well you have shown that you have met the standards of the course; if you have done excellent work and/or learned a lot, you get an A. Period.

And you don’t get it for trying! You get it for demonstrating what you know and what you have done, i.e. your competence. So of course it is OK if everyone gets an A. If it just so happens that I as a teacher get a first-rate group of students, and I teach them really well, and they all do what they are supposed to do and demonstrate excellence, then they all get an A.

Has that every happened to me as a teacher? Yes, a couple of times, but only (I must admit) in exceptionally small classes: three students in one case, five in another, if memory serves.

A harder question is the second one. In almost any class, at least of reasonable (or larger) size, it’s extremely unlikely that 100% of the class will be very capable, will be exceptionally well-prepared, will work hard, and will consistently demonstrate excellence or show that they have learned a lot. Of course the question itself is biased: it suggests that in order for everyone to earn an A, standards must be lowered. Few of us would explicitly favor lowering standards, but we might favor changing standards. And that brings us to the third interpretation.

The author of the post that I linked to in my first paragraph above writes:

Go ahead and bore your best students.

Students with a lot of computing background get an easy “A” in my courses. That’s fine. I expect that. I explicitly tell my students that I teach to the bottom third of the course. I want to move B and C students up into A’s and B’s. I give out a lot of A’s.

I am proposing differentiated instruction. Teach explicitly for the least-prepared students. You will likely have to give up on pushing your top students to greater excellence — that’s the kind of privilege which we have to be willing to surrender. Aim to help every student achieve their potential, and if you have to make a choice, make choices in favor of the students with less privilege and less computing background.

That might work in some schools and colleges, but certainly not in others. How does the author deal with perceived unfairness? How does he deal with all those complaints from the top student? I would like to know.


Categories: Teaching & Learning