Grading: Are Students Who Work Hard Entitled to an A? What Do You Think?

While I am skeptical of articles that claim some kind of nationwide trend based on a few pieces of anecdotal evidence, the New York Times has an interesting article this morning about student perception of appropriate grades for the work they complete. According to the Times and university professors, students think they deserve excellent grades just for completing the work and attending class:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

Few teachers I know enjoy grading, and not just because some are awake at 3:15 in the morning grading papers. A lot of us aren’t sure that they motivate learning and that they can become more important than authentic education and motivation. That being said, I find that grades can be a powerful tool to generate some initial self-reflection; when I give out essays with Ds and Fs at the start of the year, it certainly gets the attention of my students.

In the end, though, do grades matter? Given that they may depend as much on the teacher as they do the student? Given that they are an imperfect effort to impose numerical rationality on something that probably can’t be quantified? I’m not sure, but I do know I don’t agree with this student:

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

I’d be interested to hear what others—students, former students, parents, teachers—have to say about how grading impacted their education. Should effort matter as much as ability? What’s your experience?