True story. I have a faculty colleage who had a formal complaint filed against him by one of his students for "discriminating against me on the basis of my intelligence." (The "discrimination" was giving the student a lower grade than some of his classmates, based on the student's relatively poor performance on various assessments.) When the professor agreed that this was true, the student became even more convinced that he had a case! I think this raises an interesting point because the professor in question was using an "old" way of thinking, while the student was using a more modern construction.
When I was in college back in the '80s, I'm not sure there was such a thing as dropping a class. At least, if there was, I never did, and I never knew anyone who did, so it was neither common practice nor a well advertised option. It just never occured to me that one could do that. The concept of re-taking a class a second or third time to replace the original bad grade was also completely foreign. When I got the occasional grade that I was unhappy with, I owned it, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was there on my transcript for all to see, like a tenacious piece of gum on the bottom of my shoe. Today, most students would just throw away the shoes and buy a new pair. In my job at the university, we care about student success and we want everyone to get a good grade. We go to greater lengths every year to accomplish this goal, giving students more choice, more flexibility, and we intervene more than ever before to work with students who are struggling. All of this is good, I think. But we rarely think about why this is the goal. Not trying to be cynical here, but let's just step back for a minute and ask ourselves: "Isn't the point of grading students, in large part, to identify (optimistically) which ones have learned or, (pragmatically) which ones have successfully completed the assignments, or (cynically) which ones have successfully jumped through the hoops?"
Question: Is our goal to get everyone over the bar, no matter what it takes, or just to provide everyone an equal opportunity to get over the bar and then report the results? The bar I refer to here, of course, is "learning" even if measuring that intangible substance requires cruder instruments like tests and other assessments. If everyone gets unlimited chances to get an A (assuming here that letter grade correlates with learning achieved, so you can substitute A with "learned a lot" and F with "didn't learn a thing") by the process of do-overs, remedial work, tutoring sessions, interventions, etc, then aren't we artificially levelling the playing field? Aren't we de-valuing the A earned with hard work and without extra credit? Would you rather be seen by the doctor who got an A in Biology the first time through without any outside help, or the one who was failing the course and dropped it, took it again and got a D, found an easier instructor and took the course a third time, got a B- and, with a bunch of intervention, tutoring, and extra credit, got the B- rounded up to an A, which replaced the D on the transcript? I suppose that student has perseverance at least! Of course, there's an old joke: What do you call the medical student who graduated at the absolute bottom of his class? Doctor! Hah :-)
Why has it come to this, and how has it come to this, and is this where we want to be, and, if not, how do we get someplace else? I think part of the reason we have arrived at this point is that so many more kids are going to college. College really is the new high school. Michael Wesch, who I admire and mostly agree with, says "College is for everyone." True. Certainly part of the problem, though, is that if everyone is being admitted, more students are arriving unprepared. More students are here not because they want to be, but because they feel compelled to be so that they will be competitive for a job at the other end. This also explains the impatience of many of our students, who don't really love to learn or want to broaden their minds. They "just want a job, ok, and could you please show me the fastest way out of here?" I'm sympathetic. Who wants to spend $40,000 (minimum) for a bachelor's degree that still can't guarantee them a job? And certainly part of the problem is that universities love all the extra money that's coming in, but feel a twinge of guilt when those students who aren't prepared don't succeed. Legislators and administrators, who hear from the howling parents who pay the bills of these mediocre students, put pressure on faculty to do better. By "better," they mean graduate more students faster with better grades and with less funding. If we rule out the easy way (just lowering standards), and take the challenge to "do better" seriously, what's left?
Solutions: 1) Placement. Students should not be admitted to the university if they are not capable of succeeding and students should not be allowed into courses for which they have a high probability of failure. We can pretty accurately predict success with placement tests and we need to do this more. 2) Remediation. If students arrive without the skills but it is possible to teach them those skills, they need bridging courses to get them there. 3) Academic probation and dismissal. Students who are not succeeding, and who are not likely to turn it around, should not be strung along. 4) Monitoring. Technology can be used to monitor student progress so that intervention occurs quickly before students spiral downward. We do all of these things now. We just need to do them more, and better. But the following are not generally addressed at all. 5) Instruction. Most faculty arrive with good content area knowledge but limited teaching experience or knowhow. This can be addressed, but it would take a mind shift for the university to accept that this is a problem. 6) Compensation. Little attention is paid to the quality of instruction. Typically, only instructors with high D/F/W (drop, fail, withdraw) rates get any attention from administration, and this negative attention can easily be avoided by lowering standards and giving lots of As. But standardized tests, with all their flaws, can measure incoming and outgoing students and be used to reward instructors who show the gains. Will this lead to "teaching to the test?" Possibly. But if the test is good, that's not the worst problem to have. 7) Peer review. Research faculty know all about peer review. It's how they get articles published in good journals. But in the classroom, instruction is siloed. Nobody watches anyone else teach or gives them any tips on how to do it better. Sure, there's muttering in the hallways about which instructors are too easy, or just plain bad, but nothing gets done about it. This could be fixed if there was the will to do it, but again, it would require a major shift in faculty culture. 8) Reporting. Something I've never heard mentioned anywhere is that universities really ought to report not just on the grade a student receives, but how long it took the student to get there, and by what path. We have this data. We could put some of the rigor back into transcripts that are packed with As by reporting the information employers want to know: How much external time and effort was expended to get this student over the bar? 9) Tracks. I know it's sacrilege but, while college is for everyone, the liberal studies degree is not. Universities need to rethink degree granting with an eye towards certificates and diplomas that lead directly to a career path. Want to be a salesman, a dental hygeinist or an x-ray technician, or a database programmer, a forest ranger or a cop? Sure, a bachelors would be helpful, but it's probably not something you "need." Want to be an astrophysicist, a historian, or a philosopher? Ok, get the bachelors. But here's something else we should tell incoming freshmen and rarely do. If you get the bachelors, you probably don't need to come back to school when you change careers, as most of us do these days. With the certificates, you probably do.