Rewarding Mediocrity


This week was the dreaded "final exam" week.  I didn't have much time to dedicate to blogging because I had to proctor final exams, correct them, and then issue final grades.  I also had to clean out my old office this semester because I will be working for another college...a decision that still frightens me a little because while the pay is better, this new part-time position brings a lot of uncertainty.  (I see another post in my future.)

Teaching was a challenge for me this semester.  I had a group of eighteen-year olds that, in a lot of ways, fit the stereotype we have of teenagers these days--you know...entitled, unmotivated, self-absorbed, and totally dispassionate.  Dr. Phil has been talking about this "new entitled generation" for quite some time, but it didn't really hit me until I had them in my class. 

This semester, my goal was to instill enthusiasm and passion.  I let my students, for the most part, pick their own topics in the hope that they would find something to get "fired-up" about.  I wanted them to question the government, the media, pop-culture, and their ethics.  I wanted them to think critically about the world around them and think of possible solutions to problems.  I wanted them to learn that nothing really great in life is ever accomplished without passion and motivation.  And yet...I feel like I failed miserably.

As I started tallying up the grades for my students, one truth became apparently clear--I was rewarding mediocrity.  You see, none of my students "pushed the bar" this semester.  Yes, I did have students that completed all their assignments, but none of my students showed a real interest in the class.  While I gave them pointers on how to be good speakers, how to create successful PowerPoint presentations, and even how to research information and cite their sources, none of my students pushed themselves to learn something new.  They also didn't push themselves to do a lot of research or to try to memorize their speeches.  At best, I was giving "A's" and "B's" to students who really only prepared their speeches the night before class.  In reality, they probably deserved "C's", but since every class needs to have a spectrum of grades ranging from A to F, I had to "reward" the students who at least did the assignment.

The phenomena I'm talking about is "grade inflation."  Every college I know these days have debates about it, and yet, none have come up with a real solution to remedy the problem.  My guess is that the "grade inflation" starts in earlier grades like elementary school and then moves on from there.  When students reach college, they have learned that they can get "A's" and "B's" by doing the bear minimum.   Therefore, they set the bar low for themselves and do very little.  

In the past (even as recent as ten years ago when I first started teaching), these students who did the bear minimum received "C's."  "A's" were only reserved for the students who went above and beyond the expectations of the class.  They were given to students who showed outstanding achievement by demonstrating their very best efforts.

Now I sit in front of my list of grades and get discouraged with the system.  In reality, only one or two of my students put sincere effort into my class this semester.  Most may have done some work, but I question whether the work they did really helped them learn anything new.  Will they be leaving my class with a new skill in persuasive speaking and reasoning that they didn't have before?  Probably not.  

All classes must have their ranges of "A's" to "F's".  If I don't issue any "A's" or only one "A", my teaching gets criticized, and I become a  prime target for grade disputes.  Since colleges are now a "business," they want to keep their students (customers) happy.  Even losing one student can cost the college anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000, and since they want to keep this money in their pocket, they will sometimes "encourage" the professor to reissue a grade or to give the student "another chance."   Plus, if we receive too many bad evaluations for being "too hard" on students or have too many grade disputes, our employment is in jeopardy.

Our system has created this mess.  In a lot of ways, we are a culture of complainers.  If we don't get things our way, we threaten people or places with lawsuits or negative publicity.  Parents sometimes do this to see their children do better in school  or extra-curricular activities.  After all, they want to see their child get an "A"  or receive a "trophy" too, even if it isn't deserved.  In fact, I had one student this semester that was completely reliant on his mom.  If he was going to be absent, she called in for him, and if he needed an extension on his assignment, she'd ask me to let him do it a week later.  Yes, she wanted her child, in essence, to be rewarded even though he showed no responsibility or initiative of his own.

Education is a tricky business.  Grades don't have the same meaning that they once did, and while the number of "A's" are going up, the quality of learning is depreciating.  Yes, at times, there are teachers/professors that are unfair, and for them, it's appropriate to question their methods for teaching and evaluating their students' performance.  Still, a number of us are trying to do our best by teaching the skills that are needed in today's society, and yet, sadly, we are bullied into rewarding mediocrity... 


  1. It's funny, I was just thinking about this topic this week. We had our parent/teacher conference and received our daughter's report card this week. My daughter's first grade teacher is really tough. The grading policy at her school is also really tough. They do not hand out the top grade unless the student is performing pretty much ABOVE grade level. In one area, my daughter received perfect grades on her tests only to get the more common second level grade. When I questioned the teacher about me, she told me that that level of work is at grade level, hence the B equivalent grade.

    Part of me was a bit disappointed, but for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised by this. As a society, we are raising our kids to feel entitled. Oh, your child showed up for soccer? Well, here's a huge trophy! It's ridiculous and it's not teaching the appropriate values to our kids.

    So, I'm glad the grading is tough! When the teacher told me the areas my daughter was exceptional in and that she'd qualify for gifted programs, I knew my daughter really earned that praise!

  2. Wow, sorry for the struggle with finding motivation for these kids...I know that being a former elementary and junior high teacher, these students lacked motivation A LOT, so I'm sure at the college level, its the same. Sad but true. good luck making an effort to change the way those grades are looked at in the future, you are SO right that they don't have the same power they once did...

  3. I saw the title of your post in my blog roll and just knew it was about your class. The posts about your students are always incredibly well written, insightful, informative...but so depressing. You describe such a sad state of affairs. Sad and sickening. And I see these kids everywhere I look. Ugh. I cannot believe a mom was calling you about her college aged kid. That is insane! Can you imagine..."Yeah, my kid has a hangover and doesn't feel well. So I wanted to let you know that I'll be spoon feeding him gatorade and rubbing his feet all day. Hopefully he'll make it to class next week...we'll see what happens."

    I think you're absolutely right about grade inflation beginning early on. This isn't exactly the same thing, but from high school through college I noticed the athletes getting crazy special treatment. Failing grades suddenly turned into passing after the teacher was spoken to by a coach...countless second chances, etc. It always infuriated me. Well, in the end, the kids will be the ones to suffer. I guess.

    Hopefully the cream will rise to the top and the people who work hard will be rewarded. But honestly, the success of the cast of Jersey Shore doesn't give me much hope.

    Happy holiday from Debbie Downer Amber :)

  4. It's truly sad to see our state of education, but it's not just our education system. It's everything for this new generation. There's no hard work going into anything - they just expect that they will get everything they want, immediately, with no strings attached. Parents are so concerned with their feelings and nurturing their confidence that they forget to be parents and teach skills in expectation management, ethics, and delayed gratification. Teachers have the unlucky job of receiving these kids into a system which has been bent for them.

  5. Thanks so much for your comments! I have hope that parents now-a-days will be extra vigilent about teaching their children to have a strong work ethic. In the end, this is the only way we can teach children to take pride in what they do...

  6. The system seems to have created such a debacle that I'm sure as an educator it's frustrating. As a tax payer its incredibly frustrating and now as a parent is frightening. Thank you for helping make a difference in both the entitled and grateful.

  7. I am not too far removed from college (English major! Wooo!!) so I do remember what it was like. I get nostalgia in a big way. And I completely agree with you. More students bitch and complain about how a certain professor is "too hard" or put in the absolute minimum of time and effort into an assignment. I'm guilty of doing that a time or two, but I never expected to get anything but what I deserved for shoddy workmanship, which is the difference. I totally feel for your frustration and hope that your new batch of students is more motivated. It's a difficult task when they have no dedication beyond a letter grade. Great post! And thanks for the visit and follow. Following you back. Enjoying your blog!


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