Monday, December 10, 2012

Education does not equal pursuing the GPA

Grading is done, and I am all set to begin the process all over again in the new year.

When a new term begins, I know I will remind students in my classes, quite a few times, that education is not about the tests and the eventual letter grade. The goal is not to work towards a letter grade, but to gain an understanding of how to make order out of the chaos that the world is.  It is this understanding that then gets reflected in the assignments and tests, which then determine the letter grade and the GPA.

A goal of making sense of the chaotic world would require students to take courses in as many fields of inquiry as possible--from physics to literature to music.  And, geography, too.

But, that is not how education works.  For all I know, it has rarely worked that way in recent history.

The net result is my worry that we have stopped educating students; here is a related excerpt from a thoughtful essay by Ellen Rupel Shell, who is a professor at Boston U.:
A grade of B- or C in freshman chemistry seems to steer many students away from taking upper level science courses. A low grade in freshman English or anthropology discourages physics majors from taking other than the least demanding selections from the humanities and social sciences. In their understandable effort to maintain the highest possible GPA, undergraduates seem to cut themselves off from experimentation, challenge, and risk taking, the very things that a university education is meant to stimulate.
The pursuit of the perfect GPA is a distraction that leads too many students away from the challenges they should be facing in their undergraduate years. At a time when public understanding of science is critical, fewer and fewer non-majors are taking demanding science courses, due at least in part to their fear of getting penalized for their efforts with a less than stellar grade.
Fully aware of the "rational" decisions that students make, I shall continue to remind them that my courses are not about employment skills and that their focus should not be on "will this be on the test?"  I am equally aware that this will not be final post on this topic either.

But, there is always hope--no, I ain't referring to a student by that name in my class, but the hope that Pandora didn't mess around with :)  Here is a postscript a student had included with the final exam:
As a final note I would like to thank you Dr. K for teaching me more than I would have ever assumed on my own about the working of the world and the people that live in it.  It has opened my  eyes to look past the little bubble that I was in and view everything as a much larger picture now.  For the knowledge and experience I thank you and I also thank you for making the class interesting.  Here's to wishing you a happy holiday and may your months to come be always to your liking.

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