Saturday, February 20, 2016

If only students would listen to me!

The older I get, the more I am temped to respond with a "doh!" when I read stuff that I have been saying/writing forever.  But then other than the few losers, er, readers here, who cares about what I have to say, right? ;)

In this essay on the importance of innovation, I read the following sentence:
GPA was associated with innovation, but maybe not in the direction you’d think.
Why the "doh!" you wonder, eh ... let me tell you that first before I report on the innovation essay.

For starters, I have this post from December 2012, with the title "Education does not equal pursuing the GPA" in which I quoted a better known person:
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.
You can already see the connection, right?  In the American system (with which I am most familiar) students can follow a number of strategies in order to pursue the GPA.  They can, for instance, avoid the sciences if they think they are not quite strong in that field--even if they are genuinely interested in science.  They can bypass learning a foreign language if that is not their best suit.  Or, even within these, they can avoid mean old professors like sriram who have may earned a reputation for being intense.  Very rational, if the goal is the GPA.  But, the un-challenged mind is not good at creativity and innovation!

As I wrote in this post from March 2013:
Thus, we end up graduating students with high GPAs, making sure that all students being above-average is not merely the case in a fictional Lake Wobegon!  Commencement ceremonies now routinely have magna- and summa-cum-laudes by the dozens--of course, very, very few of them from math and science, and nobody seems to even acknowledge that!  Once, when I participated in the university's deliberations on choosing the outstanding graduates, I made a mistake of commenting that it would not be fair to compare GPAs of students who were in different majors; I was surprised that there was no discussion on that point. Keep ignoring and eventually people like me will go away, I suppose!  It worked--it has been years since I participated in those discussions.
 Have I established by now that I have always been railing against the GPA?  If only students understand that.  No, correct that.  If only faculty understood that and passed along to students that an easy A or an easy C or easy whatever is not going to help them at all.  It is no longer a world in which every college graduate can immediately transition to that successful middle class life.

Back to the innovation essay then:
From our findings, we speculate that this relationship may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their college environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates.
Time spent in these areas might really benefit innovation, but not necessarily GPA.
Additionally, findings elsewhere strongly suggest that innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated – that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others.
We see this work as confirmation of our findings – grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts.
Perhaps, for these reasons, the head of people operations at Google has noted:
GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring.
If only students understood that! :(

And, the essay presents everything that I tell every one of my classes.  Like this:
Classroom practices make a difference: students who indicated that their college assessments encouraged problem-solving and argument development were more likely to want to innovate. Such an assessment frequently involves evaluating students in their abilities to create and answer their own questions; to develop case studies based on readings as opposed to responding to hypothetical cases; and/or to make and defend arguments.
Any student who has been in any of my classes, even if that student slept through, knows well that my courses are structured exactly along those lines.  I emphasize over and over the importance of the ability "to create and answer their own questions."  Of course, I have posted about that too:
Higher education is then about understanding concepts enough to be able to ask questions.  In the format that most of higher education is, students rarely are taught how to ask questions.  And if they never figure this out after four years of university education, then all the access that Google provides will be of zero value.
Despite the "doh!" it does feel good to know that I am not alone in this cosmos ;)

If only students would listen to me though--for their own good!


Anne in Salem said...

Of course your students don't listen to you. They aren't experienced enough to distinguish what will really help them (thinking skills) from what they think will help them (high GPA). You are an adult and know nothing. They know everything. They haven't been knocked around enough by reality to realize how little they really know.

Neil deGrasse Tyson this morning - I like being wrong. That way I learn something. If I'm always right, I learn nothing.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, I don't think I have had any disagreement with Tyson on any view of his that I have come across ...
btw, your remarks on students, "They haven't been knocked around enough by reality to realize how little they really know" applies equally to most faculty too--after all, very few of the faculty have ever been really out in the world outside of academe ... from K-12 to undergrad and then on to graduate school and then to teach, a lot of faculty have never had any real world exposure at all ...

Mike Hoth said...

Wait, what? Did you say something? :)

Truth be told, I found that very line of reasoning very frustrating when I was in high school 10 years ago (that hurt to type) and everybody told me I needed to raise my GPA if I was going to get into a good college. That tune changed very quickly when the 2.9 student got one of Oregon's highest ACT scores that year and I was told "even with your poor GPA you can probably get into a good school". What was the point of all those 'C's in art and literature if science was all I needed??

Now I'm graduating college with a higher GPA, partly because I had to reach college where nobody cared what grade I got to discover that classes weren't about busy work and tests (I'm still terrible at getting busy work done) but about actually learning something. Students aren't taught how to care about learning. They're told to get a 3.8 GPA or higher because that's what people want.

Ramesh said...

Disagree. Sure GPAs aren't everything and I can hardly disagree with the need for a rounded education, which we have been (doh) arguing here before.

But if you do abolish GPAs, give me an alternative and it can probably be proven withing 5 minutes that it is worse. Its a bit like democracy. You can rail against it for all you want but it very difficult to find a better alternative.

The left have always been against testing and scoring. But there is simply no better way of establishing merit and its difficult to argue that we do not need to establish some form of merit ranking. As a recruiter from campus, I have always looked at exam scores as one (never the only , or even the most important, but still one) of the criteria.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Mike, a higher GPA via busy-work is even worse than a lower GPA via real substantive work. And, yes, a good chunk of the high GPA in high schools (and increasingly in colleges too) is via busy-work. In California, a student complained to me about the low grade that she earned in class, in contrast to the high grade in other classes. "I came to class every day. Doesn't that count for something?" she asked with quite some anger. I merely referred her to the syllabus ... but, she is correct in assuming that because that's the nature of education at many places ...

You are so wrong about merit via GPA and test scores, Ramesh. Those measures are screwed up in so many ways that this comment box ain't enough. It has got nothing to do with the political left either. Many of those issues are also the same factors why big time colleges and universities are making SAT optional and not mandatory in college admissions ...

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