How Do I Get an “A” in Your Class?… Or How Failing Made Me a Better Teacher

It’s happened again. I have been accused of not teaching, by a student. It’s not that this particular student blatantly raised a voice during class and shouted, “You never teach us anything,” but it started with a couple of innocent statements.

“I think it would be better if you gave us notes.”

“Can you go over an example of an ‘A’ questions?”

“How do I get an ‘A’ in your class?”

The problem I have with all of these statements, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding them, is that they come from a mindset that I believe has infected education on far too many levels. Students come into my class operating on a training, recall, example laden mentality. The expectation from these students is that I will present the material as it will appear on assessments, and it is their responsibility to memorize the material presented, and the material will be identical. There is a subset of students, parents, administrators, and even the general public, that believe this is what education should be.

How does that happen? How did we get to a place in society where it is thought that education is the same as memorizing tasks?

Schools, both high schools and colleges, are under tremendous pressure to ensure students graduate. Graduation rates affect funding levels for schools. The higher percentage of students that pass the more money a school receives, or is less likely to lose.  If the graduation rate falls at my school, it will be endanger of losing funding. In addition, standards for graduation keep increasing, creating a perfect milieu for grade inflation.

Ahhh….grade inflation. That concept is not new. It has been the bane of education since the existence of grades. As long as there has been no standard definition of an “A” people have blamed others for inflating grades. But the idea of an inflated grade wouldn’t exist without someone finding out that the student who had that inflated “A” really wasn’t that smart. For that, we can blame employers, admissions departments, scholarships, and even teachers.

When people in authority use generic measurements, a GPA or transcript for example, as a gauge of intelligence it invites sympathetic teachers to inflate grades. We are to the point in society that if I were to truly hold a student accountable for mastery of a concept such as parabolic functions, it could represent that student’s ability to obtain a low skill job in the service industry. To me, that represents my incentive to make my class as easy as possible to pass, because I don’t want to be the person who tries to say with a straight face, “I’m sorry, but you can’t have a job bagging groceries because you cannot complete the square to find the vertex of a quadratic function in standard form.” (This is not meant to be an insult to grocery baggers of which I really appreciate the good ones. The statement was  there to try and point out the futility of connecting arbitrary education with work preparedness.) Every employer that has said a job applicant has had to have a high school diploma, without a thought as to what that student was subjected to learning, using a high school diploma as a rudimentary haphazard sorting device, causes an increase of grade inflation. It is because employers like that exist that my class is easy to pass.

But it’s not just low skill service jobs that use GPAs and transcripts as lazy sorting devices. Colleges and scholarships do so as well. Maybe they look beyond just obtaining a high school diploma and focus on certain classes and certain grades, but the concept is the same. When I have a student who is very capable of being a nurse, but they are encouraged to take Pre-Calculus because that is what is required of the college’s nursing program, I am incentivezed to make getting a decent grade relatively easy. I wonder how many doctors, not to mention nurses, could tell me what a conic section is, let alone describe the relationship of the sum and difference between foci that generates the different conic sections. The college won’t really care what she knows in regards to Pre-Calculus, only that the class shows up on her transcript with a certain grade by it.  As long as I have her prepared to take her one math class in college from the professor who is under pressure to make sure she passes, I feel like I have done my job. These students know the game of gatekeeping that is goes on at the different levels of education. It is why I try to make it relatively easy to get a “B” in my class. It might take dedication and work, but it is achievable by nearly all students who have a mediocre grasp of concepts learned in previous classes.

I make sure that “B” is achievable because anything less than a “B” must be justified. No one wants their child be the student that struggles, but I cannot assign a grade below a “B” without being able to document the behavior the student demonstrated that led to the low grade. I have to document how I tried to correct those behaviors. I have document all the interventions I tried for the student. I have never, NEVER, been asked to justify why a student has an “A.” By making a “B” relatively easy, I can defend my low grades with simple work ethic defenses and lack of prerequisite knowledge statements. (Those are legitimate issues, it just makes the administration of my class easier to have most students around a “B”.)

So far I have mentioned the money involved in education through the application of graduation rates  impacting a schools’ funding. I have also discussed the societal pressures to obtain a high school diploma or take certain class only for the label, without any regard to the content of those classes. These lead me, and probably other teachers, to ultimately reduce the rigor of their classes.

However, there is one other influence that shapes education into memorization. In my education classes about assessment in college we covered the concept of test validity. We were taught that for a test to be valid the material on the test must be explicitly taught. If the test material is not explicitly taught then the test is invalid. This was then interpreted as meaning teach what is on the test, though never said in that manner.  In class we provide students with every example they might see, with all the information that might be around, we provide study guides and review sheets, we play review games, and then we give a test. When students do well we congratulate ourselves and think our students are all above average. When they do poorly we point out all the places in the study guides or homework examples where the information was located. Even though we so often trumpet the mantra of, “don’t teach to the test,” we don’t listen to ourselves.

This is what my education was. When I entered college back in the fall of 2001, I had every indication that I should be successful. I had tested into the gifted program in elementary, I was accelerated in math in junior high, I had never placed below the 93rd percentile on any standardized test (Iowa Basics, ASVAB, PSAT, ACT), I took AP classes in high school for weighted grades and finished with above a 4.0 GPA. I finished my freshman year of college with nearly a 4.0 GPA, with a little struggle in the spring semester that I simply attributed to college being more difficult.

My sophomore year it all fell apart. I was failing classes. I dropped classes in a desperate attempt to salvage my grades in the remaining classes. I let the funk infect every aspect of my life. It ruined friendships and jobs. To this day I am not comfortable talking about my failure. Sure, I can mention it happened, but mentioning that failing happened is very different that coming to grips with the reality that my self-identity was a complete and utter lie. I visited depths of personal hell that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. (Here is a link that describes it better than I can.)

I can remember sitting in classes, trying to take a test, and feeling like it was gibberish on the page in front of me. It’s the first time I can ever recall thinking, “He never taught this!”

Slowly, I started to develop the work ethic necessary to pass during the second semester of my sophomore year, but it was still an emotional period of my life. I still remember one of my moments of clarity during my embitterment. I went to pick up a quiz from our Quantitative Analysis professor. I had worked so hard for this quiz, I had put in so much effort trying to understand the examples and making sure the extra homework problems were correct and figuring out ways to evaluate them myself, but I still lacked confidence and was nervous. I got the quiz back and was ecstatic that it was a good grade. As I examined the work, I noticed one of the problems that I got correct was one that he had never covered in class. I let out a very loud, audible, “I got this right and he never even taught us this!” in front of his office door.

That’s the moment I considered a turning point in my college education. (I managed to finish with a 3.43 GPA after a semester on academic probation.) It’s when I realized the amount of work authentic learning requires. But it’s not the quantity of work learning takes, but the quality of the work that leads to success. I learned that I needed to generalize better.

When I was in high school I bore the label of being one of the smart students. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that it wasn’t that my GPA was any higher than my peers, it was that I had to work less than them to achieve it. My education amounted to me watching my teacher do some examples, easily memorizing them, and regurgitating them on a test. I was doing an academic binge and purge. Eventually it caught up to me. I never learned how to effectively learn, all I had ever done was memorized and thought I was a good learner. I even identified myself as a quick learner on job application when I should have been saying, “I am a really good at memorizing repetitive tasks, so I will be the perfect employee for Burger King.” Since I have become a teacher I have started to notice that several of my students share that mindset.

Unfortunately I feel and obligation to ensure that my students don’t feel that false sense of security. I don’t want a student to go through what I did. I can’t live with the thought of students who would leave my class thinking it would be easy, then fail their next math class. And that motivation, probably one of the earliest I ever adopted, has shaped my class in two distinct ways.

The first way my failure impacted my classes is that I have jumped on the teach less bandwagon. Teach less, be less helpful, productive struggle, productive stupidity, there are a plethora of blog posts, editorials, and even a few journal articles about the concept. Basically, it boils down to the idea that if I teach every possible example I have done all the thinking for my students. This is bad because then students never learn to think for themselves. From a progressive standpoint, I would say my students are discovering, and from a traditionalist view I probably have just gotten good scaffolding. But the point is the same, I lead kids, I prompt kids, but I never explain explicitly every step.

The second way that my failure impacted my class is on my assessments. Several of my students who are used to getting an “A” in class are undergoing a period of adjustment. They have trouble because they were me in high school, smart, but relying on the teachers to do all the thinking for them. I have modified my assessments so that questions that will warrant an “A” are never explicitly covered in class. I have covered concepts, but not specific examples. I am trying to use the training aspects of school to train my students to be prepared to answer unfamiliar questions.  I was working with a student after school last year on a quiz that she missed and the story almost perfectly illustrates the thinking that I am trying to avoid.

She was having trouble on the “A” question. “I don’t know what to do!”

I responded by saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’ve read the problem and it doesn’t look like any of the examples we’ve done in class. I tried to match the work to the problem like______(I forgot the one she mentioned, but it was about radians), but it doesn’t make any sense”

For years I had been trying to describe the point of not covering “A” questions in class, and now it made perfect sense. She read the problem on a surface level and scanned her memory for similar problems. She really didn’t comprehend that she needed to dissect the problem and pick out the concepts she knew and then apply those concepts to an unfamiliar question.

As I prompted her through the idea asking, “Do you know what this means?” over and over again, it finally seemed to click. She finally realized that she knew everything that was there.

I can’t prepare my students for every conceivable test question that might appear on an end of course exam, ACT, SAT, or whatever. So I purposely under prepare my students for my tests. When they grasp being under prepared, then they are really prepared for the tests they will have to take when I’m not around. When they embrace the mindset that comes with being under prepared, they will succeed in my class.

That’s how you get an “A” in my classroom.

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One thought on “How Do I Get an “A” in Your Class?… Or How Failing Made Me a Better Teacher

  1. Teachers like you don’t help those of us who don’t “understand everything that’s there”. When I don’t understand what little you do explain, that makes it impossible to comprehend everything you leave out.

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