As we tip into the latter half of the term and students are beginning to take a real interest in their progress in my courses, the demand for my office hours has suddenly jumped.  As I sit down with these students to talk about their writing, there is the inevitable focus on grades and I’m a bit surprised by the sense of “entitlement” many students are expressing.

One student told me she had to do well in my class but she has made no effort to improve her performance.  She has handed in assignments late, not shown up for meetings she scheduled with me and skipped many classes.  And yet she accosted me after class this week and said “I need to do well in your class.”  As if it were my problem that she was failing.

I’m also seeing this incredible sense of entitlement toward A-level grades.  At the risk of sounding old, I’m beginning to think that the current generation of students has no sense of what “Outstanding” means when it comes to their work.  I had this conversation with one of the best students in one of my classes.  He didn’t understand (as he brought in his marked up paper) why he had received a grade in the B range.  I patiently explained to him that an A-paper is exceptional, in other words, it stands out.  His paper was good.  So he received a “good” grade.  The number of comments in red pen on his manuscript should have been an indicator that his paper was not outstanding.  We then went over the shortcomings of his final draft and talked about how he could have improved them.  Yet I think he still left my office feeling that he had been short-changed by me.

The focus on grades does not surprise me anymore.  I still include lots of comments on their final papers and yet I know they flip straight to the grade and only read those comments if they are unhappy with the grade.  They seem to use the comments to build an argument for a grade change instead of using the comments to improve their writing skills.  As usual I am astounded at how much energy they will put into losing arguments about their grades.  If that energy had been put into the actual writing of the paper, there likely would be no need for arguing.

And despite my frustration with this grade-focus, I am blessed this term with teaching a 4th year course.  To have the opportunity to read and comment on 4th year writing has been a real privilege.  The students in that class have improved immensely since September.  Their focus, while still grade-interested, is not grade-intensive.  They can smell graduation around the corner and are eager to develop the communication skills that will help them in their careers.  And that class has reminded me that the first-year students’ focus on grades is a learned behaviour they’ve developed over the years.  At this stage in their academic career, grades are the only gauge they have for recognizing their progress.  Beyond writing and study skills, they need to develop a critical self awareness of their work.  For some, that will only come with time.

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