Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The other question

I introduced my post on the appropriate math background for biology with the comment that the high school student at my banquet table had asked two questions, and that was one of them. I've been tardy about following up with the other question, and have even gotten a prodding in the comments.

The other question, which I hadn't really thought about until he asked it, and have spent a lot of time contemplating its surprisingly many facets, was 'how important are grades'? Now that's a doozy.

My first thought is that they are very important. I never took a college course pass-fail unless it was only offered that way. I once enrolled in a class pass-fail, but changed my mind later -- which was most foolhearty, because it was clear that I wouldn't be acing the course -- it wasn't just a book course, and Martha Graham I ain't.

On the other hand, how powerful a motivator were grades in the end? They clearly were ineffective in high school, where a powerful case of senioritis set in early in my junior year. Nor were they much of a motivator in my biology coursework, where I generally did more than necessary (making up for the lack of effort in some other areas!). They were a mixed motivator in the various courses I blew off until things looked grim, and somehow always pulled my nose up before hitting ground (though on at least one occasion, the instructor was kind enough to move the ground a bit lower).

Grades were obviously not a factor in the courses I did take pass-fail, yet I still knocked myself out for the ones that were interesting and did enough for those that weren't. And they certainly weren't a driver of one of my graduate courses that I took unofficially for no credit, simply because I thought it would be a great course -- a notion amply proven.

There was also the horrible spectacle of grade-grubbing, the line of students before each exam trying to extract the precise exam questions from the instructor, and afterwards trying to wheedle every last point out. This group was highly enriched for pre-meds, though many pre-meds avoided this graceless pursuit. I must confess indulging in some schadenfreude as the worst grade grubbers got their due, and their ambitions moved from pre-med to pre-dental and finally to pre-chiropractic (on the other hand, Miss Amanda is treated by the best students: Vet schools are rarer than Med schools, and can therefore be much pickier).

But, on the other hand, there is the external issue. One of our talented staff at the new shop is being lured away by the siren of law school and has chosen Northeastern. A strength of NU is that they have a strong internship component to all their degree programs, which gives both practical experience and monetary remuneration. But, what I didn't know is the law school doesn't give grades. The catch is that when a graduate goes job hunting, the firms considering them don't have any grades to use as a guide -- just descriptions of the courses and text descriptions of the student's work. In effect, each potential employer must grade the student based on a digest of the student's work -- not altogether an objectionable concept, but certainly a bit more complicated than sorting on GPA.

I got a B in chemistry in my first college semester, and at some social event I was mildly moaning about it to the dean I knew. Instead of reprimanding me, he congratulated me: no longer would I be worried about besmirching my perfect 4.0. He felt that many good students had been unraveled by an unhealthy obsession with perfection, so a little tarnish early was a good thing.

That first B set up a pattern, one that somehow I developed an unhealthy superstition around. Every semester I would get one B, and it was always outside of Biology. The superstition came to a horrific climax when I got all the cold hard estimates of grades early -- all except one Biology course I had found challenging -- and they were all A. So some streak had to give, and for me the terror was that the one I cared about would be vanquished. Luckily, that was not the streak that ended.

A far worse see-saw with grades was in graduate school. I had one deficiency to remedy: no coursework in Physical Chemistry. Obviously this was going to be an easy class, as at least 3 undergraduate chemistry courses had covered it. Neatly neglected was the fact that the PChem material had always been the greatest struggle for the lowest grades, and even more neglected was my PChem coursework. Before I knew it, I was in a deep hole, grade-weise. I went to the instructor to try to get some help, but he mostly saw a very worried student -- and that was the time the ground was lowered. He kept saying "you'll get a B" & I kept despairing that it was mathematically impossible and anything else would scotch my funding. Somehow it finally sunk in: get your act together, and you'll get the B.

How important are grades? They're useful, but imperfect. In the end, I probably would have put about the same effort into each class, grades or no grades. The grades probably 'kicked it up a notch', but just a notch. External viewers, such as potential employers or grad schools, might find GPAs convenient, but more likely you will be hired / accepted based on your connections & recommendations. If I had to do college again, I'd probably accept a few more B's and take a few classes pass-fail -- and try to play frisbee on Delaware's magnificent Mall a bit more. Coursework is important, but it isn't everything.

One last question, with regards to this blog entry -- did I pass?


chemgeek said...

I completely agree with you. I got all D for my chemistry lesson :)

Frank Russo said...

(Sorry, I didn't mean to prod--it was just honest curiosity.)

I agree, it's not the easy question I thought it was at 18. Maybe it's like playing poker: it seems like it should be fun to play just for the joy of the game, but playing for real money forces you to make decisions differently than you would otherwise, and adds a whole new dimension to the game. In effect, grades monetize learning, both for good and for ill. The grade grubbers are like misers, too focused on accumulating this 'money' (and the risk of losing it) to recognize other measures of value, and end up losing in the long run, or at least losing out on missed opportunities. But that being said, those who completely ignore the accounting do so at their peril.

In college, I think I cared about grades about the right amount. But then in grad school, everything was de facto pass/fail (B being passing), and suddenly any focus at all on grades seemed a bit, well, silly. Kind of like playing poker with Confederate money.

Thanks for the thoughtful blog. I only just started following it, but I will definitely continue.

Keith Robison said...

Don't apologize for prodding -- sometimes a prod is what I need.