Taken from www.madison.com/tct/news/457520 (yellow highlight added).

 

University students not shy about asking profs to reconsider grades

Compiling final grades for students in Sharon Thoma's Zoology 101 course is fairly simple.

Students take three multiple-choice exams, plus a final, during the semester. The grading scale is spelled out at the start of the year in the syllabus, which also notes there is no way to earn extra credit.

"So it's solely objective and it's pretty clear where you fall," says Thoma, a University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty associate who co-teaches the huge lecture with two professors.

And yet, over the past two years Thoma has observed a surprising uptick in the number of students who e-mail her at the end of the semester, asking if she'd reconsider the grade she awarded them "because they worked so hard."

Thoma estimates she received 20 such e-mails this spring out of some 850 students. "They'll typically say, 'I know you said there won't be any grade adjustments, but I worked really hard and I don't feel that the grade reflects the effort I put into the class,'" says Thoma, who stresses most students work hard in class and understand the ground rules. "And so I have a new standard reply: 'I can't quantitate your effort.'"

UW-Madison engineering physics professor Greg Moses is all too familiar with this scenario, and is frustrated by how some students feel they are practically entitled to better grades.

"The point is that we are in the business of higher education, not mediocre education," Moses wrote in an e-mail while traveling in Europe. "This sounds elitist but the challenge of global competition to the U.S. way of life does not call for trying hard, it calls for performance. Students tell me they spend hours on the homework and therefore deserve better grades, even when my exams are mostly made up of homework questions, often verbatim, and they cannot do them."

The phenomenon is not a local one. The topic of grade disputes and the mind-set of today's students became a hot-button issue on campuses across the country this past winter after the New York Times published an article headlined "Student expectations seen as causing grade disputes." The piece used a study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine that suggests these grade complaints might stem from students' sense of entitlement.

The introduction to the 2008 study -- titled "Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting and Motivational Factors" -- notes that "anecdotal evidence suggests a substantial rise over recent decades in the number of students who beleaguer their professors for higher grades, forecast dire personal outcomes if they do not get the grades they feel they deserve, and expect professors and teaching assistants to go to exceptional lengths to accommodate their needs and preferences."

Part of the study surveyed 466 undergraduates at an unnamed "large public university" about academic entitlement. It found that two-thirds of students surveyed felt that if they explain to a professor that they are trying hard, the professor should give them "some consideration" with respect to their course grade.

Sure, effort is good. But at this rung of the education ladder it's somewhat surprising all students don't realize it's the results that matter. So in an effort to clarify expectations, educators across the UW campus are taking steps to nip potential misunderstandings in the bud, starting with freshman orientation. Additionally, professors are seeking to avoid potential grade disputes by spelling out in class syllabi and on their websites what is expected of students and how grades are determined. Still others are using lecture time early in the semester to further outline expectations.

Wren Singer, director of UW-Madison's Center for the First-Year Experience, which helps facilitate students' transition to college, has been interviewing faculty who teach freshman classes about these issues. Many, she says, have had students who have challenged their grades. Singer says it's time to refocus attention on the real goals of a university education: "I think it's important to turn the tide on how students view learning and how they view higher education."

The study by the Cal-Irvine researchers found that nearly 41 percent of students thought they deserved at least a grade of B if they completed most of the reading for a class, and more than a third believed they deserved at least a B for simply attending most classes.

"What strikes me most profoundly is the notion that students -- and I don't know if it's a generational issue or a matter of how kids are trained in K through 12 -- have this strong sentiment that if they work hard enough they should get an A," says Irene Katele, an adjunct professor at the UW who teaches a large undergraduate course each semester on legal studies. "There is a belief that there's a correlation between the effort and the prize."

Allison Wolfe, a UW-Madison senior majoring in psychology, says she's never personally felt she deserved a higher grade in class, but knows people who have. "I agree that some students feel entitled to higher grades. They may have gotten good grades in high school without a lot of effort, and think the effort they put into their college classes is a lot in comparison, when really they haven't established a good work ethic yet. Some people adjust and work harder, and some blame their professors."

But others note that learning is a two-way street -- and that not all professors are good at teaching or conveying their expectations. Chynna Haas, who will be a senior at UW-Madison this fall, says she expressed her frustration to her professor after receiving a D in an upper-level American Indian Studies course.

"I got in a bit of an e-mail argument with the professor," admits Haas, who ultimately accepted her grade. "Throughout the semester, he changed the assignment and the scope of the research and didn't effectively communicate his expectations. It was very, very frustrating."

Haas says students today generally feel it's appropriate to approach professors to discuss grades. "I also think students see the need to be proactive in their lives and are more willing to shoot an e-mail to a professor. We do tend to ask a lot of questions. But is that a bad thing?"

To be certain, not everyone on campus seems overly concerned about today's students and their purported sense of entitlement. In fact, even though Katele has been approached by students grousing about their grades, she nonetheless cringes when the topic is broached in the media.

"The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I see that word 'entitlement,'" says Katele. "I think it does a disservice to our students. First, it puts all of them into a neat category, and that's dangerous. It makes me very uncomfortable, because I certainly don't think all students have a sense of entitlement."

Notes Aaron Brower, UW-Madison's 51-year-old vice provost for teaching and learning: "It is an issue that's talked about on campus. And one stream of the conversation has a 'What's wrong with students today?' kind of tone. And that's probably the same thing that was going on when you were in college or I was in college."

Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the Department of Food Science, adds that if some students do have a sense of entitlement, it's simply a reflection of today's society as a whole -- and not some character flaw unique to today's generation of young adults.

"This idea about entitlement among students has been floating around for awhile now," says Theis, who has spent nearly 20 years on campus as a student and educator. "But I personally just don't see it. At least not any more than I see it in any other segment of society. And personally, I get really offended when I see that targeted at students. I think we have very committed and hard-working students here, and from my perspective a student with a sense of entitlement is the exception."

Academic Entitlement

From study titled " Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting and Motivational Factors"

Table Shows percentage of participants endorsing (slightly agree or strongly agree) academic entitlement items. Participants in this study were 466 undergraduates at an unnamed large public university.

If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade

66.2 percent

I feel I have been poorly treated if a professor cancels an appointment with me on the same day as we
were supposed to meet

 41.1 percent

If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course

 40.7 percent

If I have attended most classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B

 34.1 percent

Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments

 31.5 percent

Professors who won’t let me take an exam at a different time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation or other trip that is important to me) are too strict

 29.9 percent

Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on exams

 25.4 percent

A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them

 24.8 percent

I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent

 23.5 percent

If I’m not happy with my grade from last quarter, the professor should allow me to do an additional assignment

 17.7 percent

Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early

 16.8 percent

A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class

 16.5 percent

I would think poorly of a professor who didn’t respond quickly to a phone message I left him or her

 15.3 percent

A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor

 11.2 percent

A professor should let me arrange to turn in an assignment late if the due date interferes with my vacation plans

 9.5 percent

UW educators say there are a few reasons why some college students might feel frustrated with the grades they receive and motivated to change the outcome. For starters, grading scales and expectations can vary greatly from professor to professor, and among the numerous departments within UW-Madison.

During the 2008 fall semester, for example, undergraduates taking a course in UW-Madison's School of Social Work in the College of Letters and Science earned an average grade of 3.70 on a 4.0 scale -- with 78.8 percent of those undergrads earning either an A or AB. During that same period, the average grade for someone taking a course through the Department of Mathematics in L&S was 2.79 -- with 34.6 percent earning an A or AB.

Another possibility, notes the study "Self-Entitled College Students," is that academic self-entitlement is a coping mechanism for students whose grade-point average dips once they enter college.

"Some of the brightest high school students have learned to game the system -- they've learned the rules of getting good grades and what's expected of them," says Brower. "And sometimes those students are actually the ones who have the hardest time when they come to college, because switching up from 'just tell me what's expected and I'll do it mode' to 'learning is up to you and you've got to dig and find your own thoughts,' can be a shock for some."

Other educators believe too many students and their parents view higher education as a consumer product. And, well, the customer is always right.

"Some view it as, 'You pay your money, you get the degree and you land that high-paying job,'" says Singer of the Center for the First-Year Experience. Adds political science professor Donald Downs: "Students want to get the credential. That's understandable. We live in reality. They want to get a job and I would never knock that. But by the same token, if it goes too far and all they want is that stamp of the grade and the degree to move on, that's a problem."

And then there is the potential impact of "helicopter parents," who tend to hover a bit too closely to their children and intervene in tough times. According to the Cal-Irvine study, students who reported more academically entitled attitudes perceived their parents as exerting achievement pressure.

"I haven't had this, but I've been told by several colleagues that they've gotten calls by parents pressuring them on a grade," says Downs. "I think parents can place a lot of expectations and demands that weren't there some years ago."

Add it up, and some educators are concerned that the higher education system in the United States is failing to produce students who are equipped to thrive in today's quickly evolving world.

"Too many students don't know why they are in college," engineering physics professor Moses wrote in his e-mail. "Too many don't know how to study. Too many have completely incorrect expectations. It is a system that is badly broken and not for a single reason. It is a system problem. The bottom line is that the U.S. future in the so-called knowledge economy is doomed with the students we are now producing as graduates. Companies locate factories in China and call centers in India not only because the workers work for less. The workers are also better qualified. If that is an exaggeration today, it will certainly become reality in a decade."

Getting incoming students at UW-Madison up to speed on what is expected of them in college starts at SOAR, the university's orientation program for new students. "We don't say 'Don't challenge your grades' or anything like that," says Singer. "But we do talk about the difference between a high school education and learning in college, and we're hoping that conversation begins to set the tone for what we hope is a different kind of a learning experience. We hope the learning here would include more of an understanding of material and real integration of thought, instead of memorizing and regurgitating facts."

Not all students, of course, need a heads-up that college is different. In fact, a group of incoming freshmen attending a recent SOAR seminar seemed keenly aware of that fact.

"I'm expecting a lot more reading and not as much busy work," says Jenna Parfitt, a recent Madison West High School graduate and incoming UW-Madison freshman. "I'm expecting more learning and comprehending information instead of doing the same problems over and over to memorize an answer."

And, no, Parfitt doesn't expect to get Bs simply for attending class or doing the required reading. "You can read things and not really get anything from them or you could go to classes and not get anything out of it. You should be able to apply your knowledge."

Even if such sentiments might seem obvious to most, more and more professors are spelling out course expectations and how grades are handled in an effort to avoid potential disputes.

"I don't get too many grade complaints, and the reason why is my syllabus is structured like a very explicit contract," says adjunct professor Katele. "I tell the students in my syllabus there are no opportunities to modify a grade based on a student's degree of effort. And there are no opportunities to change a grade based on a student's perception of disparity between what the student really learned and the student's test-taking skills. And then I spend time early in the year going over all this."

But, it remains a work in progress. Katele recently was asked to change a grade so a student would remain eligible to retain a merit-based scholarship. "So next semester I'm going to add some language about scholarships, that I won't change a grade based on a student's eligibility for a scholarship -- because that undermines the integrity of the scholarship process."

Ideally, UW-Madison leaders are also hoping to convince more students to embrace a love of lifelong learning instead of obsessing over every single grade.

"We use the phrase 'lifelong learning' a lot," says lecturer Theis. "We need to instill that passion -- that's one of the most important things to do. We need to show our students how to keep learning in a world that keeps changing drastically and constantly."