On expectations of handouts at school and at work

'Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at desk' photo (c) 2009, George Eastman House - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

This week the New York Times reported the findings of a UC Irvine study about college student grade expectations.

a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading. . .

As someone who paid for grad school with an academic scholarship by way of a teaching assistant position, I saw this philosophy at play first hand.

At the beginning of the semester, I’d watch the professor explain the course requirements. Frequently, poor attendance resulted in an automatic dip in your final grade regardless of how brilliant your course assignments turned out.  Some professors graded on a curve with the directive to graders that a certain percent of students will receive A’s, A-‘s, B+’s and so on.   Others assigned point values to everything from attendance to essays to tests to class participation so students could consistently ballpark where they fall on the grade scale.  The toughest said let grades fall where they fall without inflation.

Through out the semester I’d warn students when they only had one absence between themselves and an automatic one point drop in their grades (A work would become a B).  I’d leave detailed feedback on early assignments so they could self-correct on future ones (comments I’m convinced more than half never read.)   And I gladly handed off the work of angry students to another teaching assistant for a regrade, knowing well that despite my serious disposition, I’m actually an overly generous grader.

But the truth is, most students seem to only care about the letter on their transcript and not what and if they’re actually learning.  Student Y got a doctor’s note to excuse her from the class presentation assignment because public speaking made her anxious; I can’t really argue with a doctor’s note, but it should be pointed out that  glossophobia is believed to be the #1 fear in most.  People fear public speaking more than death.   A good way to get over that fear is to actually speak in front of supportive groups in public — like a classroom of your peers — on a regular basis.

I once spent 40 minutes explaining to Student X that the 4 most important components of an assignment were completely wrong, no wiggle room there.  The remaining 3 components were mediocre at best, hence the C- gift to him on his paper. After a regrade that dropped his grade lower, he began his  (unsuccessful) campaign to convince the professor that I personally wanted to squelch his chances of getting into business school.   That Student X had no comprehension of the material mattered not, it was my job to help him get into business school with the GPA he needed.  Umm. No thanks.  There already appear to be enough arrogant no-nothings in the business world if the Wall Street meltdown is anything to go by.

Far too often, students went to professors after grades were turned into to begin the negotiating process.

  • Yes, the TA told me I had X absences, but I didn’t know you were serious about dropping me a full grade even though it says so in the syllabus.
  • But if I don’t bring up my GPA, which you bumping me up a grade would do, I can’t go to London for the Spring semester.
  • I need this class to graduate; I don’t want/can’t afford to go to summer school!

And far too often professors capitulate because it’s easier than the fallout from taking a stand: students reviews affect tenure in some departments.

What should concern everyone about this study is what sort of culture breeds these sorts of expectations.  Lead researcher Ellen Greenberger felt

that the sense of entitlement could be related to increased parental pressure, competition among peers and family members and a heightened sense of achievement anxiety.

So we have a public school system that teaches to the test, often because state and federal funding is tied to test scores.  Students are taught that X +Y = Z but no one takes the time to explain why that equation is true, since the grade is all that matters.    And college admissions is getting more and more competitive, leading students to attempt to outlead their peers in extracurriculars while juggling a far too ambitious course load because only one person at High School G is getting in to Ivy U or receiving a full scholarship to State College.   There’s no learning for the sake of learning or doing just for the experience of doing.

High letter grades are the carrots dangled in front of students: it’s the end not the means.

And red flags should be waving for us all because isn’t that part of the problem on Wall Street?  The stimulus package include 12 pages of compensation limits for top executives at companies receiving bailouts.  And in return Wall Street whines that it needs to pay out billions in bonuses or the “best” won’t stay in finance.

The “best” of the banking world is driven by their own brand of carrot — $$$$.  You’re not really the “best” when you drive your company into insolvency in the long term because it meant happy balance sheets and bigger bonuses in the short term.   It’s not good business and those employees are liabilities not assets.    But those employees wouldn’t know that because they get handed bigger and bigger bonuses each year because they’ve grown to expect that if they show up at work they get rewarded.

Rude awakenings for all?

4 Comments for “On expectations of handouts at school and at work”



Well, if you look at the flip-side of these numbers, 66% don’t believe they should get a B for attending, and 60% don’t believe they should get a B for completing the required readings.

The numbers sound more encouraging this way.


I wish that OUR student reviews mattered to the biology department at my school. I had the WORST professor last semester and we REEMED her on our reviews. Every class that she ever has says equally terrible things about her–yet she is still teaching. Ugh.


What an excellent post Zak. I can see this in employees, too, when performance evaluation time rolls around. “What do you mean, I met expectations? MET? You’re going to screw me out of my raise.”

Some people never grow past their own self-importance.