by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In my efforts as professor, I have always been interested in the effect altering class policies and changing incentives has on student behavior. I fiddle around with changing attendance policies, the grading scale, the number of exams, the point values of exams to see the impact on how students approach the class.

For the past few semesters in the statistics class I teach, I've asked students to fill out a survey telling me things such as the name they liked to be called, their e-mail, etc. One question I've asked recently is "what specific goal is your grade for the class?" Assuming that students are not exactly thrilled about taking the subject, and assuming the students have the foresight to know it is a tough subject, I've expected an array of answers crossing the spectrum of the grading scale. However, the Lake Wobegon effect has held true, and the students have responded with very high opinions of themselves. Last semester, some 65 students answered, on average, a goal of 3.77 on a 4.0 scale (while the final average grade was a 2.77....I'm sure there were quite a few disappointed souls).

This semester is no different. Once again, the average grade goal was 3.77. In one section 23 (of 31) students had an A for their goal, with another 4 stating an "AB." In the second section, 18 (of 28) listed an "A" as their goal with another 8 listing an "AB." Only one student across two sections listed a grade below a "B."

I added a new question this semester, asking students, "What specific grade do you expect to receive in this class?" immediately after the question about their grade goal. Were students confident in their stated goal, or did they have high aspirations, but knew they realistically might not achieve them? 86% (51 out of 59) thought they would receive the grade they set as a goal.

So, the results beg a number of questions:
1. Is there a student grapevine? When I was choosing classes as an undergraduate, I would ask around about which professor to take, and how difficult he or she might be. Whenever I return exams, students always compare their scores to the person next to them. Are students sharing this information outside of the classroom as well? Do students really know how difficult the class might be?
2. Should we be managing expectations of students? Should I publish the average grade of previous semesters in my syllabi each semester, so that students know what grade they are likely to earn? Should the average grade be published when students register for classes (along with teacher ratings)? What other efforts should be made to temper student expectations?
3. What role does external or internal locus of control play?

I'm sure there is a study in here somewhere.

One comment

Good post and very interesting. I think kids are taking the "path of least resistance" today too much. I see this out of my 10 yr old. It worries me from an employer standpoint that this is the next generation coming into the workforce.

by Bryan Jackson on February 17, 2011 at 12:49 PM. #

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