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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 4


The Secret Life of Professors Revealed Part V: What’s in a Grade? How to Play the Academic Game, Get Good Grades, and Have Your Professor as Your Advocate

Laura Vernon, PhD,
Florida Atlantic University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

To many students and professors, “grade” is practically a four-letter word (no, wait, that is “grad,” which has a much nicer connotation).

Secret #13: Many Professors Hate Giving Low Grades as Much as Students Hate Getting Them

Unfortunately, we put professors in the odd position of being coach, referee, and scorekeeper. I first help my students learn, and I then have to evaluate and report their level of learning. Some days the evaluation part of the process is a joy, and I can give my students the high grades and praise that they have earned through hard work and careful study. Other days, I need to communicate to my students that their learning is incomplete, they have misunderstood some concepts, they need to refine their skills, and more hard work is going to be required for them to improve. Making mistakes is part of learning and improving and there is no shame in failure as long as you learn from it and keep working hard. I would probably not trade my role as referee because it improves my coaching. When I see where my students went wrong, I can help them figure out how to do it better, and I can be a better coach the next time around.

If you earned a low grade, chances are that your professor was not trying to trick or punish you and is not angry with you, but simply has the unpleasant task of communicating your level of learning. I am not so naïve as to think that there are no “weed out” classes or professors who provide unfair assessments, but these are both rarer than students might think. Most professors think carefully about how to teach, what kinds of assignments to give, how to test and evaluate students’ skills and knowledge, and how course grades are assigned.

Even after 24 years of teaching, when a student does poorly on one of my exams, I feel sad for the student. Most of my colleagues feel the same way. Because we adore our students (see Secret #1), if one of my professor buddies appears especially glum at lunch, chances are that some of her students are struggling in her class.

Secret #14: Professors Prefer Coaching to Refereeing and Scorekeeping (So Leave Shame at the Door)

Students tell me they have heard that my exams are “tricky” and ask if I try to mislead students with my exam questions to make them pay closer attention. In fact, I do not set out to “trick” my students. It is simply the case that most good psychology sounds like common sense. Unfortunately, come exam time, the wrong answers may also sound like common sense. Uh oh, do birds of a feather flock together or opposites attract? Which is it and when?

If you get back a grade that you are disappointed with, keep several things in mind. First, remember that the professor did not give you the grade, in most cases you earned the grade. You had an opportunity to study a subject with a professor there to try to assist and encourage you in your learning, but ultimately your level of learning is your responsibility. In the same way that you shouldn’t blame your soccer coach if you missed a goal kick, or the referee for blowing the whistle when the ball goes out of bounds, you also shouldn’t (usually) blame your professor if you did poorly on an exam. Take ownership of your own performance, allow yourself to briefly feel down or upset or angry, and then get back on the academic horse. If you know what went wrong (like failing to spend enough time studying, or doing too much group studying and not enough reading of your textbook), then make concrete plans to fix it the next time around. If you don’t know what went wrong, or if part of your planned solution involves your professor, then hold your head high and go in to talk to your professor. Keep in mind that helping students learn is part of your professor’s life’s work and that you are unlikely to be the first or the last student to have this particular set of difficulties. So, leave your shame at the door (along with any defensiveness, anger, and blame), and ask your professor to help you identify where you went wrong and plan to make it right the next time around. Your professor will respect you for your mature and professional approach and often be delighted to help you get on the right path.

Secret #15: Professors Have to Abide by the Rules of the Game

The same way the referee can’t start making up new exceptions to the rules for a player she likes, a professor can’t decide to treat one student differently from the others. A student who asks for additional extra credit after the semester ends is effectively asking me to treat him differently than everyone else in the class and offer an opportunity to him that I did not offer to other students. I know the student is feeling desperate and is not thinking of it this way, but it is my job to understand his view while considering his classmates. As much as I might like to help, I can only help in ways that are fair and consistent for all students. Any advantages I offer to one student should be offered to all of my students. The university system is similarly constrained and can only offer exceptions for certain mitigating factors like illness and emergencies and otherwise must treat all students in the same way.

Although making mistakes is part of the learning process, unfortunately the system of college grades is not particularly forgiving. The low grades of a footloose first year can haunt students later as they try to raise their GPAs. Some professors can find ways to build in a little forgiveness—allowing students to drop their lowest quiz grade, rewrite a paper, or make first attempts (exams, speeches, etc.) worth fewer points. Try to make the most of these opportunities and use them to your advantage. If you have the chance to turn your paper in early for feedback, make yourself an early deadline and treat it like the “real” deadline, so that your already decent paper can be made even better when you get feedback. As a student, I know it may be tempting to blow off a quiz when you get busy, particularly if you know that you can drop your lowest quiz grade, but remember that later in the semester you may be sick or injured or have an unexpected problem and need this option desperately. Use these like your emergency “get out of jail free” cards and don’t squander them too early or cheaply. Save them for when you need them.

Secret #16: Professors Can Advise You on the Rules and How to Play the Game

Professors are constrained by the rules, but simultaneously are often experts on how to play the game. Consider asking your professors not only for coaching in their specific discipline, but also for advice on the overall academic game, including how many credits you are likely to be able to juggle, which constellation of classes will work well and which could become a “perfect storm,” and when you might need to ask for an extension on an assignment.

Professors can also be invaluable when the going gets really rough. This is often exactly the time when students want to hide out and avoid professors at all costs, but if you are in a no-win situation (or what might be a “no-pass” situation) in a class, your professor can advise you on your options. You might consider taking an incomplete and trying to make up work after the semester ends, dropping a course, withdrawing from a course, or withdrawing from all courses for the semester. These decisions should be made carefully and with much consultation of professors, advisors, and perhaps your parents, but they can be a lifeline in a crisis.

Happily, many colleges and universities also recognize that mistakes and experimentation can be beneficial and have built in some leniency where students can drop or replace their lowest course grade(s). Although this has been criticized by some as being “soft,” I applaud it because it allows students the chance to take risks with classes that they might otherwise be too afraid to take. If you worry that you are a terrible painter, but you want to take a visual arts class to see if you can improve, these sorts of policies allow you to do so with less risk to your GPA and future options. If you’re not sure if biochemistry or ancient Greek philosophy is for you, the best way to find out is to dive in. I challenge you to take a class you’re not sure you will like and take another class you think you definitely won’t like. You might be surprised and find yourself with new knowledge and broader horizons and opportunities you didn’t imagine.

Laura Vernon, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Dr. Vernon completed two undergraduate honors theses in psychology and sociology and took many small advanced seminar courses. The benefits of that individual attention remain with her and she is delighted to offer the same types of experiences at the Honors College. Dr. Vernon enjoys introducing students to her beloved field in her General Psychology course, as well as exploring the fascinating nuances of Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Positive Psychology, and Social Psychology with her students. It is her goal to give students enriching and challenging learning experiences and help them apply what they learn to themselves and their lives, all while having fun. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Vernon’s research is on psychological disorders and their treatment. Her lab broadly examines anxiety disorders, emotion, cognition, and mindfulness. Some of her recent research has examined the effectiveness of a mindfulness-based equine assisted therapy for clinical patients, the usefulness of brief mindfulness interventions for college students, the contributions of fear and disgust to spider phobia, and the cognitive processes of emotion and phobias. She is also interested in the potential for games and online gaming to revolutionize teaching and learning. Dr. Vernon has been faculty sponsor of student clubs such as the Psychology Club, the Newman Catholic Club, and the Quidditch Club.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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