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‘F’ marks the sore spot

What do we really know about failure?

by Craig Monk

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As professors across the country report their grades before Christmas, more than a few of us likely are reflecting on the plight of Lynden Dorval, the Edmonton high school instructor who was suspended and eventually fired for assigning zeros to students who did not submit work. This admirable science teacher paid a steep price for reporting grades that reflected assignments done, or left undone, but his school board argued that allowing students simply to take zeros left unmotivated teenagers unaccountable for poor work habits.

The discussion got me thinking about what unsatisfactory grades really mean. For one, an F and a zero are two different things: while a zero earned by not turning in work is undoubtedly a failure, not all failures are zeros. Just three or four points may separate a B-plus from an A-minus, but half of all available marks – everything below 50 percent – sit somewhere in that sprawling F range. How often do we talk about distinctions just above and below that dismal line that divides pass from fail?

Many grading rubrics do little to engage our students’ imaginations. C is “satisfactory”; B is “good.” We all know that some undergraduates insist on discovering the numerical grade they earned, even if we end up submitting only letter grades to the registrar. Tell students that essay marks do not matter, that we use them only to average results in assignments of different value, and still they will argue that they write “better than a 55,” whatever that means.

Our unwillingness to squarely face poor work done on subjective exercises is most dangerous when monitoring plagiarism. I have seen syllabi that simply threaten some manner of failure, rather than insisting upon zeros for cheaters. But should a student really expect 30 or 40 marks for cutting and pasting from the Internet? At a university where academic standing is calculated on numerical average rather than on grade point, I once heard a student petition for his grade to be raised from a zero to 20 percent, only on the grounds that this would raise his average and keep him from being expelled.

But what about students who write their essays, submit them on time, and still perform to an unsatisfactory standard? What does an F say to them? At its simplest, a failing grade may mean multiple errors were encountered. If, for example, an interesting argument, well-punctuated and with supporting evidence, merits a satisfactory grade in spite of inadequate paragraphing, perhaps an interesting argument, without proper punctuation, supporting evidence or adequate paragraphing is a failure. But I suspect that the mechanistic counting of errors just reveals that those of us who mark subjective exercises secretly envy our colleagues who have only to divide the number of correct answers by the number of questions in order to arrive at a numerical grade.

It is also reasonable to maintain that some single errors are egregious enough to merit failure. I once chaired a master’s defence that derailed after examiners rooted out a kernel of racism in the candidate’s argument. Would an undergraduate essay with a similar flaw merit any credit at all? Would a zero be an over-reaction? Simple misinterpretation of a question can doom an essay to failure. And, we occasionally encounter students who are simply not capable of the tasks assigned them. To signify extravagant failure, I have known instructors to invent the fictional, and utterly unassignable, grade of F-minus. I vividly recall agonizing over one essay when I first began teaching. Was it a D-plus, in other words marginal, or was it a C-minus, barely satisfactory? I was sure that the mark I chose would send an unequivocal message, so I winced as I returned the lower grade to my student. “Cool!” he exclaimed, “I passed!” Having learned to ignore everything but this broadest of distinctions, he could not decode the secret language I hoped to invoke.

Colleagues sometimes regale me with grand stories of their misspent youth, telling me that they overcame painful failure to earn an advanced degree. Truthfully, we have less in common with struggling undergraduates than we do with almost anyone else with whom we interact. We pride ourselves on our technical skills, rewriting topic sentences and polishing assertion statements for motivated students. But there is a world of variety obscured by the label “fail,” 50 marks to sort misunderstanding from boredom, lack of ability from misapplication. Too few of us have the stomach, or the know-how, to linger long below the barrier that separates us from them.

Craig Monk is a professor of English in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Lethbridge.

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