May
30th 2009
The silliest grade I ever assigned, with apologies to Mr. D+

Posted under: jobs, students, unhappy endings

cowgirlbranding

Rope 'em up & brand 'em

Baa Ram U. last year eliminated the distinctions on the lower end of the grade scale:  C-, D+, and D-.  (I can’t believe we ever had a D-.  What’s the point of assigning a grade that’s less than 1.0?)  I completely support these changes:  once you’re operating at a C level or below, the shades of grey between C, D, and F become indistinguishable.

Once upon a time, when I was a first-year graduate T.A. at Ben Franklin U. (and all of 22 years old myself), I was assigned to T.A. an upper-division course in U.S. foreign policy, and this course required a research paper.  Yes, this professor decided that a course with 360 students and 6 T.A.s with 60 students each should have a 10-15 page research paper, despite the fact that plagiarism was rampant among the students.  (Two friends + two different T.A.s = half the work!  Several cases had been detected the previous year only because some of the T.A.s happened to share a house, and one walked by a stack of papers belonging to the other T.A. and thought that the top paper looked awfully familiar.  And, one of the plagiarists caught that year was a Master’s degree candidate!)  In any case, one of my high flyers (who was honest, to his credit) approached me a day before the paper was due, and told me he hadn’t started his research.  I worked with him on finding a topic, but of course, warned him that this paper would be very difficult to pull together in 24 hours.  He turned something in–something that was obviously the product of an all-nighter of fevered typing of random quotations from the several books spread out on his lap.  It was a terrible paper and made no sense, but I thought I had to throw the kid a bone for turning something in.

That bone was a D+.

What was I thinking?  What’s the point of a “plus” on the backside of a D?  Does that make the D any easier to swallow?  No, in fact, I think it’s worse–it’s the most insulting grade ever.  A D+ says, “your work is a total piece of crap, plus!”  “Your work is barely passable, sorta!”  Students may be submitting D grade work, but they’re not stupid:  there’s no way to put a shine on that turd.  In my defense, remember that I was only 22 years old, just a year or two ahead of the college juniors and seniors who were my students.  Well, Mr. D+ came to see me in my final office hours to inform me that he was going to go to the professor to protest the grade.  He was convinced that I was prejudiced against him, since I knew he had only started the research for the paper a day before it was due.  I assured him that his grade accurately reflected his actual performance, and encouraged him to go to the professor with his paper.  Bluff called, and I never heard from him (or from the professor) about the paper again.

But, Mr. D+ taught me a lesson, and that lesson is that sometimes you have to just cowgirl up and heat up your “D” firebrand.  Leave the plusses out of it.

19 Comments »

19 Responses to “The silliest grade I ever assigned, with apologies to Mr. D+”

  1. Belle on 30 May 2009 at 8:51 am #

    Back in my MA days, as a TA, we gave D- to make a point. The vagarities of the system allowed students who got an F to retake the class and drop the fail. A D- however, stayed on their transcripts forever. So if somebody turned in a piece of crap and we wanted them to suffer long term, it was the D-.

    We were a vengeful lot.

  2. Indyanna on 30 May 2009 at 9:11 am #

    My first year at BFU the head TA told the recruits that we would encounter at least one plagiarism or other cheating case before the first semester was out. Sure enough, I got two copies of the same bad frathouse file paper. I knew that cheater no. one was the starting quarterback on the not very stellar football team. It took some digging to learn that his housemate and confrere in the crime was his own center. Suddenly, in addition to the academic enlightenment that I got, it became clear why there were so many loose snaps bouncing around on the newly installed astroturf that season.

    A kid came into the TA suite that semester to furiously berate his TA, who had the desk next to me in the cubicle. The TA, who was a third year, caved. When the kid left, I said J n, why did you give in like that? He looked at me and said, well, I was an undergraduate here, and I did that a couple of times myself. Dum founded.

    I/m not sure if I see the logic by which shaded plus/minus grades are appropriate at above C levels but not below. My school doesn/t allow *any* plus/minuses. I love the branding iron metaphor; that transcript can be sort of scarifying that way.

  3. ADM on 30 May 2009 at 9:16 am #

    What Belle said. In fact, our new provost wants to change our policy so that, although students can repeat for higher grades, they can never replace anything but an F. So the D- would be the vengeful and wrathful grade, the one that says, “screw you!”

    And I really do like the +/- system. I hate when a student who really pulls it out over the semester to go from a C to just under an A ends up with the same GPA that she would if she’d only tried hard enough to pull it up to the lowest B possible.

  4. squadratomagico on 30 May 2009 at 9:26 am #

    I recall being amazed to discover that Ds came with plusses and minuses. How do you distinguish between levels at that point? Shi77y versus shoddy or cruddy? Awful, miserable, or crapulent? I mean, the whole range is sort of synonymous at that point, isn’t it?

  5. Rad Readr on 30 May 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Well, sometimes I grade in-class exams using points for different sections and on a scale of points students can end up with a D+. This makes me wonder whether the differences between a plus and a minus grade are more common in other disciplines where people usually grade on a point scale.

    Finally, for those of us at universities with a plus-minus grading system a plus can affect the overall GPA.

  6. Historiann on 30 May 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Belle and ADM–aha! Now I understand the D-, although it’s too late for me to apply it. I have heard rumblings on my own hallway about assigning students Ds instead of Fs because of the repeat-delete option, although I think at my university students can repeat-delete any grade.

    Indyanna: your story must be from the jurrasic period at BFU! There were too many strivers (and too few football players and/or legacies) at BFU in the 1990s for that excuse to fly.

    And Rad–yes, a plus or minus will affect the overall GPA, but a student’s GPA has really got to be in the toilet if a D+ is going to make or break hir. Not an enviable position.

  7. Indyanna on 30 May 2009 at 11:53 am #

    The founder/naming rights beneficiary had already died, I recall that much, Historiann. :} And, as I tell my current students, the university had *a* computer. It was a block long by a block wide and it had its own building. Grad. student historians could even use it at odd hours for that course on statistics as a foreign language. Yeah, it was a while back, maybe the Ordovician Period?

    We have a D/F repeat option [pronounced REEE=peat] by which a student with either of those grades can take the course again. Both grades stay on the transcript, but only the higher one is factored into the GPA. Yup, employers and grad. admission committees will completely miss that one. It/s actually a major generator of extra credit unit buys that go straight to the corporate bottom line, and the students do seem to think it is of some benefit.

  8. koshem bos on 30 May 2009 at 1:21 pm #

    I leave with the bottom feeders. No matter what grade we give, if it isn’t an A, the endless complaints start. Students that hardy ever showed up in class and whose responses were a million miles from the correct ones still demand an A.

    The most common argument they use is “my friend has the same answers and got an A.” There are right about having the same answers, but are lying about the grade.

  9. Janice on 30 May 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    My undergraduate university had no plusses or minuses. Sucked to be just half of a percentage shy of the cut off for an A in chemistry or calculus and get that B, instead. (It sucked worse to get the C instead of a B.) But it worked to my advantage as a history major when I came out with straight As, there!

    Here, we assign percentage grades so students don’t automatically get enraged at a D+ in general. It’s the 59 in particular that will drive them nuts — why are we so mean as to not bump them up the one percentage point? (The same goes for 69 and 79, so much so that it’s a department directive to really think hard before assigning such a mark because you’re pretty much guaranteed to receive an appeal.)

  10. Mamie on 30 May 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    “My friend had the same answers and got an A”–I’ve had that one more than once, when two students brought in their exams to prove that I had graded one unfairly. When I start pointing out all the differences between the answers, for which student A got a higher grade than student C-, they are amazed. And I wonder, how did they ever think these answers were the same?

  11. Historiann on 30 May 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    Bwahahaha!

    I’ve never had a grade appeal at Baa Ram U., although I’m pretty sure it’s not because I’m an easy grader. I would actually welcome a few since it would indicate that students cared about their grades. So many seem to just take Cs and Ds (or even Fs) as a matter of course.

  12. Sisyphus on 30 May 2009 at 3:55 pm #

    Totally agreeing with Belle about the D+ as a big FU to the student. At my school too, you can retake an F and have it “expunged” from the transcript, but if you retake a D, both grades will stay there, even though you get the retake factored in to your GPA. I always move a D+ grade into the C- or F range, depending what I think the student should do in the future, unless I really want to send a message.

  13. Susan on 30 May 2009 at 4:49 pm #

    I once taught a course — many years ago — at TR’s Zenith, where I recall there were two failing grades, an E and an F. Can’t remember the difference. But I thought it was really weird.

    This reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon that came out in the dark ages when I was in college (punch cards for the computers time). In it one of the characters got a Z-, and said, “That’s not a grade, that’s an insult.”

  14. K.N. on 30 May 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    I had a colleague who expressed a similar opinion as Belle’s. He said that the D- exists to tell a student that s/he wasn’t smart enough to pull out of the course, take the F, and focus on improving the remaining courses.

    I actually had a student complain about a D grade, arguing that by his math it should have been a D+. He was really fighting for those precious GPA points; he was a senior and trying to meet the minimum requirement for graduation. On the flip side, I had a student who I think it still miffed with me for giving him an A- in a US survey course. It was the only grade below and A he got in four years.

    As for the retake policy, last year when I chaired our university’s chief academic policy committee we considered a proposal to allow retakes for everything below a C. This was favored by some of the professional programs that had a C minimum requirement to proceed from one course in a sequence to the next. Because these programs are prized, our administration went a bit haywire, arguing that the policy needed to be changed post-haste. Once I pointed out that such a change would mean that the lowest grade students would ever have to live with was an “average” grade, and thus could heighten the “problem” of grade inflation, the storm quieted down.

  15. Brett on 30 May 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    As a student and MIT, we had +/- grades for A-C, but they were purely fictional; they didn’t appear on transcripts. One classmate of mine said they were really there to make professors feel better, since they could give a student who didn’t quite earn an A a B+ instead and not feel bad about it, even though it was of no use to the student.

    The grading system I have to work with now has + grades but no – grades, which I think is pretty silly. And there’s no A+ either.

  16. truffula on 30 May 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    student who I think it still miffed with me for giving him an A-

    I had a student like that. I suggested he take it up with the chair. Same student would critique my lecture outlines during lectures. Not a way to gain the benefit of the doubt, dude.

    A while back I stopped using +/- in graduate classes (physical sciences). I expect a lot of synthesis and application of principles to novel material and am less interested in “correct” answers than in rigorous thinking. In this context, those shades of grey +/- seem too subjective to be meaningful.

    I once gave extra points inadvertently to an entire class (upper division undergraduates), enough to boost some grades from – to +. “Gee, they didn’t seem to be this strong a group,” I thought, as I was submitting the grades online. It was the end of the term and I was ready to be done so I didn’t ponder it too deeply. I think I discovered the error when a student mentioned in passing that a peer was surprised by her grade. I guess if I’m going to make mistakes, that’s the kind I’d prefer to make.

  17. Erica on 31 May 2009 at 11:42 am #

    one of the plagiarists caught that year was a Master’s degree candidate!

    My last graduate-level thermodynamics course included constructing a materials properties table, using fundamental relations and various equations to put it all together, and requiring a moderately complex sequence of equations that could only be done by computer. A week after it was turned in, the professor sternly told us all how disappointed he was in some of the projects. Turns out two students had created the exact same custom computer code, right down to comments. In addition, six other students had methodologies or results so similar as to be “highly suspicious.” (I got some unexpectedly high grades on this and other assignments in the class, which leads me to suspect there was quite a lot of “collaboration” leading to F’s… including the take-home final exam.)

    It’s no wonder falsification of research data and plagiarism is so rampant in the professional world if students think they can get away with it in school. I don’t think there’s truly that much more responsibility among graduate students — you’ve only weeded out the “worst” undergraduate offenders because they presumably didn’t want to (or weren’t able to) pursue a graduate degree.

  18. Cassandra on 18 Jun 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    Like Rad Readr, I graded on a numerical scale where a D+ was one possibility.

    Department Chair “recommended” we all avoid giving C- so as to reduce grade appeals, so a D+ or C became the new C- (depending on rounding).

    The following semester, DC “recommended” we all avoid C- and D+.

    I think he just didn’t get it.

    He needed to find a way to toss out the lame grade appeals before they arrived. Making the unhappy brats argue why their grade was wrong would have been a 1st step: All appeals based on “Professor X was mean!” could be tossed out immediately.

    It would have saved me from a very demeaning grade appeal meeting where 2 other instructors forced me to raise grades because they thought I was too strict (even though the vast majority of the other students passed with flying colours despite my unreasonable expectations that students follow instructions, do the assignment as instructed, and submit them on time).

  19. JJ on 07 Jan 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    There should be an F+ too. For the student who achieves over a 50 or 55%. Logically you cannot have a D+ or particularly a D- without an F+ as well. D+ means unacceptable + , and D- is below a D, a failure by definition. Besides in college passing is a C or better. You need a C average to graduate, and there are certain classes where students have to earn a C or better to receive credit such as writing classes. D’s are basically failures, since you cannot graduate. Also in high school, although a D is technically passing, you need a C average to play sports. An D- like an F+ carries less that 1 point per unit, and is probably not as silly.

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