I have to get an A on this!

by Rob Ferguson, Teaching Faculty Member and Co-Chair, Department of Recreation and Tourism Management, Faculty of Management, VIU

VIU License for Thinkstock Photo
VIU License for Thinkstock Photo

Our current higher education system has created a culture where the almighty ‘A’ has somehow lost some of its sheen. I’m confident that most, if not all, university educators have been confronted with the student who asserts that they ‘must’ receive an A. The temptation in these situations is to retrieve a banked response from the professorial repertoire such as, ‘that’s up to you isn’t it’ or ‘A’s are earned, not given’ or perhaps something snappier, sharper and a tad more cynical.

When confronted with a student with this mindset my thinking now shifts to, why? What dire consequences will occur if for some reason you learn that there is scope for improvement in an area of specialized knowledge that you are receiving specialized training in? Is a B really that bad?

As it turns out for some it is, which really should be setting off alarm bells everywhere.  I remind students that a B (for me anyway) reflects work that is very good. Not ok. Not mediocre. Not even above average, it literally means very good.  ‘But I have never received a grade lower than an A-’! I like to think I am an optimistic and generous person, but it’s a little challenging to believe that anyone could be really that good at everything, all the time, every time.

Upon reflection of the grade inflation & disengaged learner moral panic percolating through the halls of academia something interesting occurred to me. Could it be that the oft-lamented ‘strategic learner’ may be the one employing the higher order thinking skills we champion to analyze exactly what the grading criteria are, evaluate this against the course environment and with specific intent, create a plan to get an A all the while learning as little as possible?

The lofted ‘deep learner’ may just be the student who assimilates and applies what is valuable, ignores what is perceived as superfluous and is just fine with a C+ thank-you very much. Which of these two would contribute most to the learning environment? Which student’s course evaluation would be more useful to hear? I for one would much rather learn what aspects of the course are resonating and which aren’t, than have to (once again) explain exactly how many citations are required to get an A.

The truth is there are no secrets in how to get an A. In fact, a simple web search of ‘how to get your professor to give you an A’ produces over 500,000 results.  Useful suggestions such as read the syllabus, ask for help, and work harder abound online. There are also more nefarious sources which outline failsafe methodologies to get an A in ways that are less-than-honest. The problem with these cutting edge techniques is that most professors also know how to cut and paste into Google.

The solution to this wicked problem? Working harder to raise the profile of learning over grading. Higher education institutions should be safe places to explore new intellectual territory and to take risks with ideas and their application. B’s, C’s D’s and yes even F’s need to be more palatable for us all, because real learning requires us to miss the mark from time to time.