Blog Archives

Easy A? Perspectives from Course Evaluations


Survey form

Jan 17’s post discussed a bold student question. “Is this course an easy A?” Asked at the start of the new semester the query lead to speculation about student motivation, their beliefs about learning and grades. Then I received my fall course evaluations.

“If you want to learn about Economics she teaches it.. if you want to get a good grade take it with someone else.”

“While Dr. Paff is a nice and a good teacher for accounting and economic students, it is unnecessarily difficult. The exams and projects add up to a course that is much, much harder from her than it is for the other professors. I would advice (sic) students in an engineering major or technology-related major to avoid Dr. Paff’s section. It is not for you. She teaches well. But, to get a good grade, based on what I have heard, the other professors are marginally easier.”

“Class is not easy, be prepared to spend some time doing projects and learning concepts. The class was informative but I do not think it needed to be as hard as it was for the concepts.”

“If you want to learn material take Paff. If you [want to] make a good grade take someone else.”

My students answered the “easy A” question and their feedback got me asking more questions. This (limited) sample suggests for some students: grades and learning are unrelated, easy is better than hard, and learning and easy generally don’t go together.

Grades v. Learning. I can’t blame students for focusing on grades. They affect career, graduate school, scholarships, etc. But these statement show why Alfie Kohn’s compelling arguments against an emphasis on grades reduces student motivation. Note the dichotomy. The choice is between learning or a good grade. In their view, grades are not integrated with or a reflection of learning. Yikes! Clearly that’s not my intent. How can I do a better job integrating and making explicit the connection between grades and learning?

Easy v. Hard. What makes a course “hard”? Is it the number of assignments? The type of assignment? How much it counts? How it’s graded? How long it takes to complete? How much mental energy is required? Something else?

I don’t plan to change the number of assessments. Each one is designed to help students learn a new concept or apply what they’ve learned. But I do need to reconsider how I am helping students make connections between assignments/assessments and their learning.

Learning isn’t easy. This is a golden nugget buried in the comments. Deep down, students know learning is hard. Some want to learn and are willing to make the effort and take the risk of pushing themselves into new territories. Others would prefer to go through the motions or do only what’s necessary. (We can say the same of faculty!) Why do some students prefer easy? Are they insecure about their ability to learn? Are they worried the effort won’t be worth it? Have I made a strong case for content relevance and the value of learning?

It’s easy to write off student comments like these as uninformed complaints.  But I’d argue they offer a perspective on student beliefs and attitudes many teachers suspect students hold. More important,  these issues lie within our sphere of influence to examine with students and address. The next few posts will explore student assumptions and beliefs about hard and easy courses along these lines:

  • What instructional strategies integrate and make explicit the connection between grades and learning?
  • How can teachers help students see the connections between the assignments/assessments and their learning?
  • What practices build a strong case for content relevance?
  • What strategies help students see their efforts to learn as worthwhile?

What other questions would you ask? Please share your thoughts, strategies, and suggestions.



Stuff they should already know

In May 2015, Anya Kamenetz wrote an NPR Online piece titled “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She suggests the following terms and phrases are often used imprecisely and interchangeably:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character Education
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits & Habits
  • Social & Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

The article discusses the pros and cons of alternative definitions, interrelationships, and overlaps. The terms and phrases lack clarity making it difficult to teach, research, and assess these skills. Inconsistent usage and intent also promote disagreement about what is most important for students.


Photo credit: LA Johnson, NPR

Additional terms and phrases were suggested in the comments: life skills; coping skills; emotional intelligence; social-emotional learning; Achievement Behavioral Skills; educating the whole person. “Life skills” was widely endorsed and generally preferred over the seven phrases discussed in the article.

A number of respondents (primarily elementary and high school teachers) questioned when and where life skills should be learned. Many suggested these skills are “stuff your parents should have taught you,” implying teachers shouldn’t bear this responsibility.

How does this connect to teaching and learning in higher ed?

I am currently researching informal communication in accounting. Research shows many faculty believe students should already possess these skills. It’s also common to blame students; data suggests accounting programs attract students who are weaker communicators than those in other majors. Students are also blamed for failing to understand the importance of good communication skills. Another popular rationalization is that skills education is vocational and doesn’t belong in higher education. In sum, elementary teachers blame parents. High schools say “life skills,” like interpersonal skills, should have been learned in primary school or taught at home and the academy denies responsibility or blames everyone else.

The buck must stop here. We can lament the circumstances and wish things were different. But since most of us are teaching in places where students possess these skills to limited degrees, it’s time for teachers to ask themselves some hard questions.

If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?

Likewise, program leaders should ask:

What barriers inhibit students’ skills development in our courses and programs?

What are the ramifications of teaching skills outside the discipline? For example, what are the implications of teaching writing or speaking in a communications or writing course v. teaching them within technical courses?

It’s also time for institutions to ask: What does an offer of admission imply?

Have you been following the “drowned bunnies” story at Mount Saint Mary’s? Their president suggested the school’s 6-year graduation rate could be strategically improved if high-risk students are “weeded out” during the first few weeks. He is quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Essentially, newly admitted students (not knowing the purpose of the questionnaire) would be asked to respond to questions designed  to identify those at high-risk. They would be encouraged to leave. Those who disagreed with the program publicly, have been relieved of duty (the provost) and fired (two faculty). You can follow the ugly story here and here.

If we don’t think a student can be successful, we should not offer admission. We must also acknowledge that higher education isn’t responsible or able to fill all the skills gaps students have when they arrive. But if we admit them, we have an obligation to provide opportunities to learn content and develop skills. The academy has focused a lot on content, particularly in technical fields. It’s time we do more.






Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions

This week’s post is an article I wrote for Faculty Focus.  You can find the original here:

Policies are necessary. They serve as a warning to students: this is what will happen if you are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late, text or surf the Web during class, and the like. Most institutions recommend teachers spell out consequences in their syllabi. Some schools employ institution-wide policies for certain behaviors like academic dishonesty. If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?

Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt their effort to learn. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, many students believe their learning is unaffected by technology distractions. “No screens” policies are aimed, at least in part, to minimize distractions that hurt learning (their own and peers’). But policies aren’t nearly as powerful as an activity that demonstrates the effects of distraction.

Split the class into two groups. One is allowed to text; the other turns phones off. After the lecture, students complete a short quiz. Ellis, Daniels, and Jauregui (2010) report students in the phones off group score significantly higher. Differences in points or scores will grab students’ attention and are more likely to get them thinking about their mobile technology use in and out of class than a “no screens” policy.

Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive. A student engages in a behavior that isn’t addressed in the syllabus. A common reaction is to add a new policy or rewrite the existing one for the following term. The syllabus grows by a few lines. But the new policy assumes future students will behave the same way. Different students may behave in different ways, again, not covered in the policy. And the student whose negative learning behavior precipitated the new policy may not be in future courses. Has the new policy accomplished anything for that student?

Sometimes these behaviors are one-offs. No policy fix is necessary. Generally, a “new” negative learning behavior would be more effectively addressed if the teacher talked with the student individually or thought about what may have caused the behavior, and then identified strategies to prevent it. Adding or editing policies is a quick fix, but not one that advances student learning.

Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) The focus is on grades, lost points, and consequences, instead of on learning and the learner. Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse-making. Meanwhile, inflexible policies often have an implied message that’s probably unintentional: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the rule. Deal with it.”

Learning is personal. Harsh language and rigid rules diminish community and send a message of distrust, and generally suggest teachers don’t believe students will do work without the threat of penalties. Worse, these policies suggest faculty don’t believe the best about students. This leads to students believing teachers don’t like or care for them.

A focus on rules and policies shifts interest away from learning. One way to redirect attention is to share the learning and professional rationales that underpin deadlines and policies. Provide opportunities for students to have input about some assignment details or a few due dates. A policy students help to shape is one they own, and one they are more likely to live up to.

Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to become self-directed learners. Policies, especially those with harsh consequences, may reduce the number of times students arrive to class late or show up unprepared. But what happens when the policy stick (or carrot, for that matter) is removed? If students are only behaving in a certain way because of a penalty or reward, what have they learned about the value of the behavior (like reading) as part of learning?

Fortunately, there are teacher practices that help students mature as learners while promoting positive learning behaviors. Teachers can incorporate homework logs, assign learning reflections, facilitate student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading. Each of these strategies increases student ownership of learning and advances their development as independent learners.

Consider how a strict policy commands attendance. Instead, or in addition to policy, provide data that shows the negative correlation between the number of absences and exam scores. Or, provide the dates specific topics and concepts were covered and tell students the dates they were absent. If students see that they lost points on topics that were learned during their absence, they can see the consequence of skipping class. This kind of evidence teaches more about the value of attending class than does a policy requiring it.

Supplement course deadlines with a conversation about learning behaviors like procrastination and time management. Share your own strategies for juggling multiple responsibilities and meeting short- and long-term commitments. Could students share their successful and not-so-successful time management experiences? Have students been asked what would help them get the work done in a timely way? Discussions about punctuality, procrastination, and time management advance students’ understanding of how they work and learn.

Policies are necessary. It’s important for students to understand what is expected of them and the consequences when they fall short. But to develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences.


Ellis, Y., Daniels, B., and Jauregui, A. 2010. The effect of multitasking on grade performance of business students. Research in Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from: