Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Myth of Entitlement: Students' Perceptions of the Relationship between Grading and Learning at an Elite University

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Myth of Entitlement: Students' Perceptions of the Relationship between Grading and Learning at an Elite University

Article excerpt

Introduction

This study was inspired by a troubling moment experienced by the 1st author in the classroom. I was teaching a required, research-based writing and public speaking seminar to sophomores at an elite private university. It was nearing the end of the term, when I had the unenviable task of handing back essays with grades that were not all A's. As I parceled out the essays, the only sound in the classroom, at first, was that of pages rustling, with almost no audible breathing. Then a muffled sniffle rose into a cry. A student I admired and who was contributing productively to the seminar was sobbing softly onto a paper that sported a B+. Her perfect poise, earned through years of ballet training, had been undone. Much like someone delicately escorted out of a funeral, she was lifted from her seat and walked out of the classroom in the embrace of her roommate.

Watching this intelligent student exit my class in mourning, I keenly felt the disconnect between my understanding of what constituted a "good" grade and that of my students. In demoralizing moments like this one, it's easy to view students through the lens of consumerism and interpret a seemingly overwrought show of emotion like this one as a sign of entitlement. Yet, when undergraduates trained in qualitative research methods talk to other undergraduates about their experiences with and feelings about grades, a different narrative surfaces. This narrative sheds light on the usually hidden travails experienced by today's undergraduates as they navigate the uneven terrain of grading across campus.

My inability to understand my student's perception of a B+ is reproduced on a much wider scale in both public and academic debates over consumerism, student engagement, and grade inflation in higher education. While grade inflation and student disengagement have been documented in numerous, exhaustive quantitative studies (Arum & Roksa, 2012; Grove & Wasserman, 2004; Hersh & Merrow, 2005; Hunt, 2008; Jewell, McPherson, & Tieslau, 2013; Johnson, 2003; Kuh, 2003; McCormick, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2013; Oleinik, 2009; Rojstaczer & Healy, 2012; Sonner, 2000; Yang & Yip, 2003), very little scholarly attention has been paid to students' perceptions of the grades they receive or the grading practices they experience, inflated or not. In the absence of conclusive evidence, it has been assumed that students prioritize grades over learning: "The appearance of achievement becomes more important than the achievement itself," write Pollio and Beck (2000, p. 84). Preoccupied with the national data unmasking pervasive grade inflation, these studies neglect to examine students' experiences on individual campuses, where comparative departmental grading metrics have not been made publicly available.

Our study develops a student-centered "peer-to-peer" qualitative method to begin to fill in these gaps. Our peer-to-peer method trains undergraduate co-authors to gather and analyze data on student's experiences with local grading practices. Drawing on an abductive analysis of twenty-nine in-depth, semi-structured personal interviews, our team posed these questions: (1) How do undergraduates on one elite campus understand the grades they have received and (2) Do these students think that grading practices impact their undergraduate learning experience, and if so, how? Our results showcase uncensored student perspectives on a surprisingly varied range of grading practices. These practices at times invite grade fixation and, at other times, inspire a growth mindset. Students' attitudes towards the relationship between grades and learning vary depending on the grading practices of particular disciplines, courses, and instructors, as opposed to reflecting an underlying consumerist sense of entitlement. These variations suggest that students' attitudes towards grades are situational as opposed to generational. Despite experiencing inconsistent grading practices, students agree that how professors' chose to grade is an important factor in their learning. …

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