Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Professor's Letter to Students

One of the more shocking things that I have encountered since becoming a professor is the sense of entitlement that some students bring with them to the classroom. They assume that because they (1) paid tuition, (2) showed up for class, and (3) submitted the assignments that they therefore deserve an “A” in the course. I confess that I have been forced to disabuse a few from this type of thinking.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see my role as torturer in chief who only finds satisfaction by ruining the GPA of students. I am also not one of those professors who doesn't give out A’s. I do, when they have been earned. I admit that I set a high bar in the class and I set it high intentionally. I suspect that if the bar is too close to grasp then the student won’t try. Set it high enough and the students who exert themselves not only will reach the bar, but will have a better grasp of the information that I am trying to deliver. In reality, I want my students to do well and succeed. But I also want them to learn at the same time. I spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that my lectures are well prepared. I expect/hope that my students will also put in the effort necessary to learn.

In a recent Forbes Magazine article, Art Carden who teaches economics at Rhodes College wrote a letter to his students. I think he gets it just right, and echoes my own sentiments. Here are three of the points he makes in a letter to his students.

First, I do not “take off” points. You earn them. The difference is not merely rhetorical, nor is it trivial. In other words, you start with zero points and earn your way to a grade. You earn a grade in (say) Econ 100 for demonstrating that you have gained a degree of competence in economics ranging from being able to articulate the basic principles (enough to earn a C) to mastery and the ability to apply these principles to day-to-day affairs (which will earn an A). I’ve hurt my own grades before by confusing my own incompetence with competence and my own (bare) competence with mastery, so trust me: I’ve been there, and I understand.

Second, this means that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that you have mastered the material. It is not on me to demonstrate that you have not. My assumption at the beginning of each class is that you know somewhere between nothing and very little about basic economics unless you were lucky enough to have an exceptional high school economics course. Otherwise, why are you here? You might say that the course is a prerequisite for other things you want to do, but if that it is the case and you know the material, you’re more than welcome to simply show up for the exams, ace them, and be on your way.

Finally, I’m here to be a mentor and instructor. This means that our relationship differs from the relationships that you have with your friends and family. Please don’t infer from this that I don’t care about you, because I do. A lot. I want to see you make good choices. I want to see you understand basic economics because I hope it will rock your world as it continues to rock mine and because the human consequences of lousy economic policy are enormous. That said, you should never take grades personally. I don’t think you’re stupid because you tank an exam, an assignment, or even an entire course. Economics is hard. A D or an F on an economics exam does not diminish your value in God’s eyes (or in mine) or indicate that economics just isn’t for you. It probably means you need to work smarter, and I’m here to help you with that.

So to the students of the world who think that your self-worth is wrapped up in your grades or that your professors are simply out to get you, take heart that some of us are in it for you. And just because you don’t get an A does not mean we don’t like you. I want to help you succeed. But you need to do your part. And if you don't get an A it doesn't mean you are a bad person. It just means that you didn't earn one.


  1. Easy to blame the students. No self-examination in evidence.

    In my view the teacher is to serve the students (not a popular view with those who like to be viewed as sources of authority - ie. wish to become idols)

    1. The student should also serve her/his own best interests.

    2. Evan,

      As in all things, it is a two way street. But in the case I and the author of the letter are referring to what has become an epidemic in education in the USA. Perhaps this is not the case in Australia, but on our shores, the notion of entitlement it quite high.


    3. My immediate reaction to reading the post was similar to Evans. As someone who has only been a student, I often found it frustrating when I couldn't get a clear understanding for the grade I received. Some professors, it seems, can't articulate what they didn't like when the metric is more subjective (term paper).

      This isn't always the case. I have had professors who were very clear in what they felt was missing. But I admit to getting quite angry when I get a "C" on a paper, for example with the explanation being little more than, "It wasn't quite what I was looking for." ARGH!

    4. Kenny,

      I would agree with you there. I too remember getting an A- on a paper once from a paper. I asked the professor what I needed to do to improve, what had I missed, where was I deficient. He was unable to answer me and only said "don't worry you'll get your A." My point was not the A but what did I still need to learn.

      Remember too, that this post is from the professor's side. It is about frustration with students who expect an A and then are mad because they did not get it. They seem offended that you would suggest they simply had not earned the grade they think they deserve.

      But on the flip-side there are professors how don't do there job and are merely going through the motions and really don't care for the students. Just as some student's give a bad name to others the same goes with professors. I am frustrated to no end with professors who are too lazy or too timid to interact with a student's work and simply give the student an A. That perpetuates the problem.

  2. Thanks for this. You know this is something I have also wrestled with-- admittedly, from both sides of the desk. And it does not seem to matter the age of the student or the level of education going on.

    Students of any age, like many children, fail to see that the teacher has his/ her best interests at heart when the teacher doesn't just give 'em an A for effort. Unless, of course, the effort really is presented.

  3. I once learned from a colleague: A teacher of theology must love students, love the subject, love God. I agree, and like the heart of John here, because I think that’s why he cares for in fact all three!

    1. Anders,

      Thanks for stopping by and offering your kind words. I have just added your blog to my reader. The English language one of course.

  4. Yes, John. Well said. Teaching is a relationship; perhaps even a covenant of sorts. Both parties, teacher and student, have obligations to uphold. It's sad that this seems to be fading, at least here in America.

  5. Well said John. What I find interesting is that this is a relatively new development in terms of societal expectations...However, we should not be surprised because we, particularly in North America, have appropriated a transactional model of education whereby education is viewed as nothing more than the exchange of services, or goods, for money.

    Or in other terms, in the USA, we are at fault - as a society - for indoctrinating a generation of young people with the false myth that everything revolves around money - and the distribution thereof. We have also taken the same approach to people. People are often viewed as another resource from which we can derive benefit. Once people are viewed as a commodity which we can exploit to elevate our own status, or place in society, we begin to develop unhealthy approaches to those around us.

    When a society adopts both of these values, it is indeed a small step to consider course grades as simply a reasonable expectation, or 'right', for which they have expended their available economic resources. Institutions and professors then become a provider of the benefits they perceive are owed to them. This transactional, economically-based, model of education will, in the long-term, lead to a diminished capacity for US institutions to produce the well-educated and trained workforce needed to compete in the global economy in the 21st century and beyond.

  6. Dr. Byron,
    I am amazed by the sense of entitlement sometimes shown by my students. This usually manifests itself in the "I'm paying for this," attitude. My students use this at times when they want me to do something their way. It is this "consumerism" mentality that I find particularly insulting, and it feels manipulative. It comes off as "I'm paying for this (i.e. your salary) you will do what I want." I'm a professor, not a customer service agent. And I'm sorry, but in the realm of collegiate education, the customer is not always right. I am trained and paid to set standards and ask the students to excel and succeed. Most of all, it is my job to create and structure the course. Please do not misunderstand me; I am open to suggestions. However, it always amazes me when I hear the "I pay tuition" attitude because I would have never had the audacity to approach my professors in that way when I was in school.
    Steve K.

  7. When stuff is offered for sale this alters the relationship.

    Why shouldn't people complain about the quality of what they buy?

    This is the relationship that people are forced into in higher schooling. There are no free options that grant quals. Blaming people for adapting to the system by those who maintain the system? Perhaps they'd like to alter the system instead.

    The system rewards high marks. Why complain about those who want the rewards? This is what they system is set up to produce.

    Those in the system are generally blind to it.