Tyranny of the ‘A’ Students? Really? Really.

As someone very closely associated with modern post-secondary education (both as a student and part-time pseudo-instructor) I find PJ O’Rourke’s latest amusing, but not because anything he’s written is actually funny.

You see, the issue isn’t so much students who learn the material and perform well. Even in the most stodgy of disciplines – usually thought of as either physics or math – creative thinking is an extremely valuable skill. Creativity has just as much to do with solving problems in organic chemistry as it does writing the next great American novel. And, further, complex problem solving, understanding systems, working with numbers, and such things are valuable skills if you open a restaurant or do some other thing. Business, whatever.

The real problem, and there are plenty of these folks to be found all around the GPA spectrum, are students who care more about getting an acceptable grade in the class than they do about either understanding the course material or understanding the purpose of learning. The value of an education is simply not the accumulation of some set of facts. Sure, facts are useful and it’s good to know them in many general and specific instances, but over the long-haul the major importance of a collegiate education is learning how to think critically about complex issues and understand that actions have consequences. Unfortunately, these are the things that students obstinately refuse to learn.

As a perfectly well trained economist (and super trustworthy B student in economics), I can say that the main causes are incentives. GPA and standardized testing are used as the only demarcations of success, so students obsess about making grades they find acceptable and/or coughing up the correct answer on an exam. Unfortunately, especially at the secondary level, lazy instructors are encouraged to give multiple choice exams that, really, can only test a student’s ability to cough up the correct sorts of information. Evaluating knowledge and understanding are, frankly, much trickier and more time consuming. Add to this that collegiate instructors are very often evaluated based on student surveys (the scores on which tend to correlate very well with student grade averages) and these kinds of outcomes and obsessions become clear.

When I was a working economist whose main job was “analysis” (read: “playing to my superiors’ confirmation bias”) on a compensation plan most of the people who bothered to call me about it were only interested in why their bonus wasn’t bigger. Simple: they weren’t any good at their jobs, and the quantifiable evidence of that was sitting in a database staring me in the face. If you manage to run off over $20MM in loan assets over the course of a year, for instance, I don’t really think you deserve a bonus of all things. But the plan bred obsession with the plan rather than an interest in improving the skills that would earn them more money. I see the same attitude in students in my help sessions for o-chem: they only want to get a grade because they need to get into med/pharm/optometry/dental school and don’t actually want to have to understand the material to do it. They think they don’t need understanding. That it won’t serve them well in the future.

These are the sort of students who can’t be trusted with power. Working hard, thinking critically, problem solving, working to really understand a complex issue and see the nuances, the details – people who can do these things are valuable resources in basically any field. Unsurprisingly, these are the people who end up in creative disciplines, who generate new knowledge and new advancements. Historians, scientists, industrial researchers, computer programmers: people who create and produce.

The other students, the ones obsessed with grades and metrics, the ones driven by lust rather than curiosity they end up managers, politicians, congressional interns, people with MBAs…some become physicians. They’re the ones running the country, and writing the tax code, and acting like power-tripping silverbacks in the weekly status update progress report meeting regardless of the grades they made. The ones who were really good at it, yeah, they went to Harvard and ended up in politics or something, but they’re really no more interesting and no more studious than some cubicle-dwelling Senior Vice President for Information Technology.


1 Response to “Tyranny of the ‘A’ Students? Really? Really.”

  1. 1 cholm725
    April 27, 2010 at 10:52 am

    What’s even worse, is that the people who look at evaluations tend to look at z-scores. However, this is complicated by the fact that the z-score you get from evaluations that are filled out are flawed because the sampling is flawed. I tried explaining why to those in charge, but they couldn’t get it. Then, people in the Math department were charged with finding a better way to evaluate people based upon the results we get. The only thing that has really changed, which is still good, is that they’re online now. Maybe a few more students fill them out to see grades earlier, but I haven’t seen anything showing that to be true.

    Anyway, evaluations are like the multiple choice test. The lazy administrative way to have a flawed tool to evaluate teaching…which, coincidentally, is not as valued as other areas with more clear metrics of measurement (i.e. research and $$$$$$ brought to the department).

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