working hard, or hardly working?

Among academics and others, there has been a lot of talk in the past week or so about this New York Times story on the expectations college students have for grades. The story features some faculty claiming that students believe that they are entitled to good grades if they work hard, and at least some students agreeing with them. Consider one Jason Greenwood of the University of Maryland, who is probably now wishing that his fifteen minutes of fame were over:

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.

This comment received a sweet reply from Michelle Cottle at TNR:

No, Jason. What would be wrong is if a university trained its students to believe that they were excellent simply for getting up off their futons and doing what was expected of them. Did the reading? Attended class? Stayed up late working on a paper? Good for you, puppy! Sure, you did a craptastic job on that paper — not to mention the final — suggesting that you have no more than a fourth-grader's grasp of the material. But what the hell!? You worked hard. You showed up — even when you had that reallllly bad hangover. You may not have learned much, but you sure did try. Have a nice fat A. And here's hoping it comes in handy when your first employer fires you for not being able to tell your ass from your elbow when it comes to doing your job.

Couldn't have said it better myself. But I haven't yet come across anyone making the point that I like to make when this topic comes up — I’m sure someone else has made it, I just haven't come across them — which is that I have no way of knowing how hard someone works on an assignment. How would that be determined? Monitoring students on webcams to see how much time they spend writing, or with their noses in books? Even that wouldn't let me know how much of the time they’re really concentrating and how much daydreaming. Have then hooked up, then, to constant brain-scanning devices, so that I can see what parts of their brain are active, and how often? That would help a lot, but short of that, I think the only option — and as far as I can tell this is the one that many students want — is for the students themselves to decide how hard they worked. But if we’re supposed to give them grades based on how hard they worked, and they’re the ones who determine how hard they worked, then they’re basically grading themselves. Now that would be a dream come true for me as well as for them, but it’s not really a workable solution. Especially since most students I know have one real criterion for determining how hard they work on an assignment: how late they stay up the night before the assignment is due.