ask a scatterbrain: what is adequate?

Feeling grumpy this morning…. a student came to me after the final exam to complain that s/he hadn’t received a B- for his/her work, which was generally pretty poor. Apparently s/he and “a lot of others in the class” were confused by the following language in my syllabus:

Completing these requirements adequately will earn you a B- in the course. Completing them exceptionally well will earn you a B, B+, A-, or A, depending on the quality of work.

The student said s/he had taken the class as an elective and “didn’t need it,” indeed “would have dropped it” if s/he had understood the policy correctly. In fact, s/he went so far as to say “I don’t even understand the concepts of the course. I stayed in it because of the contract,” by which was meant the excerpt above.

We had a conversation about it this morning. Apparently “adequate” was interpreted as “to my ability,” i.e., whatever is turned in should receive no less than a B- since its very presence is prima facie evidence of adequacy. I offered this page in response. Am I just becoming a grumpy old man? Am I one already? Should I rewrite the syllabus language?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

11 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: what is adequate?”

  1. The page you linked to won’t permit the back button to work, fyi. On the thing itself, I try to give students pretty good feedback throughout the term about how they are doing. Per my comment on your grades post, I don’t believe in “curving” a class at the end of the term where a student’s final grade depends on how well others did. The problem with “adequate” in the context you used it is that it is a tautology: adequate is whatever you think is adequate for a B-.

    Here’s an example of an “absolute” grading scale I wrote for a course one semester: Each requirement will be graded on a standard 4-point scale (A=4, AB=3.5, B=3 etc.), and the course grade will be calculated as the weighted average of these grades. Guideline grading standards for written work: A=AB + unusually good, very well-written, uses sociological theory with insight and deep understanding; AB=B + well-written, uses sociological theory correctly and with understanding; B=BC + acceptable writing, uses sociological theory without major errors; BC=C+ no major writing problems, attempts to use sociological theory; C=does the assignment completely; D=assignment done partially or with grave errors; F=assignment less than half done or fraudulent (if fraudulent, an academic misconduct charge will also be filed).

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  2. the search for syllabus language that will prevent grade-grubbing reminds me of pagans trying to identify a perfect magic ritual to divine the will of the gods. when grade-grubbing still occurs it must be because the syllabus was ambiguous, just as when the oracle fails it must be because the priest made some technical error.

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  3. Olderwoman is right about the need to provide some sort of concrete guidelines about what “adequate” means. Explicit guidelines can sometimes be omitted, however, if you give enough intermediate assignments and provide comments when grading. I usually think of “adequate” as meaning, “You completed the tasks I set for you with a high enough degree of competence that I am convinced you have a basic grasp of the material.” That said, my “adequate” normally rates only a C in letter grade terms. Just turning in all the assignments, however, does not automatically equal a passing grade, although it will surely help.

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  4. The good thing about your syllabus language is it sets the starting point for evaluation, so a B- is the default for someone who completes the work in a way that is completely mundane. That’s good, because too often the assumption is that the assumed grade is an A+, and the burden is on the instructor to show what the student did “wrong” if that is not the final grade. In dealing with such a student, I think a reasonable goal is to keep the total volume of communication to a minimum. But then, I am a grumpy old man.

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  5. You need to add–just for cases such as this–“Work that I do not deem adequate will receive a grade of C+ or below.”

    It’s a contract; you believe (correctly, imho, but possibly not in the view of the law) that it is implicit that grades lower than B- may occur.

    It needs to be explicit.

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  6. How about something along the lines of: “I reserve As and Bs for truly exceptional work; satisfactory work will get a C; unsatisfactory work gets Ds and Fs. And I really mean it.”

    I like OW’s description of her range from: “unusually good” on to “acceptable” and “fraudulent.” Then again, I like everything she writes! But I quit dealing with the +s and -s because it’s such a hassle. It’s really hard for me to give the C+ to a student I like when the B- is just so close…

    I don’t think you need to clarify that you’re the one who determines “adequate.” After all, you’re the professor!

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  7. I’d like to focus on another aspect of this post – namely the student digging him/herself even deeper into the hole. “I don’t even understand the concepts in this course.” Really? Oh, I’m sorry. My mistake. You didn’t get a B-, you got an F.

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  8. Once you put yourself in the position of a contractual arrangement with you students based upon completion of work with a vague reference to quality of work, you are headed down that “slippery slope” of ambiguity. I would prefer a simpler, more direct approach; “completed assignments will be graded on the following scale: 93-100=A, 88-92=A-“, etc. You are the professor and the one who will determine that grade. The completion of the work is the essential contribution of the student and the only component in the equation s/he should expect to control.

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