The validity of grades

Marco Arment writes at (proving that he was prescient when it comes to domain names) and created the awesome web service Instapaper, which I use solely for its Kindle export feature. One of his favorite posts is “School grades are hopelessly broken.” It’s worth reading, and Marco is probably right: school grades are too high and don’t reflect real knowledge, but like healthcare or the military, there’s no easy way to fix them.

Although Marco’s essay is mostly right, it also doesn’t propose any real solutions to the problem he describes—because there aren’t any. The incentive for parents in high school is to want their kid to get the highest grade possible; consequently, they will often fight for their kids, leading to an overall negative equilibrium, and one that I benefited from in late middle and early high school when I decided to effectively fail math as an ill-conceived protest against my parents. At the time I didn’t consciously realize this dynamic, or that protesting in ways that chiefly hurt me aren’t terribly wise, but I was also 13 – 15 at the time and didn’t know any better.

For most teachers, the easiest thing to do on an individual level is inflate grades, which reduces complaints from both parents and students. This isn’t optimal on a societal level, which generates posts like Marco’s, but it is on an individual level, and I don’t see an easy way to generate incentives to change this (more on that later). Marco says:

Grades don’t reflect your aptitude, intelligence, or understanding of the subject matter. You don’t need to actually learn much useful material to get good grades. (And many of those who learn exceptionally well don’t get good grades.)

This is probably true. But if grades don’t reflect all this, then imagine what the people with really low GPAs are like. Grades aren’t good at stratifying the high end of the curve, but they at least show some of where the low end is. And I suspect the really high end, especially in hard college majors like engineering, CS, and so forth, are still reasonably good guides to aptitude. Marco says, “You can understand why I don’t trust the validity of grades.” You shouldn’t trust grades fully—but that’s because grades aren’t supposed to be the full measure of man. Nothing is, except maybe life, and what does that really mean?

I see a lot of comments about colleges, high schools, grades, and how to improve those kinds of issues on sites like Hacker News and Slashdot. Most are good at identifying problems; Chris Smeder, for example, tells us how to improve college teaching in three major ways. He’s probably right about all of those, but he misses an important point: most universities are not set up (or, if you like buzzwords, “incentivized”) to reward teaching.

Smeder misses the main point, which isn’t identifying the problem; a gazillion people in the Chronicle of Higher Education have said virtually the same thing at various times. The real problem is solving the problem, which requires changing the incentives that drive professors. At the moment, hiring and tenure decisions at virtually all universities (and all the big ones you’ve heard of) are made mostly on research and publication. Teaching simply doesn’t count for much. Therefore, the people who succeed in getting hired and getting tenured optimize for what they’re being judged on: research and publication. Teaching is secondary. Heroic individuals and people who want to practice better teaching will help somewhat, but they aren’t enough to change the system as a whole.

Once you’ve realized this incentive problem, the question becomes, “How do you change the incentives?” I have no good answers for that, but it’s the real question you should be asking if you’re genuinely interested. And it might keep you from generalizations like this one, which is back to Marco’s essay:

Most people from my generation can’t really do anything else in the real world except bullshit jobs because nobody ever held them to very high standards.

This probably is true of all generations, and the rhetoric of most people during most generations (consider, for example, the New York Times’ Generation Me vs. You Revisited). I suspect that not all the jobs Marco assumes are bullshit are bullshit. And even if all this is true, schools aren’t going to be offering the kind of information he’d presumably like GPAs to show.

I’d get near-zero homework grades because I’d never do it, so I needed (and usually got) near-100% test grades to make up the difference. I’d barely pull through and get a C most of the time.

This works for some people, especially who start their own businesses. Most people don’t and never will. So their grades count. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s comment from “What You’ll Wish You’d Known:”

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

The right thing to do is your homework, because it’s presumably easy, and then do the rest of your work on your own time. And although GPAs are broken, they’re also the best we’ve got. As Joel Spolsky says in his advice to Computer Science majors:

Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.

Marco can be largely right in a micro sense and still be wrong, or at least doesn’t really deal with what should happen in a macro sense. If you’re the principal of a high school, or a college president, or an individual employer, or any number of other positions, what can you do to change the presumed brokenness of grades? How can you transform the system producing said grades? Until you’ve answered that, you’ve done a lot of the work that’s already been done (see, e.g., here for an older view of school problems) without facing the hardest part of the task.

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.

* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

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