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Defanging the F Grade

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's letter was, of course, an accusatory A. Damning for her, but I'd have been very happy had I received more of those when I was in secondary school.

For me, the scarlet letter that lent its shaming tinge to my academic career was the F. Ms. Prynne suffered greatly because of her letter, but I had my share of angst dealing with more than a few of mine.

As it happens, by dint of luck and a good enough mind, I've done better than some of the teachers whose courses I failed might have predicted. Yet I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the terrible shadow cast over my life by an F in math, or physics, or chemistry.

Whatever else I might have accomplished during a given marking period -- excellent records in English, art, and social studies, solo singing parts with the choir -- all it took was one F to cast a near-permanent pall over my school experience (not to mention a foreboding quiet over the supper table on the evenings after I brought my report card home).

I'm convinced that a feeling of inadequacy brought on by those scarlet letters lingers still, decades after they torpedoed my grade point average. I hadn't yet heard the saying that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Clearly, the failing grades didn't kill me, but instead of making me stronger, they just made me feel inadequate. My teachers' moving hands had written, and I had been found wanting.

I'm not going to claim I didn't deserve those failing marks, but they weren't from lack of trying. I simply couldn't bend my brain around the mysteries of algebra, for instance, and it took weekly tutoring just to get me to raise my F to a D. So, compiling my test scores and my homework demerits and my generally glazed expression in class, what could my teachers do?

But that was then, in an academic era with few gray areas, when failure represented -- well, failure. I have since seen that failing can be a beginning, rather than an end, a source of encouragement instead of a crushing blow.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a national business magazine covering the technology boom in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time reporting on paradigm-shifting start-ups, interviewing such famously successful entrepreneurs as Oracle's Larry Ellison, AutoDesk's Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo), and Netscape cofounder James H. Clark.

What I discovered was that almost all the successes in the Valley had been preceded by failure, and that an F on an entrepreneur's business report card was generally understood to be just a rite of passage. (Clark, who became a billionaire when Netscape went public, was a high school dropout, by the way.)

Paul Sappho, a well-regarded futurist in Silicon Valley, neatly summed up this attitude in a recent speech: "We know how to fail," he said, and he went on to joke that the reason high tech company headquarters in the area are surrounded by lush grass is so that when people jump out of high windows, "they only sprain their ankles."

Of course, there have always been dedicated teachers who help students use a failing grade as a catalyst for progress rather than a reprimand. And Edutopia's recent coverage of multiple intelligences spotlighted the widening understanding that difficulties with one subject need not overshadow a kid's abilities in other areas.

Realistically, there are students whose failures indicate attitudinal and social problems difficult for teachers to remedy alone. I'm no fan of grade inflation, and I'm not suggesting that failure be euphemized out of existence. But it should be seen as something of value, even if its impact on metrics is negative. After all, failure is inevitably part of everyone's life after school -- relationships fail, businesses fail, the best-laid plans go awry -- and we move on smarter, if we've learned anything at all.

So, if the goal of school is to prepare students for future success, failure needs to be understood in a broader context. There are ways, as Sappho says, to "know how to fail," to turn the stark finality of an F into part of a continuity, a bump in the road, not a blowout, the prelude to a comeback -- something that can be counterbalanced with successes and used for motivation instead of frustration.

I'd love to hear your ideas on how to accomplish this.

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Meghan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is Meghan Elliott. I have been teaching Math at the high school level for four years and am currently earning my Masters in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment from Walden University. I believe we learn best from our mistakes. I provide my students with the opportunity to stay after school to make up points on tests. I have found that if they are not able to stay after due to not having a ride home they must find another time during the day, beside class time, to come to my classroom and make up points. When I say they make up points they are actually making corrections. I hand back their original test. On a separate piece of paper I have them copy the question they got incorrect and they must redo the problem the correct way. Now that they have seen where they made the mistake they can take the time to figure out how to make it right. For some students I allow them to look at their notes. Some might think that you are not truly testing their knowledge if they are using their notes. What I find is if they have tried it once without notes and failed, then there is no harm in them looking at their notes which is what they should have done in order to study. What I hope is that they simulate how to study while correcting and in the future can study correctly before the test. One concern might be that they depend on correcting so why do well the first time. Well that is why I require them to stay after school or find time other then class time. Are there any other suggestions on how to help those studetns who do not deserve an "F" in a subject they try hard in but might just not be good at?

Krissy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read over your article I looked back at my own schooling experience remembering those grades that I believed would haunt me forever. I struggled my Freshman year of college and received to F's in English and Psychology. I was so embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I wanted to just quite and give up. INstead I used these "Scarlet Letters" to better myself and learn from my mistakes. I agree with what Meghan wrote. Mistakes are made and thats okay, we just need to look at them as learning experiences and work harder. Just because a person does poorly does not mean they will not achieve success in life and be known as a failure. Lots of professional people have failed at something. They just picked themselves up and started over again. Life is full of challenges that we need to take one step at a time. In the end will we do the best we can in order to achieve our goals.

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

May I strongly argue that poor grades are but a snapshot of current status. Learners need to self-assess work submitted to decide what improvements in approach must be made.
Learners need to know that improvement is the goal AND that careful attention to what's working and what's not - making changes as suggested.
Teachers should encourage learners and facilitate learning better procedures - AND give students opportunities to recover gradewise.
BUT I do not believe in post-assessment "extra credit."
Treared "positively," bad grades should never become a traumatic experirnce. Everyone has bad experiences. It's our response to them that is most important.
One question to consider is how aware were the learners about the poor grades.

Brandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too can with Krissy on struggling through my Freshman year of college. I was not given the option to earn extra credit in any level of schooling. It seems to me that by given students this option, it undermines studying as well as the students who actually passed the first time around. Although Meghan's system may boost a student's confidence, will it eventually cause problems with the other students. May giving different versions of an exam to students, such as form A and form B. Students who struggle during class and/or quizzes can receive the alternate test, which is less complex than the other test. This may be more time consuming for the teacher, but I think it may eliminate any potential problems with student effort and achievement.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a teacher for the past seven years and have NEVER been an advocate of extra credit. Teaching at the elementary level, I believe it is important for me to instill a strong work and study ethic for students so they will not grow up expecting extra credit. Life does not come with the "do-over" attitude that originates on the playground. I always tell my students that I don't GIVE grades, they EARN grades. Of course sometimes the grades are a result of lack of understanding, but often they are also a result of lack of effort. If a teacher takes the time to differentiate the lessons so all learners have an equal chance to understand the information, then there will be fewer poor grades being earned. Not many Fs are earned in my room, and those that have been earned have usually spawned students to try harder.

I have earned an F or two in my life, and they certainly caused me to step up and try harder. Not everyone is outstanding in each subject. Perhaps grades are a way for people to figure out in what area they would benefit from pursuing in life. Perhaps the grades serve as a challenge for people to want to excel and work harder. People who let themselves feel defeated about a grade probably let themselves feel defeated by any bad news or struggle in life. With the care and support of teachers and parents, hopefully the students who struggle can find the positive aspects about themselves and focus on their successes. Young people need to be taught coping strategies to deal with failure and struggle because they are a part of life. As stated in other posts, look how many successful people came from failing and difficult situations in life. This brings to mind a quote I read once on the back of a t-shirt, "Don't ask for it to be easy. Ask for it to be worth it."

Amanda Crose's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am now a teacher yet I have a server learning disability that was not diagnosed until I was in 3rd grade. Until that point I failed everything and when I say everything I mean everything. I was also told to take things home and re-do them. Today I am what some people have said to be an extraordinary reading teaching yet I do not see what they see. I feel that I am a good reading teacher because I understand why my struggling readers struggle yet I have been told I am much more than that but, I don't see it. As an adult my self-esteem still suffers because of the failing, and shame I faced as a child.

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