Tuesday, March 17, 2009

failing students...

...I want more people to fail in my classes. This is not because I am evil (although some people here seem to think so), but because I want the people who graduate from my masters sociology program to be truly the best in the world.

The philosophy in US universities seems to be mostly one of making it really hard to get into the programs, but once you're in, the chances of graduating are really high. In fact, most rankings of American universities such as the one from US News place quite a bit of weight on four- or five-year graduation rates -- the fewer students that fail, the higher the university will be ranked. I find this counter-intuitive. While I understand that prospective students want to know that if they come here they will not be flunked, I think we all need to accept that mistakes are sometimes made in the admissions process.

In some other countries, like Spain where I have studied at university, the philosophy is exactly the opposite. Pretty much anybody can be accepted to any university. However, a large fraction of the people who enter end up failing out. That's an absolute threshold, not a relative one. You could address that by having a pass-fail qualifying exam graded on an absolute scale. The reason this appeals to me is that rather than making a decision based on a single test score (the SAT) and a couple of recommendation letters, universities get to test students for the span of several years before giving them a seal of approval.

I think it's a no-brainer that basic competence be required for graduation. Outright failing should be reserved for people who aren't bothering to do the work at all. Failing more students might make the academic process even more challenging by adding extra stress *even for the good students*. But at this level, the academic dexterity of students should be challenged, its not like they do not already have degrees but upper-level courses are designed to prepared students to add to the canon of knowledge rather than simply memorize then established principles of their majors. I am no fan of grade inflation, I think it perpetuates the credentialism cycle that we have going in this country. If a student is doing the work, and isn't getting it, I think a poor grade will suffice.

The mediocre teacher tells. 
The good teacher explains. 
The superior teacher demonstrates. 
The great teacher inspires...


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