At Yale, our grades have many purposes: they reward us, terrify us and sometimes surprise us. But for all that letter grades do, they do not achieve the central mission of our education. They do not teach.
I sat down with my transcript and tried to answer some practical questions about my growth as a student. Have I learned to write persuasively? A. Do I think more critically than I did in high school? B+. Have I developed a passion for the course material? CR. The answers quickly lose coherence. Of course, most of us don’t look to our transcripts for answers to questions like these. But with nowhere else to look, I worry we may not ask them at all. We rely on our professors to share these secrets. The conclusion of each course provides an opportunity for feedback, but it takes a strong relationship with your professor to capitalize. If you’re too shy to ask, you probably won’t receive. If the class was a large lecture, forget about it.
Of course, you don’t have to frequent office hours to earn qualitative feedback. When the Yale College Council approached faculty members on the issue, they responded that graded papers should supply all the feedback that students need. It’s true: a long note at the bottom of a final paper reminds me of my middle school report card, in the very best way. The problem, though, is in how rarely we see our final work. Final papers, projects and exams take up the largest portion of our time — and the most space in our professors’ cabinets — but end up dusty and unread. Is it students’ fault for not picking up their work?
To answer this question, we ran a campuswide survey in February, and over 1,200 students responded. We asked you about your final work last semester: did the professor make it available, and did you pick it up? The results help shed some light on the perpetual blame game between students and faculty. Only 49.3 percent of final papers were made available for pickup, and students claimed 86.3 percent of those made available. For final exams, the numbers were even more disturbing: 22.76 percent of exams were made available, and students picked up 52.5 percent of those made available.
Clearly, both sides have plenty of room for improvement. As students, we should commit to learning from our mistakes and facing feedback when professors take the time to give it. We can all admit to ignoring a pile of blue books when already satisfied by the letter grade, but let’s be honest: an A means “good,” but it doesn’t mean “perfect.”
But professors also need to fulfill their obligations as teachers who value our growth, not just the grade we get. It is deeply troubling that only a small percentage of final exams were made available for pickup — and that’s just after the relatively short winter break. I can’t imagine that three months of summer vacation will make things any easier. The prompt return of student work should go without saying, and I know Dean Miller is committed to enforcing this policy.
Of course, not all final projects lend themselves to evaluative commentary. There should be another avenue for qualitative feedback at the conclusion of each course — or at least those small enough to allow it. Imagine if professors had a small text box to write in comments when they signed on to record your grade. Not every professor would take advantage of this option, but the opportunity would certainly strike some as more to the point of teaching than simply awarding a letter grade. With online course evaluations, students already give more feedback than we receive. We don’t just grade our courses; we reflect on them. It’s time to receive the same in return.
Jeff Gordon is a junior in Saybrook College and the president of the Yale College Council.