Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Grade Grudge or What Ever Happened to the Honestly Earned C?

The psychology of the C grade: Is it a scarlet letter?

By now, you have probably heard about the former graduate student who tried to sue her university for “lost income” attributed to a C+ grade in a class. The grade she received prevented her from receiving the degree she sought—she had to settle for another degree that she claims has less earning power. She lost the lawsuit but made headlines everywhere—I don’t know if this notoriety is a source of pride, shame, or embarrassment. You can read about the affair here. As a professor and parent, I have an opinion, but I am less interested in this specific case than I am in what it represents about student perspectives on grades and how instructors respond to those perspectives (i.e., grade grudges).

Before we tackle grade grudges, there is one thing many readers may not know that we need to clarify—a course grade of C at the undergraduate level means that a student’s performance can be characterized as “average.” Not “poor effort” (that’s a D) or as a “failure” (that’s an F). A C is average—middle of the road, nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to write home about, either. A C is a grade that was designed to characterize the typical performance of students in a class. Note that “typical” or “average” does not have the pejorative quality of “mediocre,” for example. As I tell my students, a C is a fine and honest grade—it may not be the one you want (the B or the much desired A) but it is a satisfactory grade.

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At the graduate level, however, anything less than a B is considered to be a poor performance—there is really no F grade at the graduate level and the C is more or less a stand in for it—a B -, for example, is bad news enough. So, the former student’s grade of C+ was a shot across her intellectual bow, an indication that her performance was substandard. I don’t want to revisit her case here, rather I want to consider the bigger picture –is there still a role for a grade of C in colleges and universities? Can we salvage the C?

In contemporary undergraduate culture (I am painting with a broad brush here), a grade of B has become the more typical (i.e., average) grade due to grade inflation, which is found at institutions of higher education up and down the scholastic food chain (you may be happy to learn that it even happens at fair Harvard, as well as at mythical Podunk U.). As a result, the C grade is viewed more like a D or sometimes worse.

A consequence for college professors is that students become upset when they receive a C grade, whether it’s on an exam or for a whole course. Many students fear that this grade will be a scarlet letter on their transcript, which is highly unlikely (is it as bad as a D or an F? No, not so much). Will a C keep you from gainful employment? No, of course not. Again, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with an honestly earned grade of C—it’s not a point of pride or shame. Yet, my teaching colleagues and I often have students ask if they can do something for “extra credit” to boost their grades from the C range to the B range. I tell them that their energies are better directed towards performing well on whatever grading instruments remain in the class (e.g., future tests, term papers, and class participation) and that if I offer them extra credit, then I have to offer it to all students (including the ones earning A grades), which means the grading distribution will shift upwards. And that means their relative standing (compared to their peers’) remains—they still will have a C. Why not study instead?

Are there circumstances where a grade of C is acceptable? I think so—I hope so—isn’t it OK to be average sometimes? Most of us are average on any number of common indices (height, weight, IQ—you name it) and being average means you are grouped where most people are—that’s what an average represents. Lots of students graduate with grade point averages hovering in the C range and they go on to lead perfectly happy and successful lives (current college students, ask your parents how many Cs they received—you may be surprised). I can well understand why one would not want to earn all Cs during an undergraduate career, but a few will not end life as students know it. Certainly, earning higher grades in one’s college major makes sense and is preferable, but a well-rounded education is likely to introduce students to areas of study that are challenging or may be less interesting or whatever. My own bête noire in both high school and college was chemistry—yes, I earned a C and lived to tell the tale (if not an accurate accounting of covalent bonding and balancing equations but that, as they say, is another story).

I think college professors and parents need to have a chat (maybe a series of chats) with their students and discuss the fact that the search for uniformly perfect grades is foolhardy, that bumps in the academic road are common (just don’t have too many), and that a C represents average performance—not below average work. I do this with my students in my classes and with my advisees, too. So, let’s resolve to change the current psychology of C and rehabilitate the grade in practice and in public perception. Students, their parents (who often pressure them to do well across the board in spite of their interests and, candidly, actual abilities), and our larger culture needs to cope with the C grade—it could be better, but it surely could be much worse, too.

For their part, professors need to explain their grading rationales in their syllabi and to their classes, including what the C represents and doesn’t represent. It also helps to reinforce the point by informing a class what the average grade on an exam or a stack of papers is—failing to do so only feeds students’ dark fantasies about their performance relative to that of others. Taking these simple steps may help to lessen the grade grudge against the C.

 

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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