Letter to the Editor: Professors and Students. Thou Shalt Read This Letter.
To The Editor:
Re: "Professors: Thou Shalt Read This Column," Opinion, Nov. 10
and "Students, Thou Shalt Read This Letter, "Opinion, Dec. 1
Professor Pitts and Sam Dean importantly address promoting a positive relationship between students and faculty. Unfortunately however, they miss the mark by failing to assess the source of the tension between the two.
Recent articles in the Sun have focused on the efforts at protecting students from gorge related incidents, as well as a recent legal suit filed against the University.
What is remarkably absent from the dialogue about the interaction between students and faculty is why this University has a significant issue with student dissatisfaction, often resulting in significant consequences. Not one of our peer institutions faces a student dissatisfaction problem even remotely close to what is presented on our Ithaca campus. Not one of our peer schools has an administration as preoccupied as ours with protecting students against themselves with barriers or similar efforts. Not because our peers do not care about their students. Quite the contrary, they care enough about their students to avoid a problem such as the one we have. Plain and simple, student dissatisfaction at Cornell largely lies in the consequences of difficult grading practices throughout the undergraduate colleges at Cornell.
While Cornell's efforts at increasing student mental health services is admirable and serves as a model, the time has come for Cornell Professors and Administration to ask why is it that our students have a level of dissatisfaction and pressure that is not found at any of our peer schools. It does seem rather manifest that the level of student dissatisfaction is significantly tied to the extraordinarily difficult and often unfair grading practices which are employed by a significant number of departments. Professors need to understand that our students are competing against students from peer schools who, by most every account and study, receive significantly higher average grades. How can a Cornell student fairly compete against a student from, say Columbia, when that school has no policy of creating a bell curve for grade distribution in any department, and almost 70% of all the grades they issue their undergraduates are A, similar to Brown, Yale and others? The Cornell practice of taking a high achieving student body and then, in many instances, issuing them grades on a bell curve, has resulted and continues to result, in substantial student dissatisfaction, something from which none of our peer or peer-like schools suffer.
Increased mental health services and increased dialogue between students, faculty and administration is a positive. Yet it still does not solve or directly address the underlying problem, which is largely rooted in the unreasonably harsh grading practices utilized at Cornell. Add to this practice the policy of posting what the Registrar terms "median" grades on transcripts and you have an unreasonably high pressure atmosphere. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the posting of median grades on transcripts adversely impacts the vast majority of students, and thus even further enhances student stress levels.
Is there even one Professor at Cornell who had median grades on his or her undergraduate transcript? Is there even more than a handful of present students who knew of Cornell's harsh grading practices, or that they would have "median" grades on their transcript, before they matriculated? Is it any surprise that the end result is many unhappy students?
Cornell students and faculty should work together. Students love to learn and so does the faculty. Yet it is difficult to truly love learning when, as a student, you know that the grading policy at Cornell is significantly more difficult than most, if not all, peer schools. The perception that employers and graduate programs factor in Cornell's difficult grading is not at all supported by the data, which is reflected in our employment success rate or graduate admissions rate as documented by a number of reliable publications. A cursory review of the employment practices at any large financial sector company, law school or graduate program, reveals that they do not take a college's grading practice into account.
With the existing grading practices at Cornell which are harsher than most (possibly all) ivy and ivy-like schools, combined with the additional difficulty posed by median grade reporting on transcripts, how can a Cornell student fairly compete?
Professors, read this: Grade students more fairly; do not create a bell curve amongst a class of students that are often all well qualified and gifted. Give students the grade they earn. If they all get As, give them all As. If they all get Bs, give them all Bs. If Columbia or Brown can have introductory courses in economics or physics where nearly every single student can earn and receive a grade of A, why can't Cornell?
Students, read this: Professors do care and are not working against you. They want to challenge and get the best out of you. We are all in this together. Let professors and administration know of your concerns and what you think can be done to help you, your fellow students, and the University.
Administratiors, read this: Why has median grade posting on transcripts not been finally eliminated? How many more students have to be burdened by a transcript full of median grades, which by any explanation, interpretation or evaluation almost always works against the Cornell student in his or her post-undergraduate pursuits.
Professors, Administration and Students, read this: Let us not be afraid to ask the difficult questions about student satisfaction and make the changes that are necessary. Let us all do what is best for the continued success of this great University, its faculty and its students.
Plain and simple, student dissatisfaction at Cornell largely lies in the consequences of difficult grading practices throughout the undergraduate colleges at Cornell.
It does seem rather manifest that the level of student dissatisfaction is significantly tied to the extraordinarily difficult and often unfair grading practices which are employed by a significant number of departments.
This is absolute BS. I have posted data after data showing that this is false. Cornell is not "extraordinarily" difficult. It is no walk in the park. But, it is not unfair.
do not create a bell curve amongst a class of students that are often all well qualified and gifted.
Science classes at most legit universities are going to be curved. That's just a fact of life. And thank god for curves. Otherwise, my 76% would've landed me a C, not an A.
I do think it was a horrible idea to post median grades on transcripts mainly because the median grades are very HIGH. Anyone who has seen the median grade report knows that most of the courses at Cornell are curved to an A- or a B+. Posting the median grades only shows what a farce it is to complain about the supposed grade deflation at Cornell.
So you are arguing Cornell should use a different curve other than a bell curve? I think the reason Cornell compares unfavorably in certain aspects relating to stress is that we are a science/engineering heavy school compared to other top peer institutions, save Caltech and MIT, and let's be real, MIT isn't known as an unstressful environment. I wasn't a science major, but took a couple courses and I do think they need to be curved classes. If they were designed not to be curved, the material on the exams would be way too easy as you couldn't ask many questions that asked students to approach new problems applying what they'd already learned. Instead, you'd have to regurgitate similar problems to what they've already been exposed to and I don't think that's the type of critical thinking skills you want to develop with science/engineering students.
As for the other majors at Cornell, none of them should be regarded as super stressful, except perhaps AAP. Econ is curved in a similar way to science/engineering classes, but the material is easier. Cornell develops a strong work ethic in its students. One of my ILR friends said a survey of employers revealed that Cornell ranked #1 in work ethic for new employees.
I think Cornell gets to some students because many never had to work all that hard in high school for excellent grades and could rest on their smarts alone. For the students that worked really hard for their grades, Cornell can be stressful because you have to work even harder. I'm of the opinion that Cornell can't cater to all students at all times. Cornell has to be Cornell, and to me, academically that means a rigorous environment that truly challenges all individuals. If a high GPA is important, you need that special combination of high intellect and an excellent work ethic, and not all have that (I didn't).
For some students, Cornell will require an attitude adjustment. For me, GPA didn't matter all that much and I was perfectly happy with grades in the B-range. I think I worked hard (probably harder than the average), but I am certainly no genius by Cornell's high standards. For me, a 4.0 would have meant sacrificing too much in relation to non-academic activities, and those were important to me. It's a choice and a good lesson for the real world. Those high paying jobs at graduation ($80-100k+) aren't the ones where you are working 40 hrs, but 60 or 80 and that requires sacrifice.
Some of my most memorable classes were ones where I challenged myself and pushed, and even if I didn't get an A, I was happy with what I learned. My stand-out example in this regard was a 300-level music class. There were only 4 of us in the class, and the other 3 were music majors. I barely met the pre-reqs by having played an instrument in high school (which is borderline useless when studying music). I listened and analyzed music for 2+hrs a day that semester and gained a real appreciating for opera and other classical music, neither of which I was all that familiar with before. Now it's on my iPod.
^ It is my opinion (just a guess) that if you had attended any other top-20 university you'd be expressing a very similar gripe. Norcalguy has, in many posts, given valid reasons why Cornell's academic difficulty level is on a par with peer universities. And Norcalguy is a very knowledgeable and credible CC respondent.
I don't see how you can continue to make this argument when Cornell published the median grades for every single class (with over 10 students) for god sakes. How much transparency can you need? There were more classes in the school with medians of A+ (where more than half the students earned an A+) than medians of C+ or below. The average GPA is a respectable 3.4 at Cornell (this is somewhere b/w a B+ and a A-). I think that's a very fair GPA for an AVERAGE Cornell student. Not everyone can go through college earning 3.9's. You still need to distinguish the good from the very good from the excellent students.
It is nice that you are dedicated and passionate about Cornell. Your analysis, however, I believe is incorrect.
The first thing is that you are mixing up median and mode. The median grade does not represent what 1/2 of the class got for a grade. It is only the midpoint (the middle). The mode is the most common grade in the sample. You can have a class with a median of B+ where there are more C's than Bs and As combined. A median grade itself is not reflective of the "average / mean" grade. The median is just the midpoint. You can have a course with a midpoint of B+ where not one A was issued. This is a pretty straightforward statistical concept. Cornell does not now publish median grades for current courses. The Sun has written a number of pieces dealing with removal of the median grade from transcripts to benefit students. Cornell is a wonderful school, educationally and socially. Yet, as the author of the Op Ed piece suggests there is an issue with student satisfaction and grading at Cornell. There is a survey that was done by Cornell itself about student satisfaction and a link was posted for the public to view and I looked at it and found it interesting. I think Cornell's survey provides a reliable measure of satisfaction; unfortunately it is not that "great" fro Cornell. With work, I agree that it can be improved. You and the author make some good points, but I think everyone at Cornell needs to continue to try and make more undergraduates "content." I don't know the figures about average grade and how it compares to other schools. I know that Harvard and Yale have a rep for giving out an awful lot of grades of A. My experience at Cornell was that grading was not easy, but not that hard. I can only compare it to the only other transcript I have ever seen, which is my sister who went to Smith, a small college in Mass in beautiful Northamption. She had nearly all As, then again she says so did everyone else at the school, so I guess it has to be viewed in context. ( I had some As, some Bs and a few Cs.) She went on to study Law at Yale, but never actually worked in law after she and her husband opened up a legal billing software company. She is the smart one in the family.
I wish it was a lot better, but no matter which way you read it, Cornell does not compare very well. This is the link to the survey that Cornell did, apparently in response to the issue with comparatively poor student satisfaction at Cornell. It may be because of hard grading, it may not. I don't know for sure, but as someone who graduated (not that long ago!) and went on to study for my MBA, I can tell you that many of my classmates, all of whom are committed alums, believe that overall student satisfaction at Cornell is not anything like our friends in finance who went to smaller liberal arts colleges like Williams, or most any of the other major schools such as Duke, Yale, etc. Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the location. Maybe those schools had easier grading. I am honestly not sure, but I do submit to you that the point of the OpEd appears to be valid and something that needs to be addressed by the University. I don't know how long the Sun keeps its links to prior editions, but there have been a number of articles about this issue of the last 4 or so years. As I write this, I think a good measure of student satisfaction would be how much of the alum contribute to their school. I wonder if there is any study out there of what % of the alum at various schools are contributing on an annual basis. I am a contributing alum to cornell; I did not get into a top MBA program, but I did go to a decent one and Cornell prepared me very well.
Mr. Norcal, we can agree to disagree, but we both seem to believe in Cornell. Have a nice day.
Your point about median vs. mode/average is valid, but reality is there are more A's than C's in classes, and probably by a significant margin. While this data doesn't exist, I'm willing to bet the curves in classes are hardly true bell curves, but instead have a hump about the median, with a heavy tail on the higher grades.
You noted in your opening post that Cornell grades on a bell curve. Hence, the statistical anomalies (like the mean being very different from the median and mode) are highly unlikely. Cornell is simply not as tough as you make it. There are numerous statistics which demonstrate this.
There are a lot of whiners at Cornell. I agree with you on this. But, just because Cornell students complain more about grades, it doesn't actually mean Cornell is actually more difficult.
I did premed at Cornell. I was a science major. Let's just say that Cornell taught me barely enough to get through med school. Barely. In my first week of med school, we covered half a semester of Cornell biochemistry. Oh, by the way, it was a short week due to Labor Day.