Friday, February 09, 2007



What does a grade of 'D' mean?

I should have figured this out by now, but I really haven't.

My cc, like most colleges, doesn't give transfer credit for courses in which a student got a 'D.' The standard is a C or better, even though a 'D' is officially a passing grade.

Technically, a 'D' is passing, but it's a sort of a we-don't-really-mean-it pass. A grudging pass, or perhaps a mercy pass. A “you suck at this, but we don't see much point in putting you through this again” pass.

Or, it can be an “I don't ordinarily fail students, but you're testing my faith” pass.

D's make some level of sense if you believe the ancient fiction that a 'C' is an average grade. That hasn't been true for a long time, if ever, but if it were true, a 'D' would carry the relatively clear meaning of 'below average, but still acceptable.' Of course, if it were still acceptable, colleges would take it in transfer. But C's aren't really average, and D's aren't really accepted.

In some majors with relatively strict prerequisite chains, a 'D' doesn't allow a student to take the next level course. (We do that with calculus, bio, nursing, and music theory.) The student can still switch majors and possibly keep the credit for the D course, but that's it. It's a sort of consolation prize – you lose, but thanks for playing. Sort of like the standard 'last call' shout-out at dive bars – you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

I'm of divided mind on the continued existence of the D grade. If we've moved away from the idea of C as average in favor of C as effective minimum, then it's not clear to me why the D still exists. Either you've met the minimum, which is a C or better, or you haven't, which is an F. You're either on the bus or off the bus. The D suggests that you're being dragged along behind the bus, which strikes me as worse.

(Full disclosure: I got a D in Russian in college. In my defense, I was young and stupid. I worked my ass off, but just never got the hang of that #$%*#%&# language. It felt very much like being dragged along behind the bus.)

The issue is coming up now as we're negotiating some pretty good articulations with four-year colleges, in which they're actually agreeing to take an Associate's degree as a block, rather than picking it apart on a course-by-course basis. To get an Associate's, you have to complete the required number of credits with a GPA of 2.0 (a 'C') or better. Someone could graduate with some 'D' grades, as long as there were enough A's and B's to keep the GPA above water. So if a destination school takes transfers on a course-by-course basis, D grades don't count, but if they take the degree as a block, D's do count.

Our argument – that they should count – is based on parity with 'native' students at the four-year college. If they let their own students reach 'junior' status with some 'D' grades, as long as the overall 2.0 GPA is there, then why should our grads be treated differently? Characteristically, this puts D's in the 'they don't transfer, unless they do' category. They get dragged along behind the bus.

In my faculty days, I gave a few D's here and there. My grading was pretty numerical, so there was a set range of averages that equaled a D. But I was always stumped when asked if a D was 'really' passing.

What does a 'D' mean when you give it? Should we get rid of it?

I have often wondered what a "D" means as well. In my classes, students can end up with Ds when they fail a major exam, or fail to turn in several writing assignments. So for me, it's a "You-would've-gotten-a-C-but-you-
seriously-fucked-up-at-some-point" grade.

That said, I don't see how a D serves any kind of REAL purpose. And I like the idea of C as "effective minimum."

As an aside, I took Russian in college too! For three years!

--Maggie (I hate new blogger)
I have a lot of nasty things to say about Ivy League University (where I got my start), but one thing I can commend them for is the attempt to hold the line on grade inflation. There, an average was a C. The customers hated it, but the faculty loved it.

My last semester at ILU I taught a large lecture course in which 40% of the students got Ds and Fs. No one batted an eye. (The course had previously been taught as a gut, and the fact that I took the material very seriously took most of the students by surprise.)
At my two-year college, I teach a "hard" subject to a group of students who are required to take my course, but they don't have to know my discipline to be successful in their majors. So, a D to me means "You should have failed, but I've checked with the teachers in the courses that matter to your major and you're doing well there. I don't want to keep you from graduating by failing you in a course that you won't need in your career, anyway, so here you go, you pass, but barely."

Students understand this are are generally deeply grateful not to have to repeat my course.

I don't give Ds to students who actually need what I teach.
Consider how (some) student view the grade. If I get nothing but an empty seat all semester, that is an easy F. If a student has struggled, maybe botched some assignments but made a good faith effort on others, that's different. To many of my students, the D says, "You dropped the ball, but you could pass this class. Do it again and succeed." Especially in a Basic Writing or Comp I course at a CC, where students are intimidated by genuine reading and writing, a D holds them back, but an F might scare them off, forever. You spit the bit in Russian, and I flunked Brit Lit. But we overcame failure and succeeded. Today, you're DD, and I teach Conrad's "The Secret Agent." Sometimes (and I stress, sometimes) a D sends a message: Let's try this again.
While we are sharing family secrets, I must admit I received my two "D's" in German as an undergraduate. Luckily for everyone that was not what I taught for 40 years!
In some cases, I kind of like Ds. At XU, Ds are not supposed to count for the major, so if a student gets a D, they're supposed to take the class again. However, this can be overriden by the undergrad advisor, who can sign off on graduation even though a D is on the record. That seems ideal to me--the student gets his/her D, it's on the record for people to see if they're so inclined, but the profs don't have to change our whole grading scale just so the person can graduate and the student doesn't have to pay many thousands of dollars to take the class again.

For the record, after only 4 years, I've given up on principle.
Interesting to see how subjective the grading structure turns out to be in real life. There's going to be ongoing tension between that and the body politic's growing demand for accountability and objective success in education efforts.
We've had this discussion quite a bit at my school, too. (At one point we found ourselves stuck in the thicket of a debate on whether the "D+" should exist at all.) For me, as someone in the humanities, a grade is a metaphor for the quality of a student's work, and Professor Meanypants's description of the "D" works really well for me in this regard: "Sometimes (and I stress, sometimes) a D sends a message: Let's try this again." I'd stress "sometimes," too. PM's description sure fits my "D" in Macroeconomics back when I was a student still finding my way.
I think of it as "D is for diploma." I teach in a discipline that many students take as service courses for their major--and some don't really get it. If they make it, show some effort, they get the D..and then never take this subject again. However, they will graduate!
I like Prof. Meanypant's description of the D. I've only given a handful of D's as a prof---I usually reserve them for those who don't quite deserve to fail, but don't meet what I consider the minimum standards to go on to the next course (which would be a C-).
At the State U. where I teach, there is no such thing as a D in composition classes; students can earn only an A, B, C or NC. This has led to some agonizing decisions as I've calculated final grades. In every class, there is a NC or two, but I've also squeaked many students by over the years with a C- that I didn't truly feel they deserved. I, too, am unsure of the meaning of the D, but I sure do miss it sometimes...
Wait, Anonymous at #3-- you give different grades for the exact same work, depending on who's doing it?

-- Cardinal Fang
At Small Liberal Arts College, D's were a lot like AP credit*. They count toward your overall credit-to-graduate pool (you needed 30 to graduate, at a school where classes ranged from .5 credits to 1.5 credits), but did not satisfy any requirements whatsoever. So if you needed the course, you were SOL and had to take it again, but might be able to take one fewer 'elective' overall.** Basically, it was declaring that you had spent enough time in a classroom to count for something, but that something was only 'hours-a-body-spent-sitting-in-a-classroom.'

I think that's a fair reading of the grade (and I liked some of the others, too). I definitely think they should transfer, subject to whatever interpretation the recieving institution gives for D's at their own place. If they only count for credit-hours, do that. If you have to take the course over again, then do that. If it counts-but-barely, then do that.

* No, SLAC doesn't take AP or IB credit for class completion. It counts for credit-hours only.

** Provided you had chosen a major which allowed for 'electives' at any point, which was pretty rare; most people just wound up with more credits than they needed to graduate by taking courses they wanted on top of what was required. We're weird like that.
My department in my CC resolved the "D" problem when we were required to add it back into our grading scale by making it a very narrow point spread (72%-74%). Most of us have determined that it doesn't apply to students who don't complete work- ie the ones who have done the math and figure out that they don't need to turn in that last assignment to pass.
Since D's do count as passes but don't count toward one's major in our curriculum, the meaning of a D is clear -- "You have attained a level of understanding which is barely satisfactory for someone who is ending here but is not sufficient for you to succeed in courses which build on this material." I don't tend to pass out a lot of D's, especially in major-only courses, but there are often at least a few students to whom this applies in my intro lecture courses.
I teach at a small liberal arts and science university. We have talked about this and agreed that there has to be some academic distance between the average student and failing a course. That is where the grade of D goes. Students make thier own choices about time management and must face the consequences. In the liberal arts there is a tradition of taking courses from a broad spectrum of disciplines not just in the majour. We see that students have to be allowed to take a course in good faith, discover that they do not like the subject and do poorly in the course. It actually helps in the decision making process for future course selections. A grade of D in a subject outside of the majour does not stop academic progress and it confirms the chosen path of the student. Anything below C in the students majour should be academic poison.
Our college spells out how you earn a "D", and it always looked pretty accurate to me. Paraphrased:

1. Below average exam scores, but high enough to meet minimum course objectives.

2. Assignments completed imperfectly and not always on time.

3. Some grasp of individual parts of the subject matter, but not of interrelationships and with little insight.

Plus: I don't want to drive over a bridge they designed.
Up here, a D means you've met the requirements for the course, and are eligible to take the next course up. However, we recommend extra work _before_ doing that so you can make up your deficiencies.

Of course, my course average are squarely in the C range, so our grade inflation might not be as bad as your's.
I don't know how I would live without the "D". I'm not sure what the official stand on Ds is with the cc I am at but I've alway taken it to mean what professor meanypants said. I give Ds when the student gave the appearance of trying and did the assignments (poorly). Him or her clearly did not learn the material or even minimimally meet the objectives of the course but he or she didn't commpletely give up or blow it off. I think of a D as a grade that means the person tried, learned something but not enough, and might want to try again...
I'm in Professor Meanypants' ballpark, too. Fortunately, there are "hard" prerequisites in our English department, so a "D" means a student showed up some of the time, did some poor-quality work, and has to take the class over again to move on. An "F" means a student quit showing up, did little or nothing, and seriously pissed me off.

I give Ds to logic students who do passable work in the course, but cannot do the easiest proofs at the final exam.
Two recent D's:

A student with a learning disability who had waited until her last semester to take a required majors course, and was never really going to be able to do the work entailed, but who came every day and did all the extra credit assignments. The extra credit brought her average up into the vicinity of 60%, but she really got the D as a humanitarian gesture.

A student with reasonable talent who ran afoul of my "late work" policy and thereby drove his average into the ground.

In both cases, and for different reason, I was glad to have the D as an option. I don't give many D's, but I think eliminating them might prompt more C's rather than more F's. Both of these students did significantly worse than the students to whom I gave C's -- I would struggle with giving either of them the same final grade as someone who earned a 78% or 79%. (My institution does not have plus/minus grading.) So the D is helpful.
Our institution doesn't take Ds as transfer credit, but if they get a D at our college, good enough (outside the realm of Gen Eds, of course). I guess "our" D is better than "their" D.

And, to further muddy the waters, we don't take C- as transfer either. Technically, it is a 1.7, not a 2.0. Just try to get students to understand that. Ha.

Of course, our instructors have all kinds of options to avoid the Fail. RD, Z, DE - you name it, they can make a grade out of it. Any way you spell it, it's not successful completion.
Ok...I'm a bit of an outlier since I teach at a graduate school.

We don't have D's. A-C; then F. And you can only get a C once--then you're out of the program.

Of course, we can be spanked for grad inflation. But what this policy tends to do is get folks who are "dabbling" out the door. If they are serious about chasing a masters degree, they stay.

Most of our students are funded by their employers (and receive additional compensation for courses completed). So there is an incentive to take classes, higgildy piggiggldy. The C policy gets folks to proform or leave.

Then again, this is a graduate school, which can afford to be picky and a pain in the butt.
As an adjunct, I almost never give a D. The only time I give a D is if the student handed in some work, say, early in the term, and then vanished. And I never give a C. My grade range runs from B to A. Yes, I am a grade inflator. But there are some mitigating factors. My continued employment is driven entirely by evaluations -- my chairs (yes, there are several) have made this fact very clear to me. So the message that I (correctly) infer is that the departments do not have my back. Were I to grade students on a non-inflated scale, even with clearly explained and articulated criteria, I would eventually be fired -- or rather, not re-hired for next year.

Of course, grade inflation is not the only route to positive evaluations. They are a necessary, if not entirely sufficient, factor. In addition, one's overall in-class performance must also be appealing, informative, and engaging. But woe be to the adjunct who is a model teacher but a harsh grader - or even a fair grader.
Both Keyser Sose and Second Line introduce compelling points. KS's point -"Interesting to see how subjective the grading structure turns out to be in real life. There's going to be ongoing tension between that and the body politic's growing demand for accountability and objective success in education efforts" - speaks to that uninformed dittohead desire to enforce "accountability" in every public college. Reading the comments here, it is apparent that most profs want their students to both mature and succeed. Few are handing out free passes. The profs who wish to see students both grow and succeed accomplish this by using gray areas on the grading scale. We could always smack them down with an F and call it a day, but I would argue that this perhaps runs counter to the mission of the CC. The intellectual rewiring of students here is complex and requires patience.

SL's very real point about adminstrators tossing him, and by extension his students, under the academic bus in order to both sidestep grief from "tuition payers" and publish glowing grades for prying eyes also speaks to the inevitable tension between inflexible "standards" vs. the reality of life on the ground. CC students granted soft As & Bs are going be crushed at State U. Forcing adjuncts to please everyone (from students to administrators) robs them and their students. More students slip through courses they should have failed because adminstrators refuse to support adjuncts on the front line. In the end, who is working in the best interest of students?
Ds are a big part of my world. Cs are average. You did the work, showed up everyday, but didn't stand out and didn't demonstrate that you really "got" it -- you mastered the content, but not the larger objectives of mastering any of the skills of the discipline. Ds are people who did almost everything, but didn't really master much or, more often, communicated so badly that I couldn't tell. They learned something, but their learning or work was deficient in some way. If they want to, they can re-take, but if not, their transcript says they passed, but were sub-par. It affects their overall GPA.

Fs happen to people who just don't do the work, or cheat. They haven't mastered much of anything except wasting their time and mine.
I had a student two summers ago in a logic class who claimed I failed her when I gave her a D. Her reasoning was that it wouldn't transfer, thus was a failure. Since she invoked my minimum grade policy (which says, try hard and get a D) she objected to the grade saying she tried hard and thus should get a C.

Sadly, she was getting an education degree and her husband was finishing a PhD in Ed... and they couldn't interpret a syllabus or understand how she could get a D in the class. Sad.

By the way, I didn't change her grade. I did go back and re-calculate it to be sure -- and I'd made a mistake in her favor. I let her keep the D anyway.
Prof. Meanypants makes an excellent point about SL's concept of a Gentleman's B, but misses part of the boat about accountability. Any CC has "GPA after transfer" to State U as an objective measure that taxpayers and students can look at, and this has nothing to do with dittoheads.

Our institution is looking at grades and later success in classes with a particular pre-req, and has already started a complete redesign of one key math class to fix one of the problems. Data (hard as they are to come by from our system) will say if the fix has worked.

Maybe SL is not in an area where anyone cares that a B only means you attended the entire semester. I once had a student who earned a Gentleman's C all the way through calc-3 at a Uni and could not take a derivative. That kid was so screwed.
This is a fascinating discussion. I admit, I hadn't thought too much about the administrative role of a D mark before this.

Despite the hazards, however, I think the D is valuable. Our students are able to count D courses towards graduation, as far as I know (though I will ask the registrar the next time we meet up).

If you get a D mark in my course, you've earned it and in a substantially negative way. Some such students do it by not handing in one or more assignments (two small assignments can be enough to take you from a B- or C+ into the D range) and others do it by substantially sub-par work overall. What frustrates me the most is that so many of these students are in full-out avoidance mode. They stop coming to classes, they don't return my emails or phone calls, they don't pick up their graded papers or midterms, they don't engage at all to improve their performance.

Those students? They deserve their D or F mark and I refuse to feel bad about it.
What this makes clear is that no one really knows what an A, B or C is. Perhaps, to be generous, some people know for their classes. It points up the need of having deep, department wrenching discussions about the meaning of grades. BTW D is not my problem, it's not having +/- grades. Not all A B Cs are equal
I could be wrong, but ccphysicist may be making my point. Anyone can look up the subsequent grades of a CC transfer to State U, and I'd be interested to see how many HR jockeys do that, but I am not concerned with sifting through the evidence AFTER the trainwreck. I want to be certain that a CC student is academically prepared BEFORE they transfer. If adjuncts are pressured by administration into handing out As & Bs, that is ultimately harming the student. How exactly does the moralizing about "accountability" answer that? And exactly who is to judge whether SL's course is "not in an area where anyone cares that a B only means you attended the entire semester"?
You're right, it shouldn't matter whether I'm in a discipline that cares if a B simply means they showed up all semester. But the idea hadn't really occured to me. I mean, maybe they don't care. On average, I'd say I give two C's per term, three or four A-/A's, and the rest B's. I've been at it now for eight years, and in those eight years, no one has ever once questioned my grade distributions. Maybe they really don't care ...
Cardinal Fang asks me: "you give different grades for the exact same work, depending on who's doing it? "

For the simple reason that no two students ever do the exact same work, I can comfortably say "No, I don't." But I do look at the future demands on this student; if my course is a gen ed kind of requirement, and if the student is doing well in his major field courses, I am more inclined to let a good-faith effort be enough to pass than I am to let the same effort go for a student who will actually need what I teach as the foundation for future work. It's pragmatic for the student; there is no reason that a student who is getting an associate's degree in, say, graphic arts be prevented from graduating by failing my course (I teach a science). The same cannot be said of a student aiming for an AAS in civil engineering technology.

So effort and future need for my course are two of the many factors that go into determining grades in my course. And the students know it right up front. In 30 years of teaching, not one has ever complained.
Prof Meanypants - yeah, I don't think we are really disagreeing. At first I thought you meant that accountability was only a concern of dittoheads, but I now see you were really saying that the dittos are not aware of how much faculty care about the quality of grading and the future success of our students.

By the way, HR does not have a clue about any measure of academic quality; those data were developed by the faculty as we developed our "quality enhancement plan" in conjunction with re-accreditation. It was eye opening.

By the way, DD can thank his lucky stars he never saw a grade system with a 0.5 grade: Yep, a D- or F+.
I went to a community college in the NorthEast, after failing out of an agricultural and technological school, also in the NE.

I took the most basic math class the school offered that would fulfill my requirement, and failed it. My teacher gave me a D. I went to every class, took notes, asked questions, and attempted homework.

I also took the most basic biology class the school offered. I attended all but three classes, participated in the labs, took notes, asked questions, did all the homework I could, and my average was in the high 30's at the end. I learned TONS in this class and found it really, really interesting - my teacher was great. This was the last class I needed to graduate with an Associate's degree after going to school at night for five years while I worked full time and part time. I explained to my teacher that I had massive learning disabilities, I was not going into a profession that requires any kind of science, and said if he would just give me a D so I could move on with my life, I promised that if I ever had kids, I would send them to their father with their science homework questions and i would listen and try to learn. He had me write two research papers on ... any body systems we'd studied? and ultimately gave me a D.

That was about 7 years ago. One of the things that stops me from going back to school to get a Bachelor's degree is the idea of having to re-take math and science, since my D's won't transfer.
You are a good person

Obviously they give better grades to better students.
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"Him or her clearly did not learn the material or even minimimally meet the objectives of the course"

Then why in the world would they pass the course? I guess I'm new and idealistic, but dang. Maybe this is why there are too many college grads.
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