Tuesday, March 21, 2017


What Do D’s Mean?

I wrote a version of this a little over ten years ago.  With minor revisions, it holds up pretty well.  


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 incoming 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. 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 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. (I've seen that done with calculus, bio, nursing, and music theory, among others.) 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.  In remedial courses, D's are particularly ambiguous; you get a sort-of pass for a class that sort-of counts.  That's a lot of asterisks.

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. It felt very much like being dragged along behind the bus.)

The issue comes up in articulations with four-year colleges.  They typically agree 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.  As an exasperated student affairs dean once told me, "D's get degrees."

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 think there's a place for a grade that means "Not really good enough, but we'll kind of let it slide." It's probably a bad idea to allow that in foundational prereqs, but for more advanced courses I'm OK with the idea of a grade that communicates 3 points:
1) You learned _something_, so we won't fail you.
2) You shouldn't go any farther in this particular track of the major. Focus on something else.
3) If you balance out this poor performance with a good grade in something else (e.g. get a B in another class so your average is a C) then it's all good, but if you keep performing just at or below the margin you'll be in trouble (i.e. if you only get C's to average with that D you'll still be below a 2.0).
At my institution a D, as well as a C minus (grades of 1.7 and below) serve an important purpose. They give students credit towards graduation so they do not have retake a course. But they prevent students from moving on in a series of courses. If you get a D in Calc I you can't take Calc II (until you retake Calc I and get a C or better). Also, if you get a 1.7 or below in a required course for your major that triggers a process where a hearing takes place to determine if the student can continue in that major and if so what needs to be done to ensure their success. I use these grades periodically to indicate to a student that he/she should not be moving forward in my discipline-but that their performance was not so terrible that they need to take an additional course in order to graduate. I think the D (and Cminus) grades are very useful for that purpose, though I do get the "dragged behind the bus" idea. While not ideal, I would argue that it is better to be dragged by the bus to a destination (i.e. at least receive credit) than to be run over by the bus and left there...
My college accepts a D grade for credit, such as it is, but that might be because of the articulation agreement we have with other colleges and universities in the state system. I haven't looked at enough bad transcripts to know what we do with a D from a private college or one from out of state.

It means that they have earned credit toward graduation, but not very much. In principle, it means there was more than 30% of the course content that they don't understand at all but they can deal with the easiest 60% of the material. In some classes, it is a "gentleman's" grade indicating the person completed the course by taking the final exam. In my classes, it means the student has a fair chance of passing the class if they take it seriously when repeating it.

PS - Maybe I mentioned it a decade ago, but if not: I attended a university that had a D minus grade. That sends an even more futile signal than what is sent by a C minus or D. I think it meant "showed up at the final exam".
I get the D. I'm still confused about the C-.

In the major's course, a D (or C- for that matter) means that you haven't mastered enough information to continue on in the sequence. But every semester, we tend to get a few students in their last semester who just needed any lab science course to graduate and registered for majors bio because either the non-majors class was full or because it was the only one that fit conveniently in that student's schedule. The D means that student graduates, but an F means they need to stay another semester for just one class.

Of anecdotal interest, the D grades I've given seem to generate the most complaints. In fact, several times I've had former D students come back and beg me to change their grades so that they can raise their GPA to a 2.0.

So what is a C- for? Is it just a D with another name?
Let me add one more D story:

Once upon a time, I taught in a dual enrollment program. There, the consequences for a D were much worse.

Because most of these HS students were only taking one college class, getting a D meant that there cumulative GPA was now a 1.0 (since there college GPA was based on one grade). Those students walked into college already on the academic probation list.
At UCSC, even C- is explicitly defined as pretty much failing:

A course graded C-, D+, D, D-, or F cannot be used to satisfy a course prerequisite or to satisfy major or general education requirements. Any course graded P is equivalent to a C or better and can be used to satisfy general education requirements.

The main purpose of C- and D is to not hit the GPA quite as hard as an F does. For most other purposes, it is equivalent to an F. When you have a lot of students failing, you want to distinguish between degrees of failure, so that students know whether they were close and should try again, or should start looking for a different approach to their education.
GSwoPumps says a C- does not satisfy gen ed requirements, so he should know that my college (which still has a simple ABCDF scheme) turns a C- into a C on our transcript. (The C- is still on there as the original grade from the other school, so the transcript hasn't been laundered, but it is interpreted as passing for gen ed and as a 2.0 grade for our GPA.) If you really mean it to mean failing, you should just have a D+ worth 1.5 points rather than a 1.66 or 1.7 point grade.

Based just on policy, we have to assume it is a passing grade because students are not permitted to repeat a C- at the neighboring university that gives that grade. You get to repeat any failing grade.

PS -
Interesting that the pointless spammers are slipping in at the end of the thread.
The bigger question is, "What do grades mean at all?", I question I ruminate about at the link and probably every instructor has ruminated about at some point or other.

And I don't have a final answer. I don't think anyone does. It's striking to me how many companies have attempted to measure the performance of their incoming recruits and found that grades mean very little. Which should make us ask, again, what grades mean.
I argued against the C– being a grade at all, and against its being counted as failing (no one understands that C– is not passing at UCSC—neither students nor faculty), but I'm not politically powerful. Those who were managed to convince faculty that it was just an advising problem—that everyone would soon understand it. I guess they never served as advisers.
It means, "You get credit for graduation, but please go do something else."

This ties in with your previous posts about prerequisites, I think.

Where I teach (high school) all prerequisites are defined as passing the prerequisite class. So to get into Algebra 2 you need to pass Algebra 1. Which means that 50% (or in practice anything over 45%, as the administration insists that marks be rounded up) is enough to get you to the next level. Throw in Credit Recovery (which is where any student with 35% or more is assigned to a SpecEd teacher who supposedly* helps them earn the credit), and a student can pass a class while learning less than a third of the material.

So in this context, I really like the idea of a grade that ways "you get the credit, but you can't go on without repeating the course and actually learning something".

*Supposedly because they usually come to subject teacher wanting "an assignment" the student can complete to be granted the credit (which the subject teacher will be expected to mark. Or, in one case I saw, the SpecEd teacher gave the student a test one question at a time, teaching them how to do each specific question just before administering it.
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