Thank God they didn't interview medical students

Michelle Cottle over at The New Republic had a lot to say about this article in yesterday's Times about feelings of entitlement in today's college students. From the original article:
“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”


James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ "


Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”
Michelle's take?
Um. No. While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we're trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail--much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere. (As could the rest of us: Not to state the obvious, but I don't want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.) Go ahead: Aim for the stars. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you're not so hot at it, don't whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren't properly appreciated in the real world.
The original post has already generated 69 comments, and I didn't feel like weighing in so late in the game. So, instead, I'm weighing in here.

I'm willing to believe that the attitudes described and decried are rampant in the current undergraduate world. (I'm sure that certain other posters might want to contribute? *coughcoughElizabethcough*) This is probably due to a variety of factors, including a high school experience where the students coasted to As, parents all too willing to harangue teachers for higher grades for their kids, and pressure to have stellar transcripts in a competitive grad school/work application pool. I don't really have anything to contribute other than my own experience from school.

I went to a six-year medical program, and so my classmates and I were (at least with regard to maturity and life experience) very much like undergraduates. I will never forget the poor, hapless plant physiology professor who got stuck with a whole pile of us one semester because of a combination scheduling/course requirement snafu. Poor guy didn't know what hit him. After every test, he was surrounded by a bevy of students, demanding to know why their answers were wrong. (Being totally comfortable with mediocrity myself, I like to think I kept my harassment to a minimum.) But it was pretty much par for the course in all our classes. For many of my fellow students, anything less than an A was unthinkable.

It was even worse when I was a resident at NYU. Since it's my blog and I can dish if I want to, I will state plainly that I met some real hum-dingers in their pool of medical students. (For the record, I also met some wonderful, wonderful people. Like this one.) I had students that would blatantly refuse to do admissions because they had already admitted that kind of patient once, and didn't see the point of doing it again. I had one student disappear for most of the day, then show up in the mid-afternoon, having obviously gotten a cut and color. And I guarantee that every single one of them got As. Hell, nobody was willing to face a student's ire for a mere A minus, much less a B.

I have no earthly idea how to fix any of this. Again, I would be delighted to hear from anyone in academia these days, and see how they handle stuff like this. But the articles sure do make me want to collectively throttle an entire generation.


  1. A friend, when working as a graduate teaching assistant, had a great system:

    The first student that would come to dispute their grade on a paper, she would agree with them that the grade was wrong. She would then reduce their grade.

    Once word got out, requests for grade changes plummeted.

    I think this is somewhat about privilege, but I'm guessing also about a risk analysis. If there's no cost to asking for a grade increase, then it's worth a shot...

  2. Probably explains how a humble carpenter I know, made it through med school.