On grading and soft skills

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

I envy the professors who can give Scantron tests. I really do. They run the little No. 2 leaden dots through a machine and know your exact score.

In the one math course I took in college, the instructor was able to very assuredly tell me my 79.6% average in the course couldn’t qualify me for a B, which needed an 80. I guess the stats don’t lie. I had no defense. No appeal.

But the non-STEM courses I teach – and the ones many of your instructors teach – may have more gray areas. Yes, our grading can be a judgment call – but it’s a judgment call based on a combination of our experience in the field, the many more years of serious schooling we have had compared to you at this point in your life and the hundreds of students we have seen before you. Like it or not, we instructors are the “authority” and we earned this position. We may even be a bit overqualified for it.

Most of my assignments are practiced-based, meaning they simulate real-world work you soon will be doing upon graduation.

These are some of the things I consider when drawing up grades:

Would this work make it in the real world? Or, at least, does it show great effort, care and potential for improvement? Just the right grade can be a nudge for that student to do better. The wrong grade – either too easy or too hard – could make the student complacent or discouraged to the point of giving up. That latter student will then just “go through the motions” the rest of the course, resigned. But a grade that may be a bit optimistic – offered with the right comments – could propel that student to up his or her game.

I take great pride in that my students finish strong in my courses. It takes getting to know each and every student and what kind of carrot on a stick they need. The 4.0 student may merely need to be hovering around 92 or 93 to be just nervous enough to keep sprinting to the finish line. The 2.0 student needs hope – they need to hit the occasional home run. Babe Ruth, after all, struck out more times than homered. The instructor needs to nurture these students – meet them before and after class, even if just for a few minutes, find out their interests. Check in with the occasional email. Basically, care.

But, it’s also our responsibility as instructors to be sure you, the student, truly are ready for the next level – whether that is the workforce, transfer or grad school or just the next course in the sequence. It wouldn’t be fair to your future employers and instructors if we didn’t properly teach you the subject matter; and it’s not right if we pass you although you did not attain competence. That would mean your next instructor will have more work to do to get you up to speed. Or it could be “setting you up to fail.”

How you interact with the instructor matters. The 4.0 students are pros. They know to make the right contact with the instructor; the occasional homework related question after class, an email here and there. Of course, they also do all of the work, per directions, as well, though sometimes they may lack creativity.

Some things that help your grade are your in-class performance. Are you yawning and hunched over? The instructor notices this. It kills the instructor’s spirit and makes it harder for them to deliver in class. You’re a downer. Do you come in late? Make a commotion? Do you help the instructor out when no one is answering a question? Classroom silence is also defeating for the instructor.

You’re not in a bubble. These whole 15 weeks are an evaluation. The instructor has to make a judgment call based upon all of the data presented – and how do you treat this class? How to you compare to the students around you? How is your level of work a predictor or your future success?

Consider showing up to your next class five minutes early. Take your coat off. Sit upright, maybe in the front of the class. That person who always sits there doesn’t own that seat. Think of a point of conversation to engage the instructor with before class starts. These are the skills the 4.0 students have mastered. Some people call them soft skills, but most non-STEM jobs are all about soft skills. Master those and it may show the instructor that you are, indeed, mature and ready for this class … and ready for the rest of your life.


Darren Johnson is a full-time instructor of PR and Advertising courses.