Following is an essay written by Kurt Wiesenfeld a Professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta Georgia. The essay was originally published in the "My Turn" section of the June 17th Newsweek.

Making The Grade

by Kurt Wiesenfeld

It was a rookie error.  After 10 years I should have known better, but 
I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a 
tentative knock on the door "Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 
2121 class? I flunked it? I wonder if there's anything I can do to 
improve my grade?" I thought: "Why are you asking me? Isn't it too late 
to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements?"
     After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. 
"I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to 
'Incomplete'?" Then the e-mail assault began: "I'm shy about coming to 
talk to you, but I'm not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it's 
worth a try." The next day I had three phone messages from students
asking me to call them. I didn't.
     Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and 
moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof 
(and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some 
students have developed a disgruntled consumer approach. If they don't like 
their grade, they go to the "return" counter to trade it in for something 
     What alarms me is their indifference toward grades as an indication of 
personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think 
they deserve a better grade, admit they don't deserve one but would like 
one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces 
for self-esteem, they've learned that they can get by without hard work and 
real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This 
attitude is beyond cynicism. There's a weird innocence to the assumption 
that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. 
With that outlook, I guess I shouldn't be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 
students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.
     That's 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, 
quizzes and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student 
calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don't matter, 
why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an 
unearned bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster 
giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one's work. An act 
and its consequences are unrelated, random events.
     Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic 
performance. Perhaps they feel it's not relevant."If my grade isn't raised 
to a D I'll lose my scholarship." "if you don't give me a C, I'll flunk 
out." One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, "If I don't pass my life 
is over." This is tough stuff to deal with. Apparently, I'm responsible for 
someone's losing a scholarship, flunking out or deciding whether life has 
meaning.  Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with 
something they want--a grade.  Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if 
properly manipulated, can be traded for what has value: a degree, which 
means a job, which means money. The one thing college actually offers--a 
chance to learn--is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, 
because of the long hours and hard work required.
     In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its 
own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more 
obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial 
values saturating our society?
     Yes, of course it's right. These guys had better take themselves 
seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously 
later, when the stakes are much higher. They must recognize that their 
attitude is not only self-destructive but socially destructive. The 
erosion of quality control--giving appropriate grades for actual 
accomplishments--is a major concern in my department. One colleague 
noted that a physics major could obtain a degree without ever answering 
a written exam question completely. How? By pulling in enough partial 
credit and extra credit And by getting breaks on grades.
     But what happens once she or he graduates and gets a job? That's when 
the misfortunes of eroding academic standards multiply. We lament that 
school children get "kicked upstairs" until they graduate from high school 
despite being illiterate and mathematically inept, but we seem unconcerned 
with  college graduates whose less blatant deficiencies are far more 
harmful if their accreditation exceeds their qualifications.
     Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they're 
good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then 
the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn't work. One finds examples here 
in Atlanta.  Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, 
killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much 
weight it could hold. A new 12 story dormitory could develop dangerous 
cracks due to a foundation that's uneven by more than six inches. The error 
resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that 
dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under 
kilotons of weight is repairable or if this structure will have to be 
demolished. Two 10,000 pound steel beams at the new natatorium collapsed 
in March, crashing into the student athletic complex. (Should we give 
partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real world consequences
of errors and lack of expertise.
     But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you 
won't (not can't, but won't) change the grade they deserve to what they 
want, and they are frequently bewildered or angry.  They don't think it's 
fair that they're judged according to their performance, not their desires 
or "potential." They don't think it's fair that they should jeopardize 
their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they 
could not or did not do their work. But it's more than fair; it's 
necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society 
needs to maintain safety and integrity. I don't know if the l3th-hour 
students will learn that lesson, but I've learned mine. From now on, after 
final grades are posted, I'll lie low until the next quarter starts.

WIESENFELD, a physicist, teaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.