E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

15 thoughts on “E for effort

    • In the end, what is the goal to have the student take the class? Is it to earn a grade or to gain some new understanding and appreciation of the subject? Because if somebody just doesn’t get it but puts in effort, I’d rather bestow an E than an F. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Seems to be a well thought out plan I would have to add more to the required subjects. Students may not recognize the need for science, history, and government but knowledge in those areas are very important to the duties one has as a citizen of a democracy. But I would love the option as a teacher. Which of us teachers have not given a D purely because we couldn’t bear to record that F?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Government (or citizenship) and foreign languages should definitely be part of the curriculum. But even there I would be inclined to allow for an E rather than an F. As you say, curving the scale to move an F to a D is common. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting topic. I can see the benefits of E for effort grading but I fear in today’s environment it would then become the norm and we would do away with grading all together. I think some schools have already done this and I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I have no background in education mind you so it’s purely a gut opinion.

    While there were more than a few classes in my Liberal Arts schooling I don’t recall ever getting anything out of, I think honestly it’s impossible to tell. A well rounded education benefits everyone if good teachers are at the helm

    Liked by 1 person

    • No doubt good teachers make the difference. I think that the good students would still strive for As and Bs. But those who are struggling–and doing so with effort–deserve some credit beyond those who are not even trying. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Grading, like so many aspects of educating, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it pushes students to excel beyond the mediocre. For myself, when I knew a class wasn’t graded, I gave it minimum effort and focused my attention on the classes that “mattered.” On the other hand, grading can discourage someone who is progressing more slowly than their classmates—particularly in the early education levels when developmental abilities move at different speeds.

    As to “is it necessary,” I say it all is necessary. I don’t remember all the particulars of geometry, but it helped me to reason more methodically. I don’t remember much Spanish anymore, but I gained a deeper appreciation for the nuances of language. Every class, every teacher—even the bad ones—taught me something valuable either by the experience or the subject itself. No learning is ever wasted to the mind looking for growth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “All is necessary”–I agree completely. I never understood English grammar until I learned New Testament Greek. I think the better students will still strive for As and Bs even when Es are available, but some distinction between those who are trying and failing and those who aren’t even trying is helpful. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent, and I think I can chime in here. I am a liberal arts guy 100 percent. My University degree was in International Studies, and was an interdisciplinary degree from a range of liberals arts areas. Honestly, it prepared me to do nothing. On the other hand, it prepared me to do…many things. I have yet to be jobless(unless one counts the minor sort of semi breakdown I had once and sort of just gave up.) Other than that month or so, I have been gainfully employed in responsible, decently paying jobs my entire life. Now, I actually work in a pretty high tech field, and seem to be doing fine there as well. That degree gave me something that has paid off in reams….the ability to think, put ideas together, and communicate orally and in writing. Now, having said that, I strongly encourage some young people to forgo college and learn a technical trade for a specific skill, as not all can follow the same path I did.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh I wish I had adequate time to respond to this but company is coming and cooking is waiting on me—-

    However, as a long time career high school educator, as well as a mom of a child, now grown, who suffered with a major learning disability, ADD and dyslexia I know all about effort—tear stained and angst driven effort—of which often resulted in what the teachers often saw as failure.

    I myself was a student who struggled gravely with math and foreign language (as I now put 2 and 2 together as to why my son suffered). Tutors, time after school but it was usually to no avail—I squeaked by in high school but did ok once I got to college math and did not have to take a foreign language in college due to my major.

    I was one of those students who lamented about the whys….I didn’t want a career that would ever have anything to do math and the taking of foreign language didn’t seem to be necessary either.

    Yet as a retired educator and former Dept. Chair of Fine Arts—math often came into play as did the need for French, Latin, Italian as well as the more practical, Spanish…that was if I wanted to communicate with many of my students…..

    There was a time when young students were required to delve into the classics—as such engaged the mind and helped to form higher order thinking skills—
    Communication, both written and oral were enhanced and necessary for success.

    Yes times have changed—technology is now so integral to learning, vocational skills which was once considered “less than” to that of an academic college degree, are also now very much in high demand….

    Our schools and our learning is morphing somewhat with the times—yet classic learning still enhances the individual—making them more well rounded and even grounded in what it means to be a human being….

    I do like E for effort—it does let those who struggle so very hard yet seem find the good marks elusive—it lets them see some sort of acknowledgement of the struggle and for the lack of a better word, effort!!!

    Now back to cooking 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I hadn’t even considered the cases of dyslexia and ADD, but clearly they are relevant to the thought of E for effort. Education definitely exposes us to subjects that are useful later in life, even though they seem a waste of time in school (such as foreign languages, which I also failed to address).
      I hope your cooking and company was pleasant for all involved. J.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been pondering your post…and of course my response.

        When I was still teaching our system, along with others, took the D out of the grading system—where a student would go from making a 70 and passing to a 69 and failing.
        We had a good many teachers, particularly one of my favorite Social Studies teachers, clamoring that we put the D back in, allowing 60 to be passing and 59 failing.

        I suppose some would see saying that an E would equate to the over the top participation awards we now see running rampant and part of the trouble with this up and coming generation of snowflakes who have never had to really face what it means to fail and what it is to try again…

        Yet I also know how validating it would be for those who do work their butts off, over and over only to continually come up short due to a learning disability or ADD—

        It’s a conundrum to be sure…


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