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on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete.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.