In Response and In Defense

I’ll be honest. I got one really bad grade in college.

Psych 1 marched me right on down the alphabet, all the way to a C. As in, Can you believe I got a C in the class that we as humans, witnessing and expressing thoughts and behavior daily, may actually have a basic knowledge of? Scratch that- I may have just barely gotten a C. It may have been a C minus. I can’t remember. As we learned in Pysch 1, our brain occasionally protects itself from things we can’t handle by masking a traumatic memory.

Photo credit: Teresa Forster

The New York Times recently reported that Dartmouth College, my alma mater, is no longer accepting high school AP credit due to its curriculum not meeting college standards. Dartmouth came to the conclusion after slapping together an experiment of seeing how many incoming freshmen, having scored a 5 on their Psych AP test, could pass the Psych 1 final at Dartmouth. Turns out 90% failed. So, according to the article, Dartmouth is chucking all AP credits and will no longer turn your AP 4 or 5 scores into college credit.

I see no issue with not taking AP credit, because over a four year span, there is plenty of time to amass the necessary credits to graduate without walking in with eight credits already under your belt. A triple major balanced with varsity athletics may be more difficult, but I think work/life balance is still the name of the game. And I believe that Dartmouth still allows you to test out of some classes, like language courses. Dartmouth’s unique mandatory language requirement is superfluous for some.

However, the point of this so far senseless exposé is to point out the obvious flaw in this so called experiment. It’s so obvious, that I almost doubt the reporting of the article.

What does a good teacher or professor do when everyone in their class fails a test? They at least consider the option that they made a bad test or that they somehow failed to deliver the information. I believe this is the base theory behind the idea of grading on a ‘curve.’

I took Psych 1 at Dartmouth my freshmen year, when, as a younger and less jaded student, I was entertaining thoughts of becoming a psych major- nay- thoughts of becoming a world renowned author exposing the truths and intricacies of human behavior. Since I began this article with a scathing truth, I’ll continue the theme and confess that even though I had the best of intentions, I wasn’t the best of students. I never missed a class and listened to lectures with the utmost care and took full pages of notes (with only the occasional doodle), but I was hopeless about completing the assigned readings. For the most part, I gave the class as much attention as my others and did make my way through most of the readings, but I often found myself struggling to commit every line into a memory or fact. I was dutiful in my reading notes and they were mostly reinforced by the lectures, but I knew I was struggling. There’s a reason why we don’t all just read books and become masters of a subject. If that was the case, we wouldn’t need teachers, just writers. I’m the first to recognize the godly power of a talented writer, but I also recognize that teachers can be a far better and dynamic instrument than lines on paper. So, in most classes, when I struggled with the reading, it was ok because the class itself would get me through the material.

I didn’t know I was struggling that bad until I saw my first test score. The professor would post all 100 or so student test results just outside the class door, using the anonymity of our student IDs. They were listed in order of highest to lowest grade. My assigned number almost had me on my knees, not just to beg for mercy, but because my score was so far down.

The class was uniquely structured in that it had four rotating professors, evenly divided over the term and each specializing in a specific topic. At the end of each quarter, the professor gave a multiple choice test. Every class was the same with a lecture and assigned reading. Turns out every test score of mine was also the same, despite the crummy grades prompting a greater drive. I wasn’t alone in my inaptitude and heartbreak. Many fellow students were in the same (sinking) boat. Well, besides one of my good friends. (She aced every test. But it wasn’t fair, because she’s a genius and all.) I later learned the class was referred to as a “weeder”: one designed to “weed” out students who didn’t yet know that they didn’t really want to be a psych major. Well, I was soon to be “pulled” out of my preconceived notions, and replanted in the art department. I’m not sure what the strongest cause was- the teaching, class structure,  my work ethic, or just the test itself, but I, along with a good portion of the class, was struggling to keep my head above water.

I was so desperate to boost my grade- and I was only a measly freshmen, that I was the first to sign up as a test subject when they announced that students could get extra credit by volunteering in graduate student experiments. I was facing the threat of a grade that I’ve never had to think about before and it drove me straight into a room with four white walls. Most of the experiments were harmless and worth the time, although I have no idea how answering random questions about “What photo do you find more attractive: A or B?” could bestow me with knowledge that the professors were tasked with delivering. The only experiment that I found jarring and a tinge scary was having to complete a series of tests inside a CT. I discovered that day that I may be mildly claustrophobic and developed a paranoia that somewhere on my body, there may indeed be metal lodged. I mean, how can we be sure- and we can’t be too sure, before lying inside a giant spinning magnet? It was supposed to be a two-part experiment, but thankfully the CTG scanner mysteriously broke the next day.

Case in point, Pysch 1 left me jaded and running for the hills. I threw out all hopes of furthering an academic career in the subject matter and spent the rest of my four years trying to boost my GPA. It’s ok, I’m really not one to give grades total mental authority, but it bugged me that my increased efforts in the class never affected my test results. I guess you could argue that Psych 1 bestowed a more useful set of skills, teaching me that college ain’t no joke and leading me on to subject matters that I could actually excel in. Well, I shouldn’t get carried away. A “B” may be the bees-knees when you were dreading a “D”, but it’s not exactly acing a matter, either.

baker tower
Photo credit: Teresa Forster

So, I say, Dartmouth- feel free to disregard a student’s AP scores in terms of exchanging credit. An AP score can still be counted as an accomplishment when considering acceptance. And the knowledge base is not wasted, since the student will simply have a head start in a given subject. But don’t disregard the current system just because of a single Psych 1 final. You literally chose the test that Dartmouth students, in general, are most likely to fail. (Disclaimer, I have no statistical proof of this, just the above exposé. I imagine any student that was ever disappointed with a grade would make a claim that that was the worst test.) However, I do feel strongly that a decision based on one single test, a decision that would effect all subject matters, is indeed a rash decision. I like to think that Dartmouth, a college that I will forever love with all my heart, had more reason for its actions than we have yet to learn.

I have a personal, uncredited theory that the Psych department is employing a subtle, but not so elaborate scheme, of purposely creating a “weeding” class just to gather test subjects. I mean, I ran to the basement of the psych building with open arms and a “please sir, may I have another” attitude. Job well done. Although, I do feel a little bad that their CTG scanner broke, but hey, I doubt my psychic waves of nervous energy caused by the paranoia and claustrophobia had anything to do with it. Just saying.

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