Scitech | On physics, 4.0s, and undergrad souls

One professor discusses why the grading system is detrimental to scientific learning

Starting to feel like science courses consist solely of regurgitating 13 weeks’ worth of lecture slides? Think there might be more to learning kinematics than losing two nights of sleep before the final exam?
Denis Rancourt does. In the fall term of 2008, Rancourt, a tenured physics professor at the University of Ottawa, gave each and every student in his fourth year physics class the highest grade possible: an A+. On March 31, 2009, Rancourt was fired.

With over 23 years of experience teaching, he has appeared in full-page U of O ads in The Globe and Mail; his “Science in Society” course, which filled the largest auditorium available, was attended by students and community members alike.

Rancourt claims that his marking scheme was neither arbitrary nor grounds for dismissal, but rather a step toward liberating students from the grades that prevent them from truly engaging with the material.

McGill Daily: Why As, rather than Bs or Cs, or making the course pass/fail?
Denis Rancourt: Well, I suspected that the students would all perform excellently, at their optimum, and the grade that corresponds to excellent or outstanding is A+. And that was confirmed. What I observed is that the students did extremely well in that way….It’s a student-centered grade, so it’s based on their own personal progress, and evolution, commitment, participation, and so on, in the course. So from that perspective, this was the correct grade that needed to be attributed.

MD: You didn’t have any problems with students who didn’t evolve throughout the course?
DR: On the first day of class I explained what my outlook was, what my pedagogical method was, and how under this method one expects normally, almost always except for unusual anomalies, that this is how it goes…. I did have to intervene one time, with two students in one course. And that intervention was successful.

MD: Were these students who had a problem with your method, specifically? Or were they students who just didn’t want to do the work?
DR: Well, every student-professor interaction, relationship, and conflict is complex…no matter what you do, if you are changing something out of what the students become accustomed to. They know that they can put all their effort into the final exam and that will be good enough. All students have developed, I would say, a survival strategy, an optimization-of-the-grade strategy.

MD: One takes advantage of the system, rather than [focusing on] learning.

DR: Yes. So when you take that away, and say, “Actually, rank-ordering and comparing one student to the next compared to an external standard, that’s not what’s going to happen in this class,” immediately there is resistance to that…. What’s interesting about this technique with regards to physics, is that this discussion in itself helps to develop you as a physicist and as a scientist, because you have to examine the origin, the basis of your personal motivation…. There’s all this challenging going on that’s as important as the technical side of the discipline.

MD: Well, it’s interesting that so many of these kids grow up reading Feynman [quantum physicist, lock-picker, bongo-drum-player, and Nobel Laureate, who once compared physics to sex]…and then you get to university and it’s a whole different ball game. People aren’t rushing to the bookstore to do this in their free time.

DR: Right. There is a disconnect between the ideal – where you’re pursuing your curiosities, and the subject, it has meaning for you, and connects to things in your life – there’s a real disconnect between that and the system, how it’s just a standardized walk where you’re being evaluated, graded, punished, rewarded, and they’re basically shaping you into a professional physicist and one that will be malleable enough that you’ll be able to work for employers.

MD: And that’s stifling to innovation, and to producing new ideas.

DR: Oh absolutely. It’s the opposite of encouraging independent thought.

MD: [When you were in university] did you end up getting good grades and a high grade point average (GPA) regardless of the fact that you didn’t necessarily buy into the system?
DR: Well, I am sort of a special case, because when I was going through the system, I made the classic deal with the devil, which was: This is what you need to get into graduate school, to get a good job.

MD: So you applied yourself to school, and for studying for finals?
DR: I applied myself to getting good grades, yes. But I honestly believe I was harming myself in doing that. If I had to do it over again, I would not do it that way.

MD: What do you recommend people, or undergrads in particular, do if they’re stuck in the normal pedagogy?
DR: Well, I think that’s a decision that is for each individual to make…. Students who want to resist the present system, what I recommend, is that you do resist it, that you do speak out in class, that you do challenge the orthodoxy, that you do give yourself a space where discussion can occur, and that you support each other, because there is going to be backlash…. I’m highly regarded as a scientist, and when I look at the things that I’ve achieved, it wasn’t in a classroom because I had to do an assignment…. It was because I was able to create a space for myself where I could think about these things, where I could find solutions and invent…and that gave outstanding results.

MD: If the GPA doesn’t tell the whole story, how do you get to know students to decide which ones, as a professor, you’re going to work with, or which ones you’re going to accept to your program?
DR: Well, if you mean as a professor…then I think that the absolute best way is to hire the student as a summer research undergrad student first, and then to see how we work together…. I learned early on in my career that you cannot trust the grade point average when it comes to choosing grad students.

MD: Not whatsoever?
DR: Not whatsoever. If someone has a high GPA all it tells me is that either they have a lot of facility in the technical things that were requested of them, or it means they are particularly obedient…. It’s very frightening. I’ve had several grad students in my career that had low GPAs, that just barely got into grad school, but I knew them, and I trusted their ability, and they excelled as researchers…. In terms of corporations hiring physicists, it’s up to them…. The university should not be responsible for providing a rank order. Our primary task, as expressed in mission statements and so on, is education…. Standardized testing should be done by someone else for different purposes. As soon as you say to a professor, “We need you to optimize the learning environment and give us rank ordering so we can distinguish the future employees we want and don’t want”…it means that the pedagogue in the classroom has to make a huge compromise. It’s damaging.

MD: Because it’s as though the professors are screening for good employees.

DR: But the grading tool is not an appropriate tool for doing that. So you’re not even doing it well, and you’re completely compromising the education dimension of it. Everything becomes centered on grades…. It means that the students are spending their time and energy trying to read your mind, trying to find out what’s an elegant solution…. Especially in the upper-level courses, the exam questions should be open-ended, I think. Mine always are. In an open-ended question, the process, the method you end up using – all that is part of the creative process…. You shouldn’t rank order people because they chose different methods, because some people, in your view, made different decisions in how to attack the problem.

MD: It must be a lot of fun reading your students’ exams…. When you present open-ended questions, do you get a big variety of solutions?
DR: Absolutely. When I started doing this, I was thrilled to see the difference in the exams…to see this incredible variety. You got to see how the person was thinking.

MD: What do you think about the idea that so many [students of other disciplines] say that science is boring and difficult? Do you think that your pedagogy could get more kids interested in science?
DR: Oh, there is absolutely no doubt. I have proof of that. We developed this course, “Science in Society”…. They had to give it in the largest auditorium on campus, and we were filling the room with students of all disciplines, all ages, community members, you name it. It was very exciting.

MD: Any other optimistic words for this new pedagogy?
DR: In my experience, it’s day and night. It’s the difference between being depressed, cramming for things, and being alive, taking things in, in order to make them part of your experience. It’s the difference between light and death.

MD: Are we moving toward the light side of things?
DR: Oh, absolutely not. Society is not moving in the direction of sanity. It’s very unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. If anything, we’re moving in the opposite direction. The degree of indoctrination, the degree of sanitizing everything is being pushed to the extreme.

MD: Well that’s a little depressing.

DR: It’s not depressing. It’s reality.

— Compiled by Shannon Palus


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