Thoughts about Lessons and Grades

Professor S.A. Miller

Einstein once observed, "Education is that which remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." Perhaps his thoughts can help guide students in selection of what is important in education.

Selecting information

Educated people must be able to select appropriate facts and examples from the reams of information available today on any topic. Learning to be thoughtfully selective is an important part of all my courses. When students have forgotten many of the "facts" they learned in a semester, I hope they will have learned a little about managing information.

Using information

Precision is important in science. I expect students to use information in accurate and precise ways. An anatomist is "one who analyzes minutely and critically" (Webster's Dictionary). There are reasons for specificity even if they are not obvious in the early stages of learning. The notion of "picky details" is a excuse invented to cover unwillingness or inability to be specific and precise, so do not insult yourself by subscribing to such notions!

Too much information?

Texbooks of anatomy and development are notoriously encyclopedic, but that should not intimidate students. Hildebrand said it well in a preface of his text, Analysis of Vertebrate Structure. "Some students complain that textbooks present more than can be learned. Well, the gourmet is not able to eat all that is on the menu, but does not therefore desire few selections...." I hope students will approach the study of development and vertebrate organization with the enthusiasm of an academic gourmet! One important "take-home lesson" will be enhanced ability to read selectively and with discrimination.


Tests are a form of evaluation that can be used for diagnosis and to give feedback to both student and professor. I design exams to challenge and to encourage high standards in all students. Written examinations give students a chance to demonstrate understanding of a topic and to support statements with appropriate examples selected by the student. The criteria are clear: what is the significance? provide specific examples to support statements. Students can chose from the variety in their mental inventory. Responses persuade with written words, and what is on the paper must be able to do the job alone.

Similarly, my practical exams ask about rather than simply "what?" If a student knows about it, they probably know what it is, so why not be more creative?

Unknowns, that is, materials for which students have been prepared, but which they have not seen, require students to make connections. These may come from the grocery store or yesterday's newspaper and are another "real-life" way of examining understanding.

Consider this sort of course a preparation for many similar life situations to come. Life situations typically require that knowledge be used directly from mental files; one does not get the luxury of selecting the best choice from a list. Often, the best choice, whether it is an application in research or clinical practice, may not appear on a list. Multiple-guess examinations test ability to recognize information better than they test actual understanding. There is a place for standardized tests, but a course at a small college is not one of them.


The correlation of a percent score with actual quantity of material learned is a false one that I discourage. Students cannot learn everything there is to know about any subject in 14 weeks. It is my purpose to push students' knowledge, and ability to continue increasing that knowledge, beyond the level brought to a course. If I write exams that result in most of the class receiving 80's and 90's, I have not pushed enough, and students should feel slighted. Scores should be viewed as a measure of understanding, rather than as an absolute measure of quantity of information stored.

Catalog values of letter grades are a means of communicating beyond the campus (e.g., a transcript). They translate, according to a national scale, worth of a letter grade applied to a body of knowledge. Catalog scales are not appropriate to apply to the individual exams in a course. Students should use exams as diagnostic tools to improve how they learn.


Curving is a crutch and a deception. The relationship between distribution of a sample (all classes are small samples to a statistician) and the distribution expected for a larger population can reveal information about the students and also about the examination. Exceptionally low scores may suggest that students need to do more work, but low scores can also suggest that students need to work differently or that a test was demanding. If scores are exceptionally high, then students might not have been challenged. Students might also conclude they know it all, and that would be another deception.

I resist distorting class perceptions by curving test scores. Click here for more on curving.


I do not give grades; I record achievements, that is, students earn grades. I do consider improvement when I assign final grades. I am aware that study of the material and the way I present it requires a substantial investment of student effort, and I keep that in mind as well when I assign letter grades. I do not attach letter grades to percentages during the semester, and neither should students. What matters is learning.

Finally, it helps to realize that understanding structure and development takes time. Student's scores generally improve during the term as their ability to handle the material matures.

Be patient; trust in the goodwill of a professor who cares about you, and, most important, have confidence in yourself.

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This page last modified: June 2016