ANALYSIS: Evidence disputes professor's tips to eliminate grades, attendance, deadlines

A professor at Central Michigan University is suggesting a number of policies for his fellow educators to include in their syllabi for the fall semester.

If implemented, some of the existing scientific literature suggests the changes proposed by the professor could have negative effects on students.

According to Central Michigan University’s Matthew R. Johnson, abandoning letter grades, getting rid of due dates entirely, and not enforcing any attendance policy are all potentially good ideas. He rationalizes this by citing the unique challenges facing students who are returning to university in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson, an associate professor of educational leadership, recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education for some tweaks educators could make to accommodate students during the upcoming fall semester. 

In Johnson’s opinion, the Delta variant, in addition to plateauing vaccination rates, could make it necessary for professors to alter their class policies.

While some of the suggestions made by Johnson may generate modest benefits, studies conducted by academics affiliated with institutions like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Iowa State University and the University at Albany, among others, indicate that such positive outcomes are far outweighed by the harm that could be done by his more extreme proposals.

On attendance requirements, Johnson claims, “Linking grades to attendance was suspect prior to the pandemic and even more so now.” He continues by asking, “do your students really need to show up?” 

Johnson then invites his colleagues to consider expanding the number of absences they allow, providing alternate activities as substitutes to attendance, or dropping one’s attendance policy entirely.

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Though it may be tempting to be sympathetic towards Johnson’s view, what he argues is not borne out in the academic literature. 

A meta-analysis conducted in 2010 examined hundreds of studies drawing data from tens of thousands of students and found that “attendance has strong relationships with both class grades and GPA.” The study even goes as far as to assert that “class attendance [is] a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of academic performance, including scores on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, high school GPA, study habits, and study skills.”

Mandatory attendance policies, like those explicitly opposed by Johnson, were also found to provide a modest boost to student achievement. 

With this in mind, it would make sense for professors to structure their classes in such a way that attendance is encouraged, not discouraged. Per this data, Johnson’s recommendations could stand to hinder the academic performance of students.

That meta-analysis is a massive body of data that strongly favors the claim that attendance has a positive causal link to how well a given student performs on a letter grade scale. College GPAs are positively associated with several important life outcome variables like income and job satisfaction. 

Johnson also takes a stance against group assignments, advising his peers to consider allowing students to tackle group projects alone. Some evidence suggests that student opinion may match Johnson’s aversion to group work. One survey conducted at the University of British Columbia found that students overwhelmingly dislike working in groups. Despite the general distaste for the practice, educational research has found that it can significantly enhance learning in a college setting. 

Group assignments expose students to a wider array of perspectives on class materials, are conducive to improved academic performance, promote the use of social skills and civic values that are valuable for individuals entering the workforce, and give students more positive attitudes towards college while also bolstering their psychological health. 

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With research appearing to suggest that group work is more positive than negative for students, and given how often professionals need to collaborate to do their jobs, getting rid of group work would likely worsen the academic experiences of students while also leaving them less prepared for the workforce.

Additionally, Johnson suggests that professors abolish due dates for assignments. Once again, his recommendations appear to clash with what social scientists have found. Internally and externally constructed due dates have been shown to improve individual performance. 

But Johnson does have some notable ideas for students who have been impacted by the pandemic.

Professors prioritizing the inclusion of free or low-cost materials in their courses, for example, could serve to lessen the burden on low-income students. Likewise, his suggestion that professors overhaul their office hours seems like it would be helpful to students. 

Given the toll government and university-enforced isolation has taken on the mental health of students, Johnson’s recommendation that lecturers show students where they can access psychological help is also timely.

Campus Reform approached Johnson for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.