Causes of Grades in Freshman Composition

     A few years ago, early in the semester, I made the statement that students' grades for the course are 90% determined before they walk into the classroom for the first day. One woman, perhaps in her thirties, disappeared from the course after that. I learned that she felt I was prejudiced and she transferred to another instructor. It didn't make much difference for her -- her grades were 90% determined in that classroom as well as in mine. For years I have used the question "What Determines Grades in Freshman Composition" as a topic for in-class brainstorming and then an in-class essay, but I think the question is important enough -- for students-- that I want to address it here. If you think about what will affect your grade in this course, you will find that there are many things, some of which you cannot control, and some of which you can.
     Before you act as the woman in my example did, let me assure you that everyone in my ENL 111 classes has the potential to pass. In fact, most students can earn an A, if they want to. To do that, however, you need to start with a realistic picture of where you are and what you need to do. Think about it. You are in a college Freshman English class at Pennsylvania College of Technology. This is not Harvard; nor is it Podunk U. Our expectations of you, in other words, are not as high as what is expected at Harvard But this is a very respectable college, and you will be expected, as one of its graduates, to be articulate and to represent us (and yourself) well. Like many colleges, it has an open admissions policy. It also has a placement test which you should have taken. If you were placed in this course, you should have the ability at least to pass it. Whether or not you do so, and how well you do depend mainly on things such as your motivation, your previous education, and your personality.

Your Motivation

     In most cases, you brought your motivation into the classroom that first day. This is college, not high school. My job is to teach you something, not to hold your hand, not to motivate you, not to spoon feed you. I will try to make the course as interesting as I can, and I will try to help if you have problems. I have even volunteered as a Penn College Tutor, which means that you can come to me for help with any kind of problem, financial, social, etc., and I will help you make the contacts you need to get assistance from Penn College's excellent support services. But you need to have the motivation to take the first step.
     Look around at your classmates, not only in this course, but in your other courses. How many of them are here, they know not why? How many of them are here because they want to be free of the rules of their parents and thus drink, party, do drugs, "have fun"? Historically, that has meant that a large number of them will disappear from the classrooms. As an experienced instructor [I have been at this for more than 20 years.] I have two choices. I can spend my energy running after the students who start missing classes, and plead with them to come back. Or I can devote my energy to the students who want and need help. The latter is far more productive, but you need to make the first step. If you are having problems in the course, you need to let me know.
     I know, as well as you do, that most students do not take English Composition because they want to. Obviously, students are much more motivated to take courses that they want to take. But English Composition is required of you for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, you may not understand many of them until after the course is over. Students regularly tell me "I'm in Forestry. I don't need to know how to write." Or, "I'm in Diesel. I don't really need this course." One student, who told me the latter, saw me outside the next semester and told me, with a look of amazement, "Do you know that I need to write a ten-page paper on diesel engines?" Well, I did and I didn't. I do know that most of my students will have to write more papers in other courses than they currently realize, but I don't know what all those papers exactly are. Some of them are collected as the Penn College Writing Models. (Thanks to the net, if you are motivated enough to take the time, you can check them out for yourself.) And even if you will not need to write papers in later courses, part of the objective of this course is to enable you to explain your beliefs clearly and convincingly so that you will have the power to affect the world around you. In class, I will probably tell you a few stories about things that I have written that got me what I needed, or, in one case, saved me what is the equivalent of $10,000. Is that motivation enough? (If I forget to tell the stories, and you want to hear them, ask.)
     Some students are motivated simply because the course is required and someone has to pay for it. I have no problem with that. As long as something motivates a person to do the required work in the course, the work should -- and probably will -- get done. I would, however, suggest that you aim for at least a C. That way, if you fall a little short, you will still pass the course and not have to take -- and pay for it -- over again.

Causes That You Never Could or Can No Longer Control

     Your motivation (or lack of it) is something that you can and, to a certain extent, cannot control, at least in the context of this course. If, for the past twelve years, you have not been very motivated, you are probably not suddenly going to become so. You can, on the other hand, push yourself to be more motivated than you were in the past. Because I believe that effective motivation results from a sense of reality, I want to examine some of the things that you cannot control but that will affect your grade in the course. Understanding the obstacles that you must overcome is the first step to getting anywhere.

Your Parents

     Some people are born smarter than others. I am no expert in genetics, but we all know that, just as some people are gifted physically, so some are gifted mentally. Your parents' genes and the sexual act that resulted in your existence gave you a unique set of mental as well as physical capabilities. Clearly, if you were born mentally well-endowed, you will find this course easier to deal with. You had no control over this, but you can control how you use what you have. It is often said that humans generally use only 10% of their brain power. If someone next to you was born with 2% more brain power, you can do as well as that person by learning to use your brain 2% more effectively.

     There is no question that you have the mental ability to do well in this course. You already can speak and write English. Who taught you the language? No, your parents may have helped (See below.), but they couldn't teach you the language because, before you knew the language, you couldn't understand what they were saying. When you came out the chute, you knew nothing. You taught yourself the language. From the vast complex of chaotic sounds around you, you learned to distinguish a human voice, and then words, and then sentence structure. You taught yourself! And, because you did that, you can learn anything and everything you will need to pass this course.

     Your parents, of course, did help. Imagine a mouthy mother changing her baby's diapers. As she works, she says, "Now I'm lifting your right leg. And I'm putting the powder on your right leg. And I'm putting your right leg on the diaper. And now I'm lifting your left leg..." How many times a day do a baby's diapers get changed? And, for this baby, how many times a day does it hear the sound "leg" when someone is touching one of its legs? In the baby's' process of learning to distinguish language, doesn't this baby have a tremendous advantage? "Leg ....leg .... leg .... leg....," always when one of its is being touched. We all had to make the realization that sound and meaning can be associated, but this baby clearly had a head start. Helen Keller, who was deaf, was in her teens before she realized that there are words, that sounds can represent things. Unlike the baby, in other words, she was older, but she reports that the realization led to an explosion of meaning. The whole world came alive as she searched for other words, other symbols. Babies probably do the same thing. If your parents talked to you a lot when you were a baby, you learned the language faster. Another head start.

     When you were a pre-school child, did your parents read to you? Did they make it fun? Any parent can teach any normal child to read and enjoy reading. Think about what goes on. Kiddy books have five or six words, in big type, on a page with a picture. The parent (or someone else) sits with the child so that the child can see the picture. Any parent who reads to children will tell you that young kids are notorious for wanting the same story, over and over, and over again. They memorize the things! On the fiftieth reading, try putting in some wrong words. They will correct you. "Ooops. Daddy made a mistake." Laugh about it. Tickle the child. Have fun. Sooner or later, you will find the child, alone in its room or somewhere else, with the book open, "looking at the pictures." But they also see the words! And they memorize the words. And they realize that the written symbols stand for the sounds of the words. They learn to read! If your parents did this with you, you have an advantage that remains with you right into this course. You brought it into the room on the first day.

Your Previous Education

     What happened to you in primary school? Were you tracked? Many people do not realize what "tracking" is, but more people should be aware of it because it has a tremendous influence on children's futures. In many school systems, when children are in kindergarten, they are put into groups. These groups may have names -- The Robins, The Bluebirds, The Finches. Parents think this is cute. But many parents don't realize that those groups are created based on ability. The Finches may be all the best readers in the class; the Bluebirds, all the weakest. For those people who are aware of what is going on, this is a very controversial procedure. In many cases, because the Finches are the best readers, more is expected of them, and they get more attention. In essence, they are on track for the College Prep courses in high school. The Bluebirds, instead of being helped to catch up, are often simply passed on from grade to grade, continually falling further and further behind. If you were with the Finches, your education has probably given you an excellent preparation so that you can get an A in this course with relative ease; if you were with the Bluebirds, an A in this course may be beyond your reach. You will certainly have to work a lot harder to get one.

     In class, we will probably discuss what students did in high school. In previous discussions, some students have reported that they had to do two or three research papers; others claim that they never had to do any. Some students report having had to write a ten-page paper; others say that the most they ever had to write is a one-page book report. Some students enter this course having been taught what a thesis is, how to brainstorm, how to make an outline, and how to revise, as opposed to edit. Other students have had none of this. Wouldn't you agree that the students who came in the door the first day knowing all of these things have a big advantage over the rest of the class?

     Although much of the preceding may result from tracking, there is also the question of the quality and expectations of the school system you were in. These are extremely complex questions, and making judgments about quality and expectations is risky. But, for example, some school systems require that every student take typing. It used to be that typing was required only for the students going into a secretarial program, but the advent of computers has changed all that. All of your major papers for this course must be typed. If you know how to type, you can use a computer and type a paper in an hour or less. If you don't know how to type, you either have to pay someone else (and hope that that person will do a good job) or spend three hours or more "hunting and pecking" to type your paper. In the course evaluations for Fall 97, one student complains about having to type his paper while his roommates were able to watch TV. That is a price that you too may have to pay if you were not required to learn how to type in high school.

     And there is more. One related question involves the "five-paragraph essay." English teachers across the country argue among themselves about the value of teaching students to write a five-paragraph essay. Some do; others refuse to. It has been my experience, however, that the students who were taught to write a five-paragraph essay (or to use even more complex organizational schemes) have a big advantage over students who were not. The five-paragraph essay gives students a general sense of organization and of topic sentences, two of the major things focussed on in this course. And what about computers? Some students enter this course not only never having used one, but also basically afraid of them. You can learn what you need to know about computers for this course in about five minutes, but if you are afraid of them, you have another obstacle in your path, an obstacle that other students do not. Were you lucky in the teachers you were assigned to in school? Another complex question, but many of us remember one or two teachers who inspired us -- one or two out of the twenty or so that we had. Some people remember more; some remember none.

Health, Home, and Other Responsibilities

     Your parents and previous formal education are not the only causes for your grade in this course that you can no longer control. Your health affects your grade in this course. If you are healthy, and stay healthy, you have an advantage. If you are sick, you may have to miss classes (a bad idea) and then either find yourself lost or have to put in extra effort to make up work. If you have a learning disability, you will have to take the responsibility for dealing with it. Here at Penn College, you can get extra help, both from Support Services, and from me, but your work is ultimately graded by its quality, not by the effort (or lack of effort) put into it. (My experience has been that most students with learning disabilities accept the responsibility and do well. A few, unfortunately, use the disability as an excuse.)

      Home life, whether you are living with your parents, with your spouse (and children), just with your children, in a house, in an apartment, or in a dorm, affects your grade in this course. I once had a roommate who slept during the day and stayed up all night -- in our room -- reading out loud with the lights on! I almost failed out of the program. (Fortunately, I was able to get my room changed.) One student told me that she had to withdraw from my course because her sister was ill, and she was the only person who could take care of her sister. Many students here at Penn College are single parents with pre-school children. As I listen to their problems, I am amazed that they are able to stay in college. (But many of them not only do so, but they do extremely well.) Some students have spouses who are very supportive; others have spouses who present problems; still others are in the process of emotional, time-consuming and exhausting divorces. Parents, spouses, brothers and sisters, children -- all can drain emotional energy and time.

     So can a job, or the need to look for one. I don't understand how they do it, but some people work forty (or more) hours per week and go to college full time. I'll never forget the time a man rushed into my office to drop off one of his major papers. He looked ragged and tired, and he said that he was a contractor and had a building that had to be finished. He was not sleeping, and had to rush off to check on the job. But his paper was in. In the Fall of 97, with about four weeks to go in the course, a student called and left a message. He had just got a job that was important to him -- could we make arrangements to meet and discuss his situation. Because of the job, he couldn't make it to class anymore. We made the arrangements. Before the semester ended, all his papers were in, the directions all having been correctly followed. He earned an A in the course. Perhaps I should note that he was a non-traditional student. He had been in college, dropped out, and went to work. He had then decided to return to college and accept the responsibility associated with it. More typical are students who, because they have to work, aim for a C and earn it.

     On the other hand, I remember at least two students who did very well in the course but reported -- on their study logs -- spending an average of more than twenty hours a week on just my course! I discussed this with them. In both cases, they were single men, with no family responsibilities and no jobs. Both had worked, both felt that they wanted to improve their writing ability, and both had the time to spend on the course with no worries.

Causes That You Can Control

     If all of the things discussed above are working against you, it is possible that the best grade you can get in this course is a D. More likely, however, you can get a C. I now believe that at least half of the students who came in the first day have the potential to get an A. The odds are, however, that half of the class will not get an A, for the simple reason that they will not take charge of the causes which they can control. Your past history is just that -- past. You need to recognize and accept it, but don't dwell on it. Instead, take charge of the things you can control.


     Missing classes is a primary reason for students failing the course. I am aware of the fact that there are college courses in which students can either do the homework assignments or attend class. This is not one of them. Many students will find that there are times when they must miss a class -- because of illness, family responsibilities, weather, etc. If such a situation arises, call my office ASAP and simply tell me that you will have to miss class. (I leave my phone mail on, to the frustration of my wife, primarily so that I will not miss any student's call.) This is particularly important if there is an assignment due. The syllabus states that late assignments will not be accepted or will be penalized (depending on the type of assignment) unless you call either in advance or as soon as possible after the class has met.

Do the homework assignments:

     Although attending class is important, there are times when some students might just as well not be in the classroom. Because they have not done the assignment, they have no idea of what is going on in class. (Not only are they bored, but they also tend to distract other students.) When, for example, we deal with the controversial issue in the course, you will be expected to have read about ten pages of essays on that issue. In class, we will discuss them. If you have not read them, you will not understand what is going on.

Bring Questions to Class, and Ask Them:

     On the day a reading assignment is due, I generally begin the class by asking if there are any questions. If there are, I try to answer them; if there are none, I will assume that everyone understood the reading and will move on to something else. If you did not read the assignment, or if you do not ask your questions, you may be lost. (Whose fault is that?) Failure to read assignments and ask questions is one of the primary reasons for low or failing grades in the course. You will be told, for example, to read the major paper assignments (from the net) when each is assigned. I will ask if there are questions. (If I forget to ask, raise your hand and ask anyway.) Too many students fail to read the assignments when they are told to. Because the major paper is not due for two or three weeks, they procrastinate. Then, when they finally do look at the assignment, they are confused, but it is too late to ask questions.
     There is no such thing as a stupid question. The stupid thing is not to ask a question that you have. The most intelligent people I know ask what appear to be the stupidest questions, and they don't care what people think about them. If they want or need to know something, they ask. If you have a question about something, the odds are that at least three or four other people in the class have the same question. I try never to embarrass a student, so if you have questions, ask them.

Follow the Simple Directions

     Some of the things we will deal with in the course are very difficult to understand. I realize that. Other things, however, are very simple. Directions for major papers, for example, include a checklist. The checklist states that you will be penalized 10 points each if your paper is not handed in in an envelope, if your drafts are not in the envelope, if your outline is not in the envelope, if there is not a second copy of the paper in the envelope, etc. These directions are not difficult to understand, but every semester numerous students lose hundreds of points simply because they do not follow them.

Keep the Study Logs and Put as Much Time as You Need into the Course

     If you look at the Table of time recorded and grades, you will see that the people who do well put in time. You may think that the logs are childish or a waste of time, but they are not. For one thing, it does not take a lot of time to keep the logs; it does take a sense of responsibility. The logs not only give me a picture of what you are doing, they also serve as a means of communication between you and me. I will answer any questions you write on your logs, I will give you reminders of things you may need to do, and I will give you your grade-to-date each week. If you hand in a log each week, you can get an easy 100 for up to 5% of your course grade. As one student noted on his final course evaluation, any student who opts not to keep the logs is a fool.
     Writing is a process, a time-consuming process. The less experience you have in writing, the longer it will take you to write the papers. A few students in the course, because of their previous preparation, will be able to write a paper in two hours the night before it is due. Most students, however, cannot do this. (One of the fascinating things from my perspective is that students who have numerous other responsibilities -- family, a job -- almost always find the time to devote to papers; students who have no outside responsibilities don't. Instead, they party or watch TV. )

Don't Procrastinate

     One of the things you will be learning in college is how to control your time and plan ahead. This is not something that can be taught; it can only be learned. You will learn it by having to do it. Most college courses include papers or other long-term assignments, i.e., you will be given two or more week (sometimes an entire semester) in which to do them. They are long-term because you are expected to devote time to them several times over the course of the assignment.
     With the major papers in this course, for example, you should start brainstorming as soon as the assignment is given. It is your responsibility to find (or narrow) the topic you will be writing on and to decide exactly what you will say about it. Good students will do this. Then, if they are not sure of what they are doing, they will ask me or go to the Tutoring Center. This means that their work will be interrupted for a day or more. When they have checked with me (or the Tutoring Center), they will develop an outline. Some students will come to see me again -- to check their outlines. Then they will draft the paper and let it sit for a day or two. With their heads now clear, they will reread and re-vise, i.e., re-see what they wrote. They will change it to make it clearer. (The logs indicate that students who do well often spend more time on revision than on drafting.) Writing is mentally exhausting. When they have finished the revision, good students will often let the paper sit and return to it later to edit. In editing, some students will come to me (or the Tutoring Center) to check specific questions. On the other hand, some students think that this is too much work. But because of your previous preparation for the course, it may be what is required. The help is there. Whether or not you use it is your choice.

If It Comes, Accept Failure and Learn to Deal with It

     If you look at the schedule on my office door, you will see the statement "Happiness lies on the edge of failure." If you don't try, you can't really fail, but then, you can't succeed either. Some students get the first major paper back with an "F" on it, decide that they "can't do this," and disappear. They have what Daniel Goleman calls low "emotional intelligence." In his fascinating Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (Bantam, 1995), Goleman describes how an insurance company was losing a lot of money. It would spend a lot of money training new salespeople, and most of them would quit soon after their training. The company went to a college psychology department and asked if a test could be developed which would screen out the people who would probably quit. As the psychologists worked on the problem, they realized that the people who quit had problems accepting failure. Insurance salesmen often have doors closed in their faces. In facing failure, some people respond by thinking "I can't do this," and they give up. Others step back, think about what they are doing, and change their approach. The former have low "emotional intelligence"; the latter are well-endowed.
     Or are they? "Well-endowed" implies that they were born with this ability to face failure. But that is not true. Emotional intelligence can be learned. Anyone, at any time, can choose to accept failure. If you find yourself failing this course (or doing worse than you think you should be doing), don't take the attitude that you "can't do it." You can. Don't blame the course (or me); if you do, you will be putting yourself in a position where there is nothing you can do (i.e., it's not your fault). Instead, ask yourself: "Have I been doing the homework assignments? Have I been going to class? Have I been starting early, or have I been procrastinating? Have I been following the basic directions? Have I been taking advantage of the Tutoring Center? Have I discussed my problems with the instructor?" If the answers to all of these questions are "Yes," and you are still doing poorly, then come to see me again . . . and again . . . and again.
     I'm here to help you, and I want you to succeed. You can, if you want to.

-- Dr. Ed Vavra
December 1997