When the "A for Effort" is a B

August 8, 2018 Diane Rubino


“Never Give Up and You Will Shine” read the t-shirt of the small boy ahead of me. I trailed the boy and his nanny, as he zigzagged over the sidewalk on his training wheels, pairing the slogan to the idea of children who get a trophy for showing up to the race, whether or not they win.

By the time little cyclists like this reach my class the “Showing Up Trophy” has been promulgated countless times. Recognizing participation is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Truthfully, fear held me back from valuable childhood experiences. So, maybe I could’ve used some trophies in my early years. Nonetheless, the reality is that this idea makes for confusion and esteem busting in classrooms down the pike.

When Working Hard Isn’t Working

The Trophy is foreign to me. So, I’ve struggled to manage related, cross-generational conversations. For example, on occasion, a perplexed or annoyed student will comment on a grade that’s lower than desired by noting, “I’ve worked hard on this assignment.” Or “I’ve spent more time on this task than any other.” A colleague recently got an email bearing a familiar refrain from someone in her class: “I’m trying as hard as I can.”

The subtext of these comments appears to be that the assessment system is malfunctioning. The evaluation fails to recognize that the student not only showed up but also made an effort. Others seem deflated in the face of the newly realized reality. If effort alone won’t make successful, what will?

I stumbled the first time the I’m-trying-hard-and-therefore-should get a better grade idea came my way. It seems patently obvious TO ME that everyone struggles toward goals that don’t materialize. I said as much when I heard it again. I pointed out that persistence is only one ingredient in success. But the argument failed to persuade.

I needed to underscore that working hard does not always equate with success. I also wanted a more convincing response to affirm the validity of my rubric while acknowledging my student’s effort.

Because a defeated student is tough to motivate I also needed to communicate that those who fail are not failures. Ironically, that’s the time where never giving up would come in handy. But it’s also the exact moment when the aphorisms fade.

So, I reached out to other instructors for advice. Their collective response addressed my concerns aggregated in these guidelines.

Remember the Negative Consequences of Giving an "A" for Effort

A seasoned teacher used to consider effort when calculating the grades of those who started with poor skills. Until he realized this was “unfair—prejudicial, in fact” to others. “…I abandoned elevating grades on the basis of effort. I think students should be graded on what they produce, not on the effort they expend on producing it. I tell that to my students at the beginning of a course,” he said.

Provide Well-Defined Expectations at the Outset

NYU instructor John Deats offered: Unless I made an egregious error (and I've made several over the years), my answer [to grade challenges] is; all grading is evaluated against performance and expectations...Then I review the paper and point out its shortcomings.

“I tell them that a “B” (the usual threshold for a complaint) is reflective of the paper--a good grade (and point the student to the school’s grade scale, which clearly defines what each grade means), and actually what they learned is more important than any letter grade.

“I also refer students to the syllabus, which is clear in saying that the quality of the outcome is what matters, not just that one worked hard to complete the project.

“You can't be the 'good cop,'” he concludes, “only a consistent one.”

Be Honest About the Effort Required to Complete the Task—Even for Professionals

My colleagues and I are professional communicators. So, NYU School of Professional Studies teacher, Don Bates mines his professional experience. “For me, no matter how hard you work, it’s the final product that counts. I can write things in an hour or two, but usually, I spend far more time. And I’m a professional. Ditto for most writers I know. Good writing of any sort takes a lot of concentrated time.

“Rather than working hard, students should work smart, i.e., instead of winging their assignments, as most students do, they should study samples, review rules, outline, etc., before they plunge into the actual writing. They should try a draft or two, maybe share with other students and a couple of adults to see what they think of the draft as readers, asking: Does it make sense? Is it as clear as can be? As succinct? Helpful? Insightful? Actionable?”

Don found a creative way to demonstrate how writers struggle with words, using poetry to make his point, like Yeats’ Adam’s Curse and A.J. Liebling’s pithy ”I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.”


Encourage Self-Reflection

NYU instructor Craig Mills refined my general notion that each of us struggles toward goals that don’t materialize. He suggested a way to help students connect with the reality of their own life experience by asking. “Did you get into every college or secure every job or internship you applied to, even after painstaking effort?”

Find Humane Ways to Keep Students Motivated

Only students who feel hopeful about their capacity to improve are likely to endure the struggle of hard work and expend even more effort. Another peer began to give students extra credit projects. “It gives them a way to feel more accomplished.”

Of course, there’s no right answer, though talking with peers yielded smart ideas. Nor is it mine alone to change the course of a river flowing for decades. Instead, my task is to respond thoughtfully. Upon reflection, I reconsidered the Showing Up Trophy’s value. I began to see merit, rather than reflexively dismissing the concept. At least now I can be confident that my imperfect response is carefully considered. In future, similar conversations I’ll undoubtedly stumble and yet continue to move forward, modeling the acceptance I’m preaching.

Photo credit: pexels/suelynn parker

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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