So You Want an A?

A repost, and a good one, from Robert Harrell:

Hi Ben,

Relative to the discussion about assessment, I thought I would share the following e-mail exchange I had with a student today. Since the student asked, I decided to be straightforward and blunt. Names have been redacted to protect identities. Earlier in my career and before our recent discussions online about the Three Modes of Communication, I probably would not have written a reply quite like this, but I certainly have assessed the situation.


On 5 May 2016 at 13:30, [concerned student] wrote:

Hello Herr Harrell,

I was just wondering if there was anything that I can do to makeup my grade to an A. Please let me know because a B is not okay with me or my mom! haha. Let me know what I can do to improve. 


-[concerned student] (P:3)

Hi [Concerned Student],

Thanks for your e-mail. The best thing that you can do to improve your grade is actually very simple yet deceptively difficult. You know that a significant portion of your grade is based on the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. This is because Interpersonal Communication is actually the primary means by which people acquire a foreign language since it is based on making certain that the German you hear is understandable and gives you ample opportunity to indicate when it is not and then negotiate meaning so that it becomes understandable. The Rubric is adapted from the guidelines of the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages and describes what Interpersonal Communication looks like. You know it as the orange (goldenrod) sign that I point to regularly. As indicated by the rubric, a key component of Interpersonal Communication is actually participating in the communication, and that is where your grade reflects your struggle to meet the standard shown on the rubric. 

Sustaining Focus, a key component of rigor, is more difficult for some people than for others, so I try to find ways to help with that focus. One of those mechanisms is the brain break that I try to give at various times during the period. Another support mechanism is assigned seating so that you are less distracted by sitting next to your friends. That is why I assigned you, [guy student], and [girl student] seats away from one another. However, you have chosen to move so that you can sit next to [guy student], and you spend your time in class talking to him and [girl student]. That means you are not participating in the class’s conversation, not listening with the intent to understand, not clarifying when you don’t understand, not contributing to the class conversation in German, not focusing on the class, and not giving 100% effort to your part of the conversation – all elements of the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. As a result, your Interpersonal Communication grade is lower than it could be, and even then it is as high as it is because I am being gracious to you.

I would like for your concern to be about how much German you are acquiring. If you were actively interested in acquiring German, your grade would not be an issue, but since you asked specifically about the grade, here is what you need to do:

– Choose to engage in a single conversation with the entire class in German (This may mean moving back to your assigned seat and away from [guy student] and [girl student], but you will have to decide what is more important to you.)

– Choose to sustain focus on what the class is doing, and not on what [guy student]and [girl student] have to say.

– Choose to listen with the intent to understand and ask for clarification when the German is not comprehensible.

– Choose to contribute to the whole-class conversation

– Choose to give 100% to doing your job in the class

As I indicated above, this is really quite simple but deceptively difficult. You have to begin by deciding what you want. If it is to acquire German, I am more than happy to help. Thanks again for your e-mail.

Herr Harrell



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