How to Get an "A" in Physics 121

#01: What does the letter grade really mean?

Dear Physics 121 Students:

I've been teaching introductory courses for a number of years, and one of the great things about this is speaking directly with students after class and during office hours. Usually students want to ask questions about particular physics concepts or strategies for problem solving, etc. However, another issue that often comes up in the discussion are students concerns about grades.

Since students often ask the same kind of questions, I though I would post a series of notes on these Frequently Asked Questions about grades for Physics 121. The series is entitled How to get an `A' in Physics 121.

We start with the first Frequently Asked Question: What does the letter grade really mean?

Of course this is a rather "ill-structured" question. Grades mean different things to different people. So I will stick with my own point of view. Here is a short summary of what the grades mean to me as instructor:

 
A -- "Excellent work indicating a clear mastery of the subject material."
B -- "Good work representing a solid understanding of the subject material."
C -- "Adequate work representing significant progress with the subject material."
D -- "Marginal work representing barely passable engagement with the subject material."
F -- "Inadequate work representing insufficient progress with the subject material."
It's worth emphasizing what I see as the difference between "A" work and "B" work since this is one of the main issues that students get hung up on. If you do a good job in the class and you keep up with the homework, labs and perform on the exams at the level that I expect hard-working conscientious students to perform, then you can anticipate earning a "B". To my mind, a grade of "B" represents good work, and a solid understanding of the material.

To earn an "A" you need to go somewhat beyond the "baseline expectations" for the course. You need to show not only that you basically understand the material, you need to show that you have mastery of the material.

What is mastery? Mastery corresponds to a deeper level of knowledge. It means that when you see a new problem, you soon have a clear vision of the major physical concepts that must be applied to get the solution. It means that you can apply the concepts and techniques of the course to solving all kinds of problems, even ones that look and feel different from problems you have worked in the past. It means that you can explain your work clearly and coherently at every step of the way. It means that you can make connections between apparently different parts of the course. It means that not only do you know how to solve the problem, you are also comfortable enough with the material so that you can move quickly to the solution and in the end you are confident that you have solved it correctly.

Note that mastery does not mean "perfection". Most students who earn a grade of "A" will make mistakes. But students who have mastered the material are very unlikely to make large conceptual errors without quickly catching them.

Note also that the central answer to the question, "How can I get an A?" has nothing to do with points or exam scores or anything like this. Yes, we will give exams and we will assign grades based on your point totals from exams and all other assignments. But the point system is not designed to measure how many points you can earn. When I write out an exam, I deliberately write out each question carefully so that I can assess the answer to one specific question: "Has the student mastered this material?". The exams are designed to measure mastery and so the only reliable path towards earning a high grade in Physics 121 is a commitment to taking whatever steps are required to achieve mastery over the material. If I have designed the course correctly, then once you achieve mastery, the higher grade should follow.

So if getting an "A" is your objective for the course, then at some level I have told you what you need to do to obtain your objective: you need to master the material in the course.

Now all of this reminds me of that old Steve Martin joke where he tells the audience, "Now I am going to teach you the secrets of wealth. I am going to teach you how to be rich. I am going to show you how to earn a million dollars and pay no taxes. Here's how you do it: First, earn a million dollars. Then, pay no taxes."

So having changed the question from "How do I get an `A' in Physics 121" to "How can I master the material in Physics 121?", we will address this rather more difficult question in the series of posts over the next several weeks as we go along. Coming up next: #02: What are my grade objectives?