When is a C good enough?

This question may be a strange one for a top university to ask, but it strikes me as critical. For some context, a few weeks ago UCI hosted the Waypoints Symposium. This meeting brought together representatives from over 30 institutions to discuss current questions in higher education, especially around equity and inclusion. Among the exciting ideas and themes, two stood out to me in particular—the challenge of time for both students and faculty and the concept of “excellence.”

These themes reminded me of several key learning moments in my career. The first was when I started working as a faculty member and my father gave me some advice: “It is important to know when good is good enough.” Despite the constant mantra in higher education that “excellence in everything,” it is not actually possible to be excellent in everything. If you are going to be excellent in some things, you need time. And to have time, you need to let some things be good enough. Later in my career, this concept was reaffirmed at a leadership training where we learned about research that showed that even the best leaders were excellent in just a few leadership traits and okay in others. This again reinforced the reality that one cannot be excellent in everything.

As I thought more about this question of when good is good enough, I realized that it applies to research really well. Thinking specifically about my own area of experimental physics, it is critical to know the required resolution of any given measurement or design element. If particular parts only need to be accurate to millimeters, it is not worth your time, and even counter-productive, to get them accurate to nanometers. A common mistake that many young experimentalists make is to strive for maximum accuracy in everything, which usually just ends up in wasted time and effort.

Thinking about the design of experiments helped me better understand how the idea of “excellence” can be misleading in education. The question I found myself asking applies both to students and faculty—why do we have a range of passing grades (A through C) if we do not seem to take them all seriously? From the student side, it seems safe to assume that students generally want A’s in their courses, but the reality is that most students do not need A’s in all their courses. Given this, it seems imperative that faculty embrace B’s and C’s as valid grades. This means two things: (1) adopting grading approaches that clearly communicate the learning goals that correspond to each grade level (A, B, or C); and (2) ensuring our language and presentation supports the value of these grades where appropriate.

The first point on communicating learning goals is a critical element of this. Even though I am using the language of “getting a grade,” excellence is really connected with mastery of material or the learning that occurs in the course. The better students understand the level of mastery/learning each grade corresponds to, the more control they have over their learning outcomes. This really allows them to develop the suite of mastery that meets their needs.

This new perspective on excellence also made me realize that excellence in teaching does not mean “getting an A” in every aspect of our teaching! Just as with experimental design, providing students with an excellent experience in a course does not require every element of the faculty effort to be “A-level.” A truly excellent course, as with excellence in leadership, involves excellence in some areas while being good enough in others (assuming there are no holes in the course design).

A challenge with this new perspective on excellence is really understanding and believing that the goal of excellence is rarely to be equally excellent at everything! The challenge is that, for many of us, our undergraduate experience was perhaps the last time we achieved mostly A’s (and sometimes all A’s). Certainly, if you look at their transcripts, most of our students are coming from high school with effectively all A’s and perhaps unrealistic expectations in this space.

Taking the time to think about the right mix of A’s, B’s, and C’s that truly meets our expectations of excellence will be a critical exercise moving forward, especially as we consider the other challenge I mentioned at the beginning of this posttime!

Ultimately, we have to understand and embrace the time limitations that students and faculty both face. Having a reasonable and intentional understanding of excellence will help us set more rational goals and standards for both our time commitment to teaching and our students’ time commitment to individual courses. Absolutely critical in this exercise is that will not be lowering any standards of excellence, instead we will be able to provide better clarity to students as to what those standards are, allow students to choose the balance of A’s, B’s, and C’s that meet their needs, and help faculty maintain their balance of excellence in research and teaching.