Measuring ‘A’ phenomenon

Graphic by Patrick Freebern | The Oswegonian

Lauren Gilpin never worries about the ice hockey coaching class she enrolled in this semester. Gilpin, a senior health and wellness management major who also plays on the women’s ice hockey team, said she thinks she will skate right through the class.

“So far it’s pretty easy,” Gilpin said. “I would say it’s probably one of the easiest, mediocre.”

And evidence shows Gilpin probably needn’t fret over her grade. She’ll get an A, if recent history is any indication. Every student in PED 322 last year, (including 39 students in the fall and 50 in the spring) received a 4.0 in the class, according to grade distributions obtained by The Oswegonian.

That’s not the only class where every student enrolled walked away with the highest possible grade. For example, PED 319, Soccer Coaching Techniques, had an average 4.0 GPA for 29 students in the fall and the 31in the spring. In roughly half of Oswego State’s physical education classes, every student received an A, according to the database.

In over two-thirds of the classes, the average grade was 3.75 or higher. In PED 215, Concepts, Theory and Problems of Athletic Coaching, 96 percent of students earned an A- or better. The class, which included four sections last year, is a core requirement for athletic coaching minors.

Average GPAs tended to be higher for courses within the athletic coaching minor and elective classes, such as coaching techniques classes, analysis shows.

The only out of class assignment that Edward Gosek—the men’s ice hockey coach and instructor for PED 322—assigned for the class was a one-page, double-spaced paper, Gilpin said.

The assignment is for students to reflect on their personal philosophy regarding coaching.

It does not require citations or sources.

“And that’s the only project we have in that class,” Gilpin said. “There’s no deadline. He said to hand it in before Thanksgiving so we could focus on our other classes. So it’s pretty easy.”

The four-page syllabus for Techniques of Ice Hockey Coaching does not list an instructor, contact information or office hours. However, it does list expectations and policies for the class such as cheating and attendance.

“He said he does look at attendance at the end of the year to determine your grade, but it doesn’t affect it huge,” Gilpin said. “He would like us to attend the men’s games. Sometimes he does attendance that way, so if we don’t have class say on a Friday he’ll make us go to their home game on a Friday and that will be our attendance.”

Gilpin said that although she does not find the class difficult, there is still plenty of educational value in taking the course.

“It was an easy class so I could focus on my other classes, but also being a hockey player it’s interesting to see how he coaches his team compared to my coach coaching my team,” Gilpin said. “I was still interested to see where he was coming from, his coaching philosophy.”

But some question the academic integrity of course with lopsided grade distributions.

“This is a real issue,” said a professor teaching the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who preferred not to be named. “It raises eyebrows at least. It hurts the students really.”

The professor said he had argued for measures to curb such lenient grading practices in his own department, but not everyone identifies it as a problem.

“Some really care and some don’t—the ones who do are the ones who have standards,” the professor said. “People who are more thoughtful about their teaching are not inclined to give out all A’s.”

The professor said that oftentimes, instructors who give out all A’s engage in a tacit agreement whereby the professor grades easily for the students, knowing the student are then more likely to write positive evaluations of the professor. However, he declined to say whether this was specifically the case in any of the PED courses.

Much of Gosek’s PED 322 class has centered around coaching philosophy, drills and practical knowledge, Gilpin said. Gosek also used videos and recent newspaper articles focusing ethics in high school coaching to stimulate discussion.

“Yes it is easy,” sophomore Catherine Cote said. “There’s not much work, but it’s interesting.”

Cote is a public justice major and an athletic coaching minor. She is also a goalie on the women’s hockey team. Cote said the PED 215 class she is also taking is a bit more difficult, but that hockey comes easily to her.

“I’m not lost, but it’s because I know what he’s talking about,” she said.

Gosek said that unlike Gilpin and Cote, most students in the class do not have previous ice hockey experience, which affects the way the class is taught. The class tends to be made up mostly of seniors, most of whom are not athletes or athletic coaching minors.

“Is there a ton of work required? No,” Gosek said. “It challenges them in a different way. It’s a different class, but I think it’s a different class where there’s hands-on learning.”

Gosek began teaching Techniques in Ice Hockey Coaching when he became head coach in 2003. He tells his students not to buy the textbook in order to save them money and because he draws on his own personal experiences in coaching to get the class thinking about what kind of coach they want to be.

“You want the students to get something out of it,” Gosek said. “It’s not a physics class, but I hope the kids get something out of it.”

Junior Winifred Decker is a creative writing major and an athletic coaching minor. She enrolled in ice hockey coaching this semester and said that attendance and participation are key in all athletic coaching classes. Her enjoyment of hockey motivated her to take the class, she said. The course has helped her reflect on what kind of coach she eventually wants to be.

“I think we get a lot out of the class because it teaches you not just about coaching, but also about life,” Decker said.

In addition to theory, Gosek said the class also learns about the realities of coaching. The course serves as a pipeline for coaching certification in New York state and students need to be prepared for the challenges of high school and minor league coaching.

“I think it gives them a whole realistic look at coaching,” Gosek said. “It’s not so glamorous to be a coach. I think for some of them it’s an eye-opening experience.”

 

Acedemic Integrity

“Grading is a complex process,” said Jean Chambers, a professor of philosophy who teaches ethics and has served on committees working on academic integrity.

She said she was hesitant to condemn any course for grading too easily before she had seen the learning objectives and writing plan of the course. Chambers mentioned that long ago, the average grade of college class was a C, but the average has climbed higher over the decades.

Chambers said one source of tension was the changing ideals in education, in which universities seek to serve a democratic ideal by pushing everyone to succeed, while still conforming to an old, Germanic structure that demands grader-givers sort out the academic high rollers from the riff-raff.

“I tell students that 90 percent of the time, I’m a coach, I want to see them succeed; 10 percent of the time, I’m a judge,” Chambers said. “This comes down to equity of challenge. I think this is an old problem.”

A problem, it seems, with no easy answers. Several sources pointed to issues of academic freedom, which allow instructors wide latitude to interpret the objectives and outcomes of their course.

Patricia Russo, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction said that just because every student in a course received an A, doesn’t necessarily mean the course is too easy, or that students are not challenged.

“To have a grade distribution where nearly everybody gets an A might have something to do with the fact that it’s being well-taught,” Russo said. “That doesn’t mean that they don’t do tons of work and don’t learn a lot.”

Russo said that since there is no athletic coaching major, it should be thought of as an activity such as the orchestra or a sports team, meant to engage students on campus.

“There may be some students that take that course that get totally invested and go on to be coaches someplace, go on to work for professional athletic teams,” Russo said. “Some students may use it for a phenomenal experience, others may be blowing it off.”

Grading, she said, really is not an indicator of a quality course. A course where every student earns an A may be just as good as a course were many students do not.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not working hard, it doesn’t mean they’re not having valuable experiences. It’s just a different kind of course offering,” Russo said. “That doesn’t mean that the program isn’t valuable or that it should be any more rigorous.”

 

Mastering Fundamentals

Officials in the Health Promotion and Wellness Department, which offers the PED courses, say they don’t feel the easy grading is unfair to students in more challenging classes.

“I feel confident that for the most part [professors] are doing a good job or they wouldn’t be here,” said chair of the department of Health Promotion and Wellness Sandra Moore. “I think we have good people, we have good coaches.”

Many PED classes rely on learning and mastering specific skills, she said.

“I would look at skills,” Moore said. “To me that adds a component of rigor as opposed to just spitting back information.”

Several Health Promotion and Wellness classes are focused on learning certain skills required for a formal certification, such as in PED 210, American Red Cross Lifesaving.

“All you have to do is learn the skills and you get the certification,” Mike Holman, head swimming coach, said.

Holman has taught the course for four years. While many students have not become certified lifeguards, he said he has only had one student that did not earn an A in the class. According to grade distribution data, every one of Holman’s lifesaving students last year earned an A.

“Here I’m teaching the skills so it’s pretty foolproof,” Holman said. “It’s pretty difficult to not get an A.”

Each coaching course is based on New York state coaching certification standards, Moore said. Faculty are also evaluated by their students, the results of which are sent to the state.

Ultimately, the choice lies with the student, Chambers said.

“It’s quite clear that some majors are harder than other majors,” Chambers said. “The clever student is one who can navigate the system and come out the end with a good education. A good student is one who utilizes the system to challenge himself.”

 

Adam Wolfe contributed to the writing and reporting of this article.