Addressing the Learning-Earning Gap in College Classrooms

A year or so ago, I got this e-mail from a student:

“Professor Graham,

I am extremely conscerned [sic] after taking the first exam online because I didn’t even come close to finishing it on time and ended up with a 56 as a grade. I have attended every single class, paid attention, and felt like I understood the material so I don’t understand how this grade is possible for me. I am also conscerned [sic] because I only got a 50 on the 2nd post. This means my average is extremely low and in a class that I feel I have put a lot of effort into.”

This e-mail is illustrative of the two different “logics” that order the actions of students and professors.

Professors, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of learning. Meaning, they understand the process of education to be one of inquiry, discovery, and intellectual growth.  According to this logic, the goal is to construct an environment that affords students the best opportunities to learn as much about the given topic as possible.  Success is measured qualitatively, through the type of questions asked and the amount of interest in the course.  The means through which a course is produced (the lesson plan) matter more than the ends of the course (the grades).  The question that must be answered: what did my students learn?

Students, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of earning.  Meaning, they see the process of education not unlike that of a job, where tasks are completed and rewards are given based upon the completion of those tasks.  According to this logic, a student’s goal is to earn the highest grade possible.  Success is measured quantitatively, in grades.  The ends of the course (the grade) matter more than the means through which the course is produced (the lesson plan).  The question that must be answered: what is going to be on the test?

These two logics are often at odds, as one can earn without learning, and learn without earning.  In my opinion there is a “learning – earning” gap in higher education.

The student above has an earning logic, and using this logic, is justifiably worried.  She has followed the rules, been a “good student” and yet, she is not getting the results she expects.  She judges the ends of her efforts, the grades,  as being unsatisfactory.  While it would be nice to learn on her way to a satisfactory grade, the entire endeavor was not worth her time, and inherently unjust.

By contrast, I judge the situation and that student’s performance through a learning logic.  I take some justified pleasure in knowing that I was able to get a student to “attend every class” and “pay attention”.  I judge my efforts as being wholly satisfactory.  While it would be nice for every student to receive a satisfactory grade, the entire process was worthwhile, and the end result was just.

I’ve just presented two idealized thought processes.  Of course students want to learn and professors are aware that grades matter.  These two ideal types only function as a heuristic.

The reality is more complex.  A “good” professor organizes his class so that students can be successful – no matter their individual ability levels, while still finding ways to make the lecture more than just test prep.  A “good” student gets high marks, but also expresses interest in the material and racks up “participation points”.  “Bad” students are those who enter into the class thinking solely about the grade, and “bad” professors are those who are not attuned to the realities of students they are serving.

However the logics are organized, any course will be composed of an assortment of students each falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale – but in the aggregate closer to the earning pole, and a professor falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale, but closer to the learning pole. Thus, there is almost always a learning-earning gap in college classrooms.

I’ve been working on ways to bridge this gap using the digital environment.  Let me explain…

Using Online Instruction to Bridge the Learning Earning Gap

As educators, we often think in terms of either/or – online course or traditional course.  Some institutions also offer “hybrid” courses, where students divide their time between online and traditional.  These are, I think, institutional conveniences, ways to organize the expectations of students and professors.  At this point most professors use their school’s online course management system in in some way, even if it is just to post documents or show grades.

The best way to think about online education is to see it as a second space for learning – a space that can be designed to fit the specific needs of the course and the instructor.  In effect, using the digital environment in a class is like having two separate spaces where learning can occur.  This increases the ways in which student content can be delivered and learning can be assessed.  Online modes of teaching and traditional modes of teaching are best understood as complementary – not competing or alternative – components of a given course, similar to giving a lecture one day and then having students watch a video the next.  If we meet in person it is because meeting in person accomplishes a task much more effectively than trying to complete that task online.

Because the digital environment increases the amount of tools available to educators and it offers a second space in which content can be delivered, the learning-earning gap can be bridged.   This is how I go about (trying) to bridge the gap:

I have an online component for all of my classes, and the purpose of that component is to satisfy the earners.  There are students who have no interest in coming to class, yet they desire a grade.  With this in mind, I design my online component to be all about earning: take this quiz, do this assignment, etc.  And then, the lecture is mostly about learning: “let’s talk about this”, “what you think about that”, etc.  This works in the obverse as well.  The online component could be oriented more to learners: “here is some extra material”, “here is a video that may be of interest”, and so on.  That then means that the in-class component can be about earners: “Ok, you’ve read the assignment, now let’s use this time to go over how we complete it” (the so-called “flipped class” is the most extreme version of this scenario).  What usually happens for me is that students who are interested in the classroom experience for whatever reason tend to come to class.  Meanwhile those interested in grade acquisition can still accomplish their goal without having to show up just for attendance.  Usually by the end of the semester I have a group of students who consistently come to class – usually about 40%.  They probably skew more towards the learning pole.  With this group, rapport is built, and I tailor my lectures to them.


Using online instruction is less time consuming, making it easier for me to focus on course content.  Whatever course management system I’m using, the dissemination of course materials can be done quickly.  Changes to digitized documents are a snap.  But the biggest time reducers are the tools available for grading.  Using computers to grade single choice assessments quickly and accurately are old news.  But tools are also available that speed the grading of writing assignments.  Moreover, these tools make grading more precise (Students care about reliability much more than validity.  Like a baseball player who needs to learn the umpire’s strike zone early in the game, they are more ticked off by changing parameters than the parameters themselves).  Because the digital environment makes the manipulation of information so easy, I can focus on what really matters – content and assessment.  Of course, I could use all that free time to play Civilization…

In closing, there is almost always a learning-earning gap in college classrooms.  For me, someone who skews far to the learning end, I am continually frustrated with what I see as students reducing a course to its lowest common denominator by answering for themselves the question: what will be on the test?  These days I just tell them to go online.

One comment

  1. Admiring the commitment you put into your blog and in depth information you present.
    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed material.
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