Too many A+'s get UofO Professor kicked out of school

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Written by Andrew Garvie

The case of Denis Rancourt, the University of Ottawa's physics professor gone rogue, has been attracting national attention while raising questions about academic freedom and the role of universities in our society. After a history of conflict with (or proud resistance to) the UofO's administration, Rancourt has recently been suspended, banned from campus and it has been announced that he will be fired as soon as the University can go through the necessary red-tape required to fire a tenured professor. He was even arrested when on campus to attend his highly popular Cinema Politica documentary film series. What prompted this action which some are now calling a breach of academic freedom? Rancourt decided to give each of his fourth-year physics students an A+ last winter.

Rancourt is an advocate of "critical pedagogy", developed by Paulo Freire, that has been called "radical" by some and has been dismissed outright by the UofO's administration. He is convinced that the assignment of grades is detrimental to the learning process of students. He calls grades a "carrot and stick" mechanism that "shape obedient employees" but do little to develop independent thinking and provide a deep understanding of the material. In a recent interview on this subject Rancourt said, "As soon as you make a student into a machine that is looking for higher grades, they are trying to guess what the professor wants rather than looking at the phenomenon, looking at the material in order to understand it themselves". When the UofO refused to allow Rancourt to use a pass/fail grading system in his class, he rebelled and gave everybody A's.

The heavy-handed dismissal of Rancourt and his teaching style has raised some serious questions about the very nature of our post-secondary "education" system. The administration has attacked Rancourt's method as damaging to the credibility of the university. The argument is that employers need to look at grades in order to see who has demonstrated adequate knowledge of a given subject. Rancourt sees this as demonstrating universities' real agenda: to provide employers with reasonably well trained workers. He argues that he has an obligation to "educate" and that the "certification and ranking of students can be handled by employers" through interviews, entrance tests, etc. He also points the fact that most employers only look to see if you have a degree and do not focus on marks and that several Ivy League schools now offer more pass/fail courses than standard graded classes.

Professor Rancourt promotes a deeper, humanist view of education that sees the university as a place where students can realize their creative potentials. He is highly critical of today's universities where "the natural desire to learn, the intrinsic motivation to want to learn something because you are interested in the thing itself, is destroyed".

Rancourt's views are definitely held by a small minority of professors but he is not totally alone in challenging the grading system. UofG Professor Emeritus John McMurtry had a comparable experience to Rancourt's and has written a letter expressing his solidarity. Thirty-five years ago McMurtry was almost ousted by the Guelph administration for challenging the grading system but was saved by fellow faculty members and students that defended him. McMurtry recently wrote that "It was a harrowing witch-hunt I experienced, but in the longer run the university got clear and good criteria for each grade category where before there were none, and pass-fail became an option in some courses". David Noble who is a professor at York University has also won ability to use the pass-fail evaluation method using a similar argument to Rancourt's.

This critique of our universities' pedagogy has resonance in the real experience of many students. Anyone that has forgotten everything they memorized just hours after their exam can relate to what Rancourt is saying on some level. Students worry about what the professor wants to see as opposed to what they would personally like to present or explore. Do we place enough emphasis on actual understanding and fulfilling the natural desires of students to learn about what interests them... or do we just need to regurgitate the semblance of knowledge to make the grade?

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  1. Posted by: Analogist on Feb 12, 2009 @ 4:25pm

    Every system has its failures; if we had a pass/fail system how would it determine who gets the money from the schools 85% and 90% average bursaries and which high school students to accept? But on the other hand, the percentile system is just like a circus act for students: we are all just jumping through hoops. I would like to see more pass/fail courses in the future, however I don't know if a system in which every course is a pass fail would be practical.

  2. Posted by: John L on Feb 12, 2009 @ 7:33pm

    I'd imagine there's a policy at the university determining what weightings can be given to various elements of the marking system. I've known enough dodgy professors that I'd really prefer them not being given carte blanche to follow their whims. At the end of the day academics are employees of the university and so are obliged by decisions made by the organization. His only recourse would be to convince enough of his peers that he's got a compelling argument and that they support what he proposes to do and push for it as a group. You'll likely find that he's sort of the odd man out even among his academic peers.

  3. Posted by: CJ on Feb 13, 2009 @ 4:12am

    Need more professors like him.

  4. Posted by: Julia S. on Feb 13, 2009 @ 6:36pm

    I definitely agree with Rancourt. Grading systems in this university can be very discouraging. Even if you know the material and understand the concepts, you can still do poorly on an exam just by the structure, timing, etc. I understand grades are important, and of course weighting systems are set in place to regulate grades. Coming to university, I expected a huge difference from the general structure of high school, but I was disappointed. I always thought that students would have to grasp the information, understand the material and be able to reproduce it in different contexts. But, most of my classes are just straight memorization. More classes should be about participation, contribution to discussions, and bringing up contradictions, etc; actually understanding the material.

    I don't think Rancourt should be fired, this just eliminates 'outside the box' thinking. I definitely agree with Rancourt's thinking. People should be more open-minded to his 'radical' methods . It could be a new revolutionary change to traditional teaching styles.

  5. Posted by: Vicky on Feb 15, 2009 @ 12:53am

    There are SEVERAL professors that believe in the pass/fail system at many universities! Europe runs on a pass/fail system and they produce some the brightest, open minded and intelligent people the work force has ever seen. They still get scholarships and honours for an excellent job, figure out how their doing it. I agree with the pass fail system. There is no difference between students who get a 78 and those who get a 98, their all capable of doing the same job in the work for just as well so there is no reason to select against the B+ students (who often are much more well rounded).

    If you want you could have a fail, pass, pass with honour system (the third one for those who receive and 80 or higher- A students) their transcripts should still only show pass at the end, but then they could get their scholarships if that is students worries.

    Those receiving marks around 80 and up have enough knowledge to do the job well, but they have the passion for the job rather than the money it pays that these 98 students MAY not necessarily have.

    I'm glad he took a stand! There are many who would do the same except they fear what is happening to him will happen to them. I completely agree with Rancourt, we need more like him.

  6. Posted by: R on Feb 15, 2009 @ 1:55pm

    I think a better way would be to have the pass/fail system, and then make a portfolio of wor the student has done over the course of their studies. This way, it is evident how well the student understood the material, and they are encouraged to do their own learning also.

  7. Posted by: Jason on Feb 15, 2009 @ 3:52pm

    Rancourt presupposes that a true liberal education is incompatible with grading. He seems to think that students focus primarily – perhaps only – on the grades they receive. If this has been his experience, then it’s probably because he has failed to intellectually inspire his students.

    While I’m sympathetic to Roncourt’s concern, rewarding an A+ to each of his students is grossly unjust. Not only does it put others at a disadvantage when applying to graduate schools/jobs, it also undermines the importance of academic evaluation. Remember, the university is a place of higher education where one must work to earn their degree. Consequently, one must be evaluated appropriately. A simple pass/fail system may be irresponsible in some cases, as it would fail to differentiate between great degrees of academic performance. Additionally, grades may be beneficial to students as they can aid in identifying strengths/weaknesses and the progress made on them.

  8. Posted by: Jason on Feb 15, 2009 @ 3:54pm

    And contrary to what one person wrote, there is a difference between 78% and 98%. The difference, presumably, is in the quality of work that was submitted. Although the grade may not be an accurate reflection of the academic merit of each student, it was never intended to be. The grade is a simple evaluation of the work that was received – much like the evaluation one would receive in the workplace (e.g. performance review). Grades are only one piece of the puzzle – in many cases, equal importance is placed on relevant experience, references, and quality of work. Education is not confined to the boundaries of school, and neither is rigorous evaluation.

  9. Posted by: Jackie on Feb 17, 2009 @ 7:51pm

    There is no system in place that can monitor how professors mark students. the most fair is to decide if students have understood, which is largely dependent on whether or not they agree with the professor. Whether or not they've understood in the same way as the professor did, or does. Our marking scheme does nothing but cause students to care more about agreeing with their profs than trying to learn for themselves.

  10. Posted by: student on Feb 18, 2009 @ 8:15am

    That is a good point. I think the very fact that two professors may give different marks for the EXACT same assignment shows that the system is flawed. However, perhaps we could rewrite the old Winston Churchill saying to say "the percentile system is the worst way to evaluate students except all of the other systems."

    Original: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."~ Winston Churchill

  11. Posted by: Jon on Feb 18, 2009 @ 11:01am

    Dr. Rancourt certainly has a point when he believes that intrinsic motivation leads to greater learning. The Teacher's College at Queen's and the School of Medicine at McMaster University) both use pass/fail systems and (as someone who has had personal experience with both systems)I have seen that the reduced presure to perform for instructors means that students aim to fulfill their own learning goals. Such systems use learning objectives, goal setting, and problem-based learning as their foundation and this leads to true learning, not memorization and regurgitation. Students are constructively criticized by their peers and guided by their instructors in group learning sessions. They are given written evaluations, which describe a lot more than a number. In Dr. Rancourt's case giving everyone a 75 or 80 and then rewarding those who went above and beyond may have been a better course of action. That being said, had he done so we wouldn't be discussing this.

  12. Posted by: Jimbobway on Feb 20, 2009 @ 1:18pm

    With all the possible "best methods" for grading suggested, I might as well throw my own into the mix...... Why don't we just have a fight to the death? Divide the classes in half, and let them fight it out in pairs. The winner of the fight "passes" and is allowed to stay in the course and learn for the rest of the semester, knowing that their final grade will be "Alive" and whatever knowledge they gain from the course is to their own benefit.
    With this method, we assure that everyone that graduates from the course has made it through their "survival of the fittest." That way, future employers can notice that they are willing to fight for what they want.
    Ta daaaaaaaaaa!

  13. Posted by: hey bud on Feb 25, 2009 @ 12:14am

    I just got stupider reading your comment.

  14. Posted by: on Oct 21, 2009 @ 10:47pm

    Regardless of whether it is pass/fail or a percentile system jimbobway fails.

  15. Posted by: on Oct 21, 2009 @ 10:47pm

    Regardless of whether it is pass/fail or a percentile system jimbobway fails.

  16. Posted by: on Oct 21, 2009 @ 10:50pm

    I don't know why it posted that twice, but I guess it just emphasizes the point that jimbobway fails no matter what the criteria is.

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