how to teach students that employers care about outcomes, not how much time they put in

A reader writes:

I am a professor of practice in a graduate-level professional program. Though a fair few of our learners are career-changers, stay-at-home parents preparing for a return to the workplace, or others with significant work-world experience, many come to us straight from their undergraduate experience. This latter group sometimes brings work-inappropriate beliefs and habits with them.

One issue I see more often than I like is the “but I spent so much time on it!” excuse for poor performance on an assignment. I do my level best to make assignment instructions and grading standards clear and offer several communication channels for assignment clarification. Almost all my students have little or no trouble with this, so I hope and believe neither the assignments nor my communication style is at the root of the problem.

“I spent so much time on it!” is not an excuse that flies in workplaces, obviously. (I’m not even sure why they think it would fly with me…) We also need to interrupt this habit of thought as soon as we see it, since we send learners through internships, and any workplace-inappropriate behavior on their part can reflect poorly on us.

How do you suggest I respond to this inadequate excuse so that learners never, ever, ever try this on an actual manager? Any favorite introductory materials on time and task management that I should ensure these learners see?

When you see something like this enough that it’s a pattern, I like addressing it right up-front before it even happens. You certainly can address it as it happens on a case-by-case basis (and you probably will still need to), but addressing it with people right from the start should cut down on how many many times it comes up, and is generally a useful piece of knowledge to impart.

At the start of the semester, I’d say something like this: “I want to mention something that I’ve seen come up in past semesters, in order to head it off before it happens here. School sometimes inadvertently teaches people that the amount of effort you put into an assignment should be a key consideration in the grade you get. Effort isn’t nothing, but in the work world, what matters is what outcomes you get. If you don’t get a strong outcome, your employer isn’t going to be impressed that you put in an enormous amount of time and effort. In fact, they may even be concerned that you invested a huge amount of time in something that ultimately wasn’t right. I run my classroom by that same principle. I certainly hope you’ll invest time and effort in your assignments here — and most people will need to in order to excel — but ‘I spent so much time on it’ isn’t something I (or your future employers) want to hear in response to a poor performance.”

{ 164 comments… read them below }

    1. Amber T*

      I had a professor (in a high level theoretically math course) who would routinely tell us “this problem should only take you five minutes” or “this assignment won’t take you more than 30 minutes.” So what happened when it took (nearly) everyone longer than the teacher expected? We all thought we sucked. Granted, this is also when I learned that high level theoretical math was not for me, but I digress…

      I think the excuse “but I spent so much time on this” is actually a cover up for one of two bigger problems – time management (‘This project took me six hours because I was also working on project X, calling my mom, and farting around on Facebook) or said student doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) understand the material well enough do complete it (meaning they’re in the wrong field). It turned out that I could spend HOURS pouring over my math textbook, trying basic problems and trying to work up to harder ones with little success. I ended up having an honest conversation with my adviser that maybe this math course wasn’t for me and that there was nothing wrong with that. So I dropped the course, dropped the thought that I would go into theoretical math, and found something that I was more interested in and better at (accounting, which still uses a lot of math but stuff that makes sense to me).

      This conversation is certainly more difficult once you’re already in the work place, but I think still can happen. Ideally these are good conversations to have when you’re still in college and have a bit more flexibility.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Along the same lines as this comment, OP, I think it’s worth you adding something in your speech about “and if you do find yourself spending a lot of time on projects/homework/studying [as appropriate in the class you teach], please come to office hours and we can discuss resources for how to make sure that the time you are putting in is having the greatest impact it can on the final outcome”

        Some students may need to realize that they need tutoring, because they have fundamental holes in the background knowledge required for a subject, or because it’s been a while since they have studied it at a college level. Others might be spending too much time on the earlier work (for instance, reading tons of books for a research papers) and not leaving enough at the end (resulting in cranking out the actual writing just before the deadline, and not taking the time to revise). Other students might spend too much time banging their heads against a wall on a topic they don’t understand, rather than asking for help from the professor or another student that could have cleared it up earlier.

        1. Sascha*

          I found out it that I had a math learning disability later on in life, and that’s why it always took me an excessive amount of time to do math problems. It was only through tutoring that I realized I had this problem. But the point is the same as yours, if it’s taking a long time, figure out why – don’t just throw up your hands and use that as an excuse.

        2. OP*

          Oh, absolutely. I often suggest “if you’ve spent more than X time on this and/or you’re ready to throw your computer across the room, stop, and come back when you’re ready to re-evaluate your approach or you have a sudden brainstorm.” In my head stopping unuseful perserveration is a life skill!

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Knowing when to stop and let something incubate, seek help, check resources is a huge skill to have. It took my boss and I over a year to figure out that we should run at something for 15 minutes, give it our best and if we come up empty then call resources for help.

            Since my boss was new to the job by a few months more than me, we were both doing the same thing. “I should know how to do this. I should be able to figure this out.” An hour an a half later we still had not figured out the solution. Meanwhile, other work went untouched, putting us further and further behind.

            Time has passed since my boss’ decree. It’s going very well. We have both learned what the other excels at. And we also know when to call outside help. Side effects include being happier with our jobs and happier with each other.

          2. TootsNYC*

            “if you’ve spent more than X time on this and/or you’re ready to throw your computer across the room, stop, and come back when you’re ready to re-evaluate your approach or you have a sudden brainstorm.”

            That’s not the same thing as “come to me and let’s see if you need outside help or a totally different approach”

            or “check with the student advisor office to see if you can get a tutor”

          3. Biff*

            “stopping unuseful perserveration is a life skill!”

            Thank you, this is precisely the phrase I was looking for this morning for a training manual I’m writing. I’m borrowing the phrase!

      2. Three Thousand*

        There was a lot of math I couldn’t do in college but find a lot easier now. I think at least part of it is having the pressure to perform lifted, and part of it might be increased experience with problem-solving that makes those concepts seem less difficult now.

        1. Anna*

          Exactly. Someone telling you how long a problem should take just makes me feel like I must be stupid. It may take me that long after I have more practice at it, but how about you let me decide how long it *should* take me? My own experience with instructors telling me how long something should take is to just work at it MORE because if it only takes that long, clearly I’ve missed something so it’s all me.

          1. Amber T*

            I should note that while my professor was extremely smart at at theoretical math, he was not the best at teaching. If you didn’t understand something the first time he explained it, well, clearly you’re the problem. This class included many political rants, making fun of other professors (in his own department!), and many other annoying things. That’s why my conversation about dropping the class was with my adviser, not him.

            But yes, this thread summed up my original points better than I did in my initial post – if you’re spending a lot of time on something and not getting results, one of two (or both) skills need work: time management or asking for help.

    2. De Minimis*

      I don’t get how it would either. I would say maybe it’s something new but I went back to school not long ago and I didn’t find that to be the case.

      1. Myrin*

        I don’t actually see it working either (my professors generally have good heads on their shoulders) but I hear fellow students bring it up all the time.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Exactly. I work as an admin at a five-year professional program at a university, and I hear the professors talking all the time about the various excuses that their students try on them; the excuses don’t work, but there is always a fresh new batch of students who don’t get that for at least the first year or two (or three). Usually by the fourth and fifth years, the excuses have either been trained out of them via academic rigor, or the ones who aren’t suited for the program or find that it isn’t for them have transferred elsewhere. One of the program tracks has traditionally been less rigorous than the other two and has attracted a group of students who don’t want to work very hard. A new department head with ambitions to bring that program’s rigor and reputation up to the level of the other two has made academic life very hard on some of the students who expected an easier time of it. As that program matures under his leadership, though, it is attracting more serious students and the ones who would treat it as a “fluff” program are being out-performed.

        2. Anna*

          But I think it’s also something we’re actually told in school. If you can complete something in 2 hours, then it can’t be that good, right? In high school, my experience was that if I completed a task too quickly, I would get feedback that I must not have considered the problem very well or it’s probably not well done because it didn’t take me very long to complete it. We are frequently told something done quickly or in less time than expected can’t possibly have been done thoroughly. I think that’s where some of this is coming from.

          1. Myrin*

            Absolutely agree, this is just something that’s never really happened to me personally (I don’t think my school teachers ever really told us how long we should need for something – I remember that when people asked “How long should this take?” the most frequent answer was “Well, that depends.” or “That’s up to you.”) so I didn’t think of it!

    3. Sam*

      It really shouldn’t. When I started TAing, only a couple years out of college myself, I was shocked that students considered this a legitimate complaint. My response was always, “I can’t sit in your dorm room and observe how much work you put in. I can only grade based on what’s on the paper in front of me.” They couldn’t really argue with that…

    4. stellanor*

      Yeah, we had undergrads pull that one. “But I studied ALL WEEK!” they’d say. And we would say, in this class, as in most classes in college, we grade on performance, not effort, and we measure that performance with quizzes, and on the quiz you got a D. Please come to office hours so we can work out why you studied all week and got a D.

      It wasn’t a large number of students pulling that stunt but the ones who did did it ALL THE TIME — I taught one course one quarter and a followup course in a later quarter and had some of the same students come to me with the same excuse.

  1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

    I had a high school teacher tell me that I should “never confuse efforts with results,” when I whined about a grade.

    It was a helpful lesson.

    1. SevenSixOne*

      I think part of the problem is that nearly every piece of early-childhood advice in the last 30+ years encourages adults to praise little kids for their effort instead of their results. That’s great for toddlers and preschoolers, since they’re still learning how to do everything… but I think adults need to acknowledge effort but praise results as kids get older.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I’m not a parent or educator, but I have never understood the mentality of “no score” soccer and participation trophies.

      2. Jaydee*

        I think the problem is that millions of adults have misunderstood or misapplied that advice. It’s not about praising effort for effort’s sake. It’s not that outcomes don’t matter. And it’s not about making kids feel better. I think perhaps it should be rephrased as praising progress.

        Think about a kids’ soccer team. If winning is the only thing that matters, you’ll end up with kids who only want to play against the worst teams, who avoid challenges, and who cheat. Parents will push to get their kids on the” best” team. Coaches will bench the kids who struggle and focus on the kids who are most skilled.

        On the other hand, if your daughter is sad because her team lost the game, don’t tell her that winning doesn’t matter. If winning doesn’t matter, why does the other team seem so happy? Don’t tell her something generic about how “trying hard” is what matters. Because what does “trying hard” mean? And what’s the point of trying hard if winning doesn’t matter?

        Instead, focus on improvement. When your kid’s team wins, focus on what they did that led to the win. If it was an “easy” win, focus on what they can do to keep winning harder games. When your kid’s team loses, acknowledge that they’re disappointed. Kids aren’t going to be scarred for life by experiencing emotions other than happy. Disappointment is a natural response to not getting something you wanted. Then talk about what they can do to improve for next time. Talk about what improvements you saw since the last game. Help them see the progress they are making and understand that “trying hard” is not some vague, nebulous concept but involves setting goals, making a plan, and following specific steps to complete the plan and reach the goal.

  2. Jerzy*

    As a workforce development professional who to often sees silos built up between labor & workforce development and education & higher education, I am just happy to see an educator who actually sees their job to be preparing their students for the workplace.

    I’m a big fan of academia and learning for the sake of learning, but in reality, viewing education solely through this lens and letting college students (graduate and under graduate) get away with seriously unprofessional behavior, is doing a disservice to everyone involved!

    Yay, OP!

    1. OP*

      Thanks, I appreciate that! (It does help that the program I teach in is explicitly a professional program. It’s much more obviously our job to help our learners be workplace-ready.)

      1. Jerzy*

        Programs like yours should be required in both high school and college. A semester of learning workplace norms would go a LONG way in dealing with the complaints I hear all the time from employers that their employees are missing a lot of the basic “soft” skills they expect people to have.

        1. mull*

          Then why don’t these workplaces teach their employees whatever norms they want to enforce? Why should it be academia’s job to pick up the ball that workplaces have dropped?

          1. Zillah*

            That’s not fair. Education, particularly higher education, is presented in a large part as a way to prepare people for adulthood and to enter the work force. Most people are not going to college because they just love learning so much – they’re going because they think college will prepare them for careers that they want. Part of that absolutely should be teaching them some workplace norms. It’s a disservice to the students that very few programs do.

            1. mull*

              It’s perfectly fair. If the people who run a business want something done their way, why complain about something as enormous and varied as “academia” instead of just fixing themselves? They’re the ones who want something for their own sake. A college or university has a huge number of responsibilities and goals beyond making Business Owner X happy.

              College, while presented as being part of preparation for the workforce, isn’t presented as preparation for a career in every possible way. Also, colleges do have different behavioral norms than workplaces have, and as institutions, they have different values.

              And while colleges do a lot of teaching about skills and tools that will be relevant to finding and holding a job, they can’t or don’t address every possible concern a workplace would have; that isn’t a shortcoming of academia. (And just so we’re clear, professional programs are just that and aren’t the broader “academia” that I’m talking about.)

              Plus, workplaces have a wide variety of norms–we see that every day in the letters and comments here.

              1. Zillah*

                But it’s not about making “Business Owner X” happy. It’s about preparing Student Y, who is impacted on a far greater level than Business Owner X in this scenario. I agree that it’s not a school’s responsibility to prepare its students for every possible scenario, but that’s not what I’m talking about – nor, for that matter, is that healthy workplaces have a wide variety of social norms. The issue is that students aren’t really being prepared at all. There’s a lot of space between “college bubble” and “work world boot camp,” but most colleges don’t do much of anything in that regard.

                And just so we’re clear, I’m not a business owner – I’m a recent grad. Neither I nor most of my friends, who went to both public and private colleges across the country, feel that we were prepared appropriately for the work world by our higher education. Given how much that education costs, I find that absurd.

            2. Mike C.*

              I think it’s fair – I hear way too much whining from employers that they can’t find the perfect employees with the exact skillset they want who’s ready to go in their workplace on the first day. At some point an employer is going to have to invest in labor much like they must invest in R&D, advertising, utilities and so on.

              1. Zillah*

                But Mike, you’re accusing me of propagating an extremist point of view that I never espoused. Saying “colleges should prepare their students better for the work force” is not equivalent to saying that employers want “perfect employees with the exact skillset they want,” and I’m not sure why you took it to such an extreme. I agree that it’s absurd to expect employees to be perfect and productive from day one. However, that doesn’t mean that colleges get to wash their hands of preparing students for the real world entirely, particularly since they bill themselves on helping students get better careers. If that’s how they market themselves, they don’t get to ignore aspects of students’ preparation for the workforce simply because those aspects are less convenient to them.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I see a lot of pass the buck stuff and that to me comes across as excuses. I see parents saying the schools should teach the kids (and visa versa), then I see the same argument with schools vs employers. And who checks to see if the kids are learning what they need to know?

            It takes a village. I think that everyone, every step of the way has some responsibility.

            1. Jerzy*

              That’s exactly my point. Saying “it’s not my problem” is really disingenuous when we’re talking society at large, in every industry, in every area of the country.

          3. Jerzy*

            Doing just that is part of the reason the USDOL is pushing to expand apprenticeships, but higher ed needs to do it’s part as well. Even if it’s not it’s own program, the standards to decorum need to be enforced so students get used to them before they go into the workplace.

            In fact, this kind of attitude you’re displaying in this statement is part of the reason we’re seeing such a drop in soft skills. College students used to dress in jackets and ties to go to class, so were well prepared to know how to dress for work. Now they wear pj’s to class and don’t understand why ripped jeans in inappropriate for an office. A lot of people think I’m exaggerating when I say things like this, but I work with a lot of employers from all different industries and this is a problem.

      2. The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism*

        First off, I totally appreciate and applaud you for wanting to address this issue.

        At the risk of sounding like a shill, I’ve been reading this book The Martian (which is soon to be a Major Motion Picture[1] with an extremely attractive cast). For the benefit of the 4 or 5 people who haven’t heard of it, the basic plot is: a manned mission to Mars accidentally leaves Matt Damon stranded. Matt has to do a lot of hard work to survive until a rescue team can come pick him up.

        I haven’t finished the book yet – and I’m on the edge of my seat wondering if Matt Damon is going to die; I sure hope not! – but so far the book is almost entirely a paean to the virtues of hard work, ingenuity, and results. I don’t know that you’d necessarily want to assign the book to your students as required reading – but I think it’s probably impossible to read it without understanding that Matt Damon doesn’t get to cheat death simply because he spent a lot of time on a project. There are numerous instances of him spending massive amounts of time on something that damn near kills him (drilling holes in the rover, for an easy example).

        Again, I apologize for being all Hollywood about this. In truth, I probably would have suggested space travel as an example of something where the amount of time and effort don’t matter – you’ll literally live or die by the results.

        [1] I’m totally jazzed by the utter originality of the concept and I can’t wait to see how it compares with other, totally different movies about being stranded on Mars like Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000), The Last Days on Mars (2013), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)(stars Batman!).

        1. BananaPants*

          As an aside, I’m absurdly excited for this movie. I bought the Kindle book on a whim and read it in one sitting – I’m an engineer and loved that most of what was in the book was scientifically-accurate. I’m so looking forward to the film, especially since Andy Weir feels that the screenplay was pretty true to the book. (Also, Matt Damon.)

          1. schnapps*

            I love that book. I borrowed it one day from a friend at work for my lunch break and returned it to her the next morning. Of course I stayed up until 1am reading. When my alarm went off at 5, I got up and finished it.

            Some people breathe. I read.

          2. Algae*

            No seriously, I’ve either read or listened to this book 5 times already. My family is sick of me, but they’ve all read it. And been excited by it. It’s a love letter to science.

      3. The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism*

        Oh – as a parent, one other thing comes to mind: “So if I’ve got a job and I’m working 40 hours a week, but I get really good at my job – like, I get twice as good at it, twice as productive – then I only have to work 20 hours a week?” I leave the proper answer as an exercise for the reader :)

          1. Shannon*

            Supposed to, never does. Too many companies dock you PTO if you only clock 38 hours one week, never mind the fact that you may have put in 50+ hours the month prior.

            I’m sure not every company functions that way, but, that seems to be a norm in my area.

          2. BananaPants*

            Surely you jest? I’m in a salaried position where the minimum expected for full timers is a 40 hour week. To be fair, most managers are OK with working 38 hours one week and 42 the next, but you’ll never move up into management to begin with unless you put in more like 47 one week and 51 the next.

        1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

          I’m with you on the parenting example. I work in office and at home and I own responsibility for program results. I choose to work smart and get those results in a 40 hour week. My son (10yrs) asks me about what I do and my team and my work, and I talk with him about time management and results. I also help him apply those same principles to his homework.

          At the end of the day, any amount of time spent, large or small, can be considered wasted if the product isn’t as expected and if no one learns from the experience to improve it next time.

    2. PhyllisB*

      My husband gets this a lot. He’s an instructor at our local community college in the Workplace Development program. He teaches things like industrial electricity, welding, ect. He says pretty much the same thing (effort and results don’t necessarily mean the same thing) and that not paying attention to detail can get you killed in that line of work.

  3. Myrin*

    Ugh, I’m a uni student and I hear that kind of crap pretty regularly (I’m not particularly close to anyone in my courses; these are people who randomly sit next to me and we’re making friendly smalltalk and suddenly this). I always make some noncommittal noises when this comes up but what I’d really like to say is “Yeah, you put a lot of time into it but it was still crap, so? These are not mutually exclusive!”.

      1. Myrin*

        As can “a lot of time”! Someone might say “I did [thing] really quickly in a bit more than an hour” and another one whines “I put more than one hour into [thing]!”.

  4. Nom d' Pixel*

    We commonly see this with recent graduates. They aren’t meeting deadlines or other performance goals, and discussions about the importance of doing things well and on time are typically met with a response about how they worked so hard/stayed so late/had so much to do. First of all, if I notice someone spends all of the day socializing then has to work late, I don’t have any sympathy. Secondly, I am concerned about results, not effort.

  5. Shell*

    I will say up front that I’m not a parent, nor do I plan to be one, so maybe my opinion on this is skewed, but…

    I think we do children a disservice to teach them that effort is what matters the most; I can’t really blame college kids and young adults having the “but I tried so hard!” attitude when they carried it over from childhood. I’m not saying every child has to get 100% in every subject or every endeavour, that way lies madness and perfect is the worst enemy of good. But I do think a good product (good grades, good results, etc.) should be the end goal, and good effort should be on par for the course. “But I tried so hard” really shouldn’t pass muster past about, I dunno, kindergarten. And in cases where I have lower goals (e.g. I joined sports because I wanted to have fun and get some exercise, not because I wanted to be a world-class volleyball player), I adjusted my expectations accordingly and “good product” would maybe be, I dunno, being able to play two games without sucking terribly. But that means I wouldn’t cry “but I tried so hard!” when I didn’t make the school team or something.

    That said, I was far harder on myself than my parents were, so maybe I never gave my parents cause to doubt the product.

    1. Not Nonymous*

      That stance seems reminiscent of scientology’s approach to educating children.

      Effort is perhaps the most important thing for children up through high school. It’s important that children learn how to put forth effort and direct it towards achieving a goal. Achieving those goals “without sucking terribly” necessarily takes the back seat unless you want children learn to shirk effort because they are only judged on the end result.

      tl;dr: your method is tailor made to teach children that the end goal justifies whatever means they need to reach it.

      OT: Adults, who should know very well how to achieve goals through their own efforts, should not think that great effort is a substitute for a useful result. Following Alison’s advice, I would mention it right before talking about academic dishonesty, because for a few students, plagiarism is the first reaction to “results matter”.

      1. Shell*

        I’m an atheist, so I haven’t the faintest clue of how Scientology educates children. I’ll look it up.

        Heh, I’m also not good with children, and it probably shows here :)

        I’m not so sure that telling children results matter necessarily cancels out the message that effort also matter. I can certainly remember sucking terribly at several endeavours (water polo comes to mind, oy vey) despite trying very, very hard at it. But I also understood that other kids were much, much better than me, and I didn’t resent the coach for benching me and putting other kids who were actually good at the sport into the pool. My parents expected me to put in effort for everything, but results do matter, and sometimes other people are just better and are rewarded accordingly. That’s just fact.

        I just don’t think that effort and result are mutually exclusive expectations, even in children. But again, I’m pretty bad with children.

        1. T3k*

          Going off on a tangent, but I resented the coaches I had growing up, but only because they were only interested in looking out for their own children (who were my age) and their children’s friends. Basically it meant I got shafted to outfielder positions (I mean, how many typical 8-10 year olds can hit a ball to outfield?) The one year I had a coach that didn’t have children? Was put on 3rd base. In soccer, I was put as a midfielder which I was ok with as I loved to run. I never even considered I could be a forward until we moved and I joined my new school’s team where, after the coach learned I was a lefty, put me as the team’s left forward.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Further digression. I remember a girl who played on the basketball team. We were in gym class together. I have never been a gym class kind of person, but this one day I was doing very well. I got the ball and was dribbling down the court. It looked like I would make it. This girl drove her elbow in to my throat next to my thyroid. The teacher stared right at me and did nothing. It took years for my throat to stop hurting.

        2. Myrin*

          For what it’s worth, I agree with you (and actually really liked the framing in your first comment re: adjusting expectations of what a “good product” means as this is always how I’ve thought of it myself; I was okay at school math, not too horrible, not super good either, and my goal was to get a grade in the middle, which I mostly did and I wasn’t disappointed in that outcome) and don’t think people reading your comment as “ONLY RESULTS MATTER” and “TEACH THIS TO THE KIDS” are doing it justice (or reading it correctly, for that matter).

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I find the focus on results concerning, too. I finished my degree a few years back and I was shocked to see that it really did not matter how you got to your answer. As long as the answer was right.

        I had a class where the teacher would leave the room during an exam. She did not come back. Left to their own devices students helped each other complete the problems on the test. Since I did not do this, I took my C minus or D because that is what I had earned. Since most of the other people were collaberating, my C or D looked even worse. “How come you’re not getting this and most people are?” I shrugged. Most people did not get it, they were asking each other what to do. Results matter more.

        To her credit the prof said that I actually understood the material much better than the tests showed.

    2. LadyMountaineer*

      I should disclaimer that I’m not a parent either but I disagree here. When children are little they *should* be rewarded just for working hard because that prepares them for the discipline that they need to keep working on the harder stuff like how long it takes to complete a long division problem. If children are not rewarded for their efforts in math in particular then they are likely to give up and decide it’s not their strength which limits them in the long run.

      This is one of the differences of pedagogy and andragogy. When you’re teaching college, especially grad students and you’re teaching interns, low level lab techs, engineers in training, student workers, etc it’s time to switch gears to adult learning (andragogy) and become results-oriented.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        I’m only speaking as a former little kid. Being grouped with my peers who were a lot more talented than I’d ever be, I saw real fast that all my efforts were pointless as I was terrible. And boy was I terrible at nearly everything I tried. And what was honored and recognized? The end results, ie not me! ;) I once got recognized for participating and it was mortifying!

        But that approach taught me to redirect my efforts to stuff I was good at instead of wasting my time on activities I’d never master. Not only that, it’s horrible to make the unskilled kid play because he’ll be scrutinized by his peers for eroding his teammates’ efforts.

        1. Cat*

          Or maybe it would have just taken you a bit longer to master those things than some of your peers.

          I mean, I did that too. Now, as an adult, I’m learning that just because I’m not instantly good at something doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be good at it. I may never be at the tippy top of a field without some inherent talent, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get good enough to make it a worthwhile pursuit.

          1. Snarkus Aurelius*

            Define a bit. ;) I’m only slightly kidding. Everyone’s thresholds are different, sure, but even as a child I was extremely averse to risking everyone else’s enjoyment just so I’d get to play.

            Kids are pretty intuitive. They know who is terrible and who is awesome. How they get there? I don’t think many people think about that.

          2. Malissa*

            No, no matter how hard I tried or how much effort I put into basket ball, I was still the shortest most unable to run and dribble a ball kid there ever was. When I had to play I’d kinda run up and down the court. Nobody would ever pass me the ball and I certainly was never going to make the game winning shot. My team mates resented the fact I was on their team. And I didn’t blame them one bit.
            I was an extremely happy kid the day the teacher decided it might be better to offer doing laps as an option.

            1. Cat*

              Well, sure, but there’s a large middle ground between things we’re naturally great at and things we will always be horrible at (I will never be anything other than the worst at basketball either).

              1. neverjaunty*

                And you don’t learn that middle ground exists if you’re taught either ‘effort is all that matter’ or ‘results, right now, are all that matter’.

          3. TootsNYC*

            exactly! The pressure to be “good right away” is not a good thing for kids. There’s a post on my Facebook wall of a letter an uncle (math teacher in an all-girls’ school) wrote to his 9yo niece who said “I’m not good at math.” He said, “Nobody’s good at things when they start. There isn’t anything to be gained by taking classes in subjects you already know. You are supposed to be learning stuff you don’t know yet.”

      2. T3k*

        Not my dad. May be cultural thing for him (being Asian), but growing up he never rewarded me for working hard. Got straight As in every subject all throughout elementary and middle school and most of high school and college, did I get money/a small gift out of any of them? Nope, because it was expected. Now, if you got anything below an A, then you got an earful of how you should do better, and you were lucky if they didn’t ground you from the computer/TV until you got it back up to an A. I explained this one time to a past coworker who believe in the whole “just do your best” method and she told me my dad was insane, and I have to agree. But, again, difference in cultures and expectations.

        1. Shell*

          Heh, I’m Asian too. Maybe that’s relevant.

          But yes, for me, I didn’t get praised to the heavens for effort. That was expected and a given, not something to be particularly praised about.

        2. simonthegrey*

          Not asian, but growing up I had friends whose parents paid them for getting As. One time I whined to my dad about not being paid for good grades. He told me it was my JOB to do well in school and that because getting good grades came naturally, no one gets rewarded for doing things that are easy for them. Rewards are for things that are hard. Now when I was in middle school and struggling in a science class, I managed to raise my grade from a D to a B from one test to the next, and my dad bought me some small thing I wanted as a reward because I had struggled, and I had done my best. That lesson stayed with me.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          German/Irish here. No parties for graduating high school. You don’t get parties for doing what you are supposed to do.

          I firmly believe there is a middle ground and recognition from family is very important.

            1. Agnes*

              That doesn’t make sense. You have a party because it’s an important milestone, not because it’s a huge achievement. Birthdays aren’t accomplishments, but we still celebrate them!

      3. Adam*

        I go back an forth on this but I agree that little kids should be praised for effort up to a point. Just starting out in school they obviously don’t really know anything and different learning styles and natural talents will take a while to emerge. I think somewhere around middle school age is where the transition to more results oriented expectations should slowly start, and not just in school.

        “Dad, I spent an hour cleaning my room!”
        “But is it clean?”

        Whenever it starts I definitely think it needs to start before the get to college, otherwise it’ll be really hard to shift gears.

        1. Meg Murry*

          Yes, I think the issue is that you need to praise kids more for putting in the effort on things that are hard, not on things that they are innately good at.

          For instance, my son is really good at math. So when he comes home with a A on his math test, I just say “good job, high five, I knew you could do it”.

          But he hates reading, and writing (when he’s given a specific prompt. Tell him just “write a story” and he’ll go to town). So when he spends a long time struggling with writing, I make a point of telling him “I like the way you worked so hard at your writing today. I know it’s not your favorite subject, but you worked hard, and look how much better your writing is from last year after all that hard work. Good job!”

          So for kids, it’s a balance. When they are still learning, you have to praise the effort. Once they’ve learned the skills and are applying them, praise the outcome. Otherwise they get the “I’m not good at writing so why should I even try” attitude way too young, or they learn to slack in something they are naturally pretty good at, and then don’t know how to buckle down and study when they hit the wall on it not being easy anymore.

        2. TootsNYC*

          Plus, if they don’t know it right away, they might learn it if they work hard–working hard on academics is what literally changes your brain and makes you smarter.

    3. Cat*

      This is slightly tangential, however I think it’s relevant. Studies show that kids are better off if they’re praised for their effort rather than inherent qualities. Kids who are told “you did a great job on that; you must have worked really hard” do better going forward than kids who are told “you did a great job on that; you must be really smart.” The latter tend to give up when they encounter something that’s difficult because they assume they must not really be smart so there’s no point in trying.

      The end product is important – nobody seriously thinks it’s not, including small children. But a big, big thing kids need to learn growing up is that sustained effort leads to results and is worthwhile even if you’re not immediately getting amazing results.

      As to the OP’s issue, I kind of suspect that what she’s hearing is frustration (“why is this not good even though I worked so hard”) and might be worth addressing on that level. When it is a serious request to change the grade based on effort, that is silly and should be addressed of course.

      1. Manders*

        Yes, I think it’s a balancing act when you’re preparing students for the working world–you don’t want to teach kids that effort is the only thing that’s rewarded, but it’s also a big transition for some students to switch from classes where you get an immediate reward for results to projects where you might be slogging away at the same thing for months or years. I think the OP’s already on the right track with their particular students–it sounds like they kind of student they’re seeing in this program is already used to putting out a lot of effort, but needs to learn how to work smarter, not harder.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        In the adult world praise goes a long way, too. Praise your crew and watch them jump through hoops to get a job done. Hey, a boss praises me once in a while and I will jump through hoops for that boss! ;)

        It’s a basic human need like water and food. People need to know that they are making a viable contribution to an effort.

    4. anon for once*

      It does children a disservice to lump them all into one group – ignoring their different levels of development and understanding – and then expecting them to have the maturity and understanding of adults. Teaching children the importance of effort, and the importance of that effort leading to results, is a process over the time they mature.

      As some commenters pointed out upthread, ” but I worked so hard” may not be so much a student saying they deserve an A for effort, as bewilderment that their hard work didn’t lead to good results. The response to that is working with the student to find out what went wrong, not rolling our eyes about how they should have learned that stuff in first grade.

      By the way, hammering into kids’ heads that ‘only results matter’ is how we get cheating scandals and suicides.

    5. MashaKasha*

      Honestly, I suspect that “but I tried so hard” is a student’s way to hopefully BS the teacher into giving them a better grade. They KNOW that results matters the most. I’ve never seen a 11th/12th grader say that they deserved a 2400 SAT score or a 36 ACT score because they’d tried hard during the test. They know. Take heart, we did not ruin them for the rest of their lives. Well, maybe a little.

      1. TootsNYC*

        It could also be a cry for help, or of being perplexed. So, I’d say, listen.

        If a worker says to me, “I worked so hard on that report! And you want me to rewrite it,” I’d be saying, “Let’s talk about how to redirect and shape your efforts so you’re getting what I want without wasting so much energy.”

    6. Stranger than fiction*

      I hear you, Shell. It’s kind of like those bumper stickers they started handing out for achievements and then later started making generic ones for every kid like “my kids a superstar at abc school” . It’s like they go overboard on the whole inclusion thing and miss the point.

    7. OP*

      This has been a great thread; thanks to all who added to it.

      Sometimes my approach varies depending on what I think learners can realistically accomplish. When the real goal is acculturating them to specific processes, I tell them so, and say not to worry overmuch about the quality of the final product. (Nobody writes an absolutely brilliant, easy-to-hold-to project charter on the first try…) And of course it’s ridiculous to expect someone’s first try at something wholly unfamiliar to a) be professional-level, and b) take the same or less time it would take a professional. So I don’t.

      The cases I was thinking of, though… the learners I wrote about could have done much better, and indeed most of my learners actually do.

      1. John B Public*

        I think that’s the key, here. What is the purpose of the activity?

        When we’re a novice, be it as children or as new hires/new-to-position, effort matters, because it is learning. Effort towards learning matters. Learning is the goal, and it is more appropriate to acknowledge effort towards that learning. As learning progresses, we adjust feedback based on what is desired.

        When we’re not a novice, the focus shifts from effort to achievement. The goal is different, therefore what is evaluated changes. Now, efforts count far less than results, because we are no longer learning how- we should know how. The goal is on results, and how well they meet/exceed expectations. The metrics we use also change- do the results come faster? Are they of a better quality or quantity?

        In school the result is learning. Doing the process correctly matters much more. In real life, the demands of the job dictate the goal, which are usually (but not always) entirely results-based: Did you meet the expectations of the client? Did you make your sales numbers? Did you ship enough product? Did you win the case?
        There are, of course, still jobs where the process matters as much as the results. Experimental trials, for instance- if you’re running a clinical trial you have to perform the experiment correctly, repeatedly. But even here, the effort and the results are the same, so it’s really still the results. Or checking out customers in a retail store. Process, efforts. But they’re also the results.

    8. Kat M.*

      To a degree, yes. But not so much at the elementary level.

      In a results-only grading system, kids quickly learn they can accomplish this by cheating, getting an intelligent but low-status kid to do most of the work, guilting their parents into doing the work, pooling their answers rather than finding them in the text, etc.

      It’s important to judge results when the product is actually what we’re teaching. But you’d be surprised how much of elementary school is about things like: how to look things up in a text (or these days, on the internet), how to keep yourself organized, how to check to see that you did things correctly, how to follow directions, etc.

      Yes, by the time you get to middle or high school you need to be able to use these skills to crank out a decent term paper, regardless of how long it takes. But in the beginning, it’s the difference between trying and not trying that matters most.

    9. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      I’ll disagree in this way: learning to put effort in, learning how to work hard is very important for kids. “Gifted” children, for instance, can grow up in terrible shape because they don’t have to put much or any effort into being successful for many years, right up until the shit hits the fan and they can’t function or succeed in an environment that requires actual work.

      On the other side of the coin, recognizing the effort of challenged children who work hard but struggle to succeed is also very important. Imagine if you didn’t and all a child knew was trying and failing. That’s a human being who would check out quickly, because, why bother trying?

      I have two son, one gifted and one special ed tracked. The number one thing I (tried to at least) taught them was the value of effort.

      Could not agree more with the OP re her approach to her students and the value she’ll be passing along as they transition into the work world, but it’s all building blocks.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I am chuckling. I am an average learner. I have to really work at it to get any kind of a decent grade. I do not know any other way in life. My husband had to be a gifted person, my opinion though. When he was sick and not able to work, the washer belt broke. I said I would put the new belt on. (Yeah, right.) I was working in a tight space with no light, no leverage, and having lots of difficulties. But I kept googling and looking for the next suggestion. Three hours later I am still working on it. It was an eye opener for my husband, who said “I have never seen anyone stick with a project that was going so bad.” And in that moment we both could see the huge differences in our life experiences. My husband took for granted what came to him so easily and naturally. Like you are saying here, he gave up much quicker when a project tanked.

      2. neverjaunty*

        Yes, this. Or when you have a child who is very gifted at some things; it’s very hard for them to separate out that “I can do X effortlessly” is not the norm and that “I can’t do Y effortlessly” doesn’t mean they suck at Y or that their efforts at Y are pointless.

      3. Ad Astra*

        I totally feel like the “gifted” kid you describe. Middle school was a rude awakening because it was the first time I had to actually do the homework in order to learn the material. I had always been above average in all subjects and was usually tracked as advanced in math, but I failed Algebra 1 twice because I lacked basic skills like keeping track of assignments (or school even provided a planner!), setting aside time to do homework, keeping track of the completed homework, etc.

        Until 7th grade, I could just do the homework in 2 minutes at recess and then go out to play. If I wasn’t good at something the first time I tried it, I never tried it again. And because my results were good, that approach had always worked. I had absolutely zero study skills, no concept of time management, and an extremely low threshold for frustration. It took me all of middle and high school to figure out stuff that many of my more average peers had figured out as small children.

  6. Snarkus Aurelius*

    So why was there all the hate on the NFL player who made his sons give back their participation trophies? He also thought it was end results that should be rewarded as opposed to showing up and putting in effort regardless of outcome.

    I’m not being snide here, but I find this question very timely.

    When I was a kid, I tried hard at a lot of things, and I was still terrible at nearly all of them except writing. My efforts were meaningless in the long run aside from motivating me to quit. ;) This was a lesson I learned very young though.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Participation trophies–and the hating of participation trophies–have become a convenient symbol and shortcut in a lot of arguments about Young People Today and are often used to bash younger generations for…well, basically just for existing. It’s one thing to say, as this LW does, that end results should be more emphasized (especially in particular settings) and another to snipe at whole generations of people, and in this player’s case, it sat badly with me that he was pretty much telling off his kids to a national audience. It’s not the kids’ fault someone gave them a participation trophy–don’t yell at them, kwim?

      1. neverjaunty*

        Exactly. It felt like he was shaming his kids publicly to make a point that had nothing to do with them.

    2. Doodle*

      I didn’t read that much about it, but I would guess that many people would say that there’s an important transition between very little kid activities (T-Ball, 4 year old soccer league, preschool academics) and college students moving toward the workforce. It’s not necessarily contradictory to say that little kids should get praised for effort (especially given all the research into mindset, growth and learning) and adults should get recognized for results.

      That’s why it’s so critical that the OP is helping her students transition from an effort-oriented situation (elementary/middle school) to a results-oriented one (the workplace). High school and college seem like they’re on the border (though, personally, I wish more of high school was about demonstrating that you know the material and less about busywork).

    3. Language Lover*

      Being the ‘best’ is a very narrow goal, especially with children’s sports. A lot of children’s athletics is to encourage sportsmanship, teamwork, physical activity and the love of the game. You don’t have to be Serena Williams to play tennis. It can have value for almost anyone.

      Kids are smart if overall raised well. They know the difference.

      I used to put a lot of effort into math. Effort was encouraged and praised. It made me want to keep trying at math. Eventually, it clicked and I became great at math.

      I find “but I put so much time into this” more an expression of frustration than a legitimate attempt to argue they deserve a better grade.

      1. Myrin*

        “I find “but I put so much time into this” more an expression of frustration than a legitimate attempt to argue they deserve a better grade.”

        I’d say this is absolutely possible but depends a lot on what the circumstances around someone saying it are. I’ve absolutely not done as well as I thought on things I worked hard for – I will freely admit I sat back, made a sad face, and thought or mumbled to myself about how that was a really disappointing result – all that time and effort I put in and it still wasn’t enough? I could as well just not have studied for the thing at all?

        What gets me is that the OP is a professor and gets to hear that stuff from her students. So I wonder – is it likely the students bring this up to their professor as an expression of frustration or is it brought up to argue about getting a better grade? Only the OP can judge that, obviously, since tone, behaviour, and the whole conversation before and after this sentence matter quite a bit, but I have absolutely heard it used to justify why someone should actually get a better grade.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        “I find ‘but I put so much time into this’ more an expression of frustration than a legitimate attempt to argue they deserve a better grade.”

        While I do think that OP knows best what is going on in the conversations, I tend to read it as a quest to find more efficient ways of working so that it’s not such a time sink. Some times people make statements that should be framed as questions. Not a good habit, but when people are frustrated the correct wording does not always come naturally.

        OTH, there are some people that stand out in a crowd because their approach is so very different that you immediately see it for what it is. I have helped hundreds of people at my job. I know the overall approach of most people. If an individual comes in an sabotages the process every single step of the way, then a red flag warning goes off in my head. I have to redirect this person to someone else, I will not be able to help her given the boundaries of my job.

    4. Adam*

      I am curious what kids today actually think about participation trophies/ribbons. I was born in the 80’s and got a couple of them for sports and science fairs but I and it seemed all the other kids knew they didn’t really mean anything and most went into the garbage eventually with little fan fare.

      Have children’s attitudes toward them changed over the years?

      1. CherryScary*

        I’m not too much younger than you (early 90’s baby), but definitely part of the generation that gets this griping. I knew starting in about mid-elementary school that those trophies (or in my swimming years, ribbons) were meaningless. I usually only kept them around for the times printed on the back so I could see how I was doing.

        I don’t think any of us asked for them, or really would have missed them. I sometimes wonder if there was some expectation from our parents that they needed these objects to prove that we had done things. Maybe not a sense of accomplishment in winning, but in doing something? Which brings us back to the rewarded for effort idea.

        1. Adam*

          We definitely didn’t ask for them, which ties in with your point about the parents. If a fresh faced college student thinks he should get praise just for showing up he didn’t get that way all on his own.

        2. Kelly L.*

          *nods* Yeah, I think most kids know what the participation trophy really means.

          And you mention ribbons–another thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes people griping about trophies will admit they got ribbons and that was OK! :D So, for some, it’s not even the idea of a participation award that bugs them, it’s that it’s specifically a trophy. I’m guessing trophy companies have stepped up their marketing since we were kids and getting ribbons! But the idea is the same.

          1. Jaydee*

            I think there a couple aspects of this.

            First is what a ribbon or trophy signifies. They don’t have any practical purpose. They are decorations that signify an accomplishment. A success. Completing something challenging or doing something well.

            So the general animosity to participation trophies is, I think, rooted in the notion that participation is not an accomplishment. Participation is expected. To accomplish something, you have to do more than just show up and engage in the activity. Now, I don’t agree entirely with this. I think there are times that participation is worthy of recognition. Especially for younger children, just showing up and trying and sticking with an activity even when it’s hard or boring is really important. And for some voluntary activities, especially ones that require a certain level of preparation, skill, or training, it’s nice to have evidence that you did the thing. But past a certain point, participation is not really an accomplishment.

            Second is proportionality. Even when participation deserves recognition, does it ever deserve a trophy? Trophies are expensive. Trophies are what you get for big accomplishments. If you get a trophy just for showing up, what do you get for winning?

            Personally, I think participation should be recognized by either a commemorative token item (a certificate, a pin, a ribbon) or something practical. That’s something I like about running. The race t-shirt is an appropriate way of signifying “I could have chosen to sleep late and eat pancakes in my jammies, but instead I spent my Saturday morning running 3.1 miles with a couple hundred other people…and then also still ate some pancakes too.” I know I’ll never win a race and get the accompanying medal or cash prize. But I have a whole drawer full of size XL “participation trophies.”

            1. Kelly L.*

              Ah, see, I wasn’t thinking of participation trophies as an expensive thing! The big, deluxe, several-story ones with real metal in them and personalized engraving, sure, but the ones I’ve seen used for participation are dinky plastic things that, at a quick Google search, are under five bucks.I haven’t seen anyone get a giant, heavy trophy of doom for participation.

        3. Hlyssande*

          Yes, this.

          Participation trophies honestly felt that they were more demanded by the parents than anything. I didn’t give a crap – I knew that it wasn’t for any kind of achievement and so did the rest of the kids. It was honestly somewhat demoralizing.

      2. blackcat*

        I got one for an invitational tournament as a kid–just getting in the door required a certain amount of achievement, and I think I was reasonably happy to get it. (Of course, I tanked once there. Participation ribbon was the only one I was getting!)

      3. Student*

        When I was in high school, late nineties and early aughts, I tended to only care about awards that symbolized I had put a lot of effort into something or achieved something special. By the end, I had far more worthless “merit” awards than worthless “participation” awards.

        There were some participation awards that were crap, because anyone got them. There were some participation awards I was proud of, though, like participation awards where I was on a team that had a nontrivial threshold to entry (you had to pass try-outs to participate) or participation trophies that awarded us for a communal success (like successfully executing a play, or doing well as a orchestra/band, or winning a team sport).

        There were merit trophies that I cared about, usually ones that signified I had completed something I’d found difficult, or something difficult for my peers. There were a lot more “merit” awards that I felt were complete hogwash, though. I hated “merit” awards that seemed to be most based on an individual’s (coach, teacher, school official’s) personal preferences than on any rubric or criteria, especially things like MVP awards. I also disliked “merit” awards that I felt went to too many people, which I would roughly pin at more than ~15% of total participants. “Merit” awards that came too easily and too copiously also felt lousy, like I was playing in the wrong league if I won too often and too much.

        I remember Latin class, specifically, when people bring up awards. We would attend after-class academic competitions for Latin. Basically, competitive test-taking for various things related to Latin language, literature, and ancient Roman culture. My class and I would go home with oodles of 1st, 2nd, 3rd place ribbons from these. I’m pretty sure I went home with at least a dozen once. The ribbons meant nothing to me, there were so many of them, and all my immediate peers had so many of them. Sure, they were merit-based, but when we were able to out-do so many others a the competition so thoroughly it was no longer fun or really competitive.

      4. Tara*

        I was born in ’97 and got a ribbon or somesuch at most things I participated in and I liked it. No one ever thought it marked any kind of achievement… it’s just a nice reminder of the event for the future and something for your mom to stick on her fridge for a couple days. Never did understand why people fuss about it.

        (I found my participation medals from public speaking events in 05/06 last month, and I thought it was awesome! A little trip down memory lane.)

    5. Mike C.*

      I haven’t heard about that, but like others have said, it’s a dumb stereotype and a way to bash people who happen to be young and inexperienced at life.

      It’s funny, marathons give participation trophies to folks of all ages, and you never hear anyone complain about those…

      1. Jaydee*

        Exactly. Because just completing a marathon requires a lot of effort. Plenty of reasonably fit people could probably wake up one morning, say “I think I’ll sign up to run a 5K next month,” and finish it without any real training. They aren’t going to win. They might be sore the next morning. They might question their decision around mile 2. But they’ll cross the finish line. The same cannot be said of a marathon.

        I grew up in the 80s and definitely have a few participation certificates and ribbons. Usually those were either for non-competitive activities and/or activities where participation required some non-trivial amount of work (think science fair – sure there were prizes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place but to even participate you had to do a project, so everyone got a participation ribbon to acknowledge that they did the work).

      2. Hlyssande*

        I always thought the participation trophies (at least from my era, I was born in 82) were more because the parents wanted them. Or rather, some parents threw utter fits that their kids didn’t get anything and thus participation trophies happened.

        I can see getting something like that for an actual achievement of sorts – you had to try out and beat out competition for getting in, that kind of thing. But for something that required no effort to get into? Yeah, no.

  7. Big Oil*

    This is a great topic. I’m surprised we are finally addressing it as a result of an academic situation. I’m tired of colleagues who stay late, but have the same, if not worse, outcomes than I do, and get all the praise. I think there is something drastically wrong when we elevate employees who are not efficient when working long hours could be a sign that you are not doing something right. Perception is everything I suppose.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Ugh yes. I’m so tired of this. My ex-coworker stayed late all the time because she didn’t have anything else to do. No matter how many hours she was there, she still turned in stuff late, she still couldn’t write a complete sentence, and she still couldn’t get herself organized for meetings. She once turned in a speech at 4 am — four hours before my boss was to give it!

      But my boss loved her because she worked late. And we had to help her according to boss, because this employee was always overloaded with work.

    2. Jerzy*

      I work fast. So fast, that I often find myself having gone through everything my projects need within the 40 hours a week I’m supposed to work. Don’t get me wrong, there are time I have to work more than 40 hours when all my projects need 100% of my attention, but more often than not, I’m twiddling my thumbs, looking for more work to do.

      I had a colleague who worked late constantly… she also arrived late and would spend a great deal of time chatting and complaining about a particularly difficult subcontractor. She did good work, but always bragged about staying at the office until 10 or 11 at night.

      1. JiraMaster*

        I had to have a conversation with HR when we were hiring a contractor to perform a weekly task. They wanted to pay hourly and I wanted them to pay a weekly flat rate. My argument was that if we hire a really excellent person to perform a task in 5 hours that a mediocre person might take 10 or 15 hours to do, then we’re actually penalizing them for doing a good job. (I got them to agree to the flat rate in the end.)

    3. neverjaunty*

      This is a really good point. I like that the OP is trying to steer her students towards results rather than just effort, but those students are going to be in for a big surprise when they run into bosses who worship at the altar of “face time”.

      1. OP*

        This gets sticky in the professions I train for. Some niches are decidedly time-conscious because they’re more service-y, whereas others are much more backroom. Best I’ve ever been able to do is point out the differences.

  8. AndersonDarling*

    I don’t think this is an issue reserved for university students. I never went to college, but I had the same idea instilled in me. It came from two places 1. that work sucks and is full of suffering, and 2. statements about working hard.
    Everyone I knew seemed to hate their jobs, and it became apparent that the more you suffer, the better employee you are. And I always was told to work hard, and to me, that translated into working long hours, double guessing yourself, not taking breaks, and such.
    This was reinforced at my first workplace where employees were praised for working crazy hours. It took a long, long time to break this mentality and understand what good performance really looked like.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Well said.
      There’s a “look at me and see how much I am suffering” component there. Any attention will do, even negative attention works okay for some.

  9. xarcady*

    As a grad student Teaching Assistant, I cannot count the number of times a student in Freshman English would wail, “But I spent 10 hours on this paper and you gave me a C!”

    My reply was usually along the lines of, “Well, how did you spend those 10 hours?” because clearly, the amount of effort was not getting them the grade they wanted.

    I worked with those students who wanted to improve, helping them with the whole writing process. I hope it helped some of them.

  10. SilverRadicand*

    OP, as an employer of college students, let me thank you for your thought and contribution to the working world. :)

  11. Gene*

    This is a place where a well crafted analogy might come in handy. Something like (not well crafted…), “Would you rather have a plastic surgeon who worked quickly and left minimal scars, or one who put in lots of time, but left you looking like Frankenstein’s Monster?”

    1. Adam*

      Reminds me of a favorite joke of my friends when they were in med school

      What do you call a med school student who graduated with a D average?

      1. Thing 1*

        I’m a pharmacy tech, we have a version of that joke that gets broken out often when dealing with rude/stupid doctors (“What do you call the person who graduates last in their med school class?” “Doctor.”). Especially when they try to alter controlled substance scripts and think we won’t notice…

        1. Sigrid*

          Actually, speaking as a current med student, most med schools aren’t graded any more, they’re pass-fail. The line now is P=MD.

    2. MashaKasha*

      I thought of that too. Except for some reason the first thing that popped into my head was an auto mechanic. Like the guys from The Mask – the ones Jim Carrey brings his car to for an oil change, and, when he comes to pick it up, the car is completely disassembled and doesn’t look like it’ll ever be driveable again? I kind of imagined them saying “but we worked so hard on your vehicle” – that’s all good and well, but what good is that to me if you killed it in the process?

  12. AnotherAlison*

    While I appreciate this question & answer, and agree to some extent on this particular issue (reward for effort vs. results), I wanted to point out that there are a number of things that teachers say you can’t do at work that you actually can!

    I always felt that the professors and teachers I had promoted a very “us” (employees) vs. “them” (bosses) view of the workplace, and that it was more teacher-student in the hierarchy. My experience has been that it’s more human-human, if not peer-peer, and a lot of those things like “your boss won’t accept late work so I don’t either” is not true. Turns out my boss is a reasonable person, and sometimes finishing things late is inevitable and okay.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I’m generally not a fan of “in the working world, you’ll…” in teaching. Unless you are teaching at a vocational school, school isn’t really about training you for a job.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I was a professional program student, so my upper level classes did have an element of career preparation.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Like going to the bathroom. I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that. My friend, the bank teller, does.

      I’d hate that because I’d feel like I was a prisoner at Shawshank.

      1. Oryx*

        I actually had this experience when I worked at a prison (as a librarian, which also ties in with the Shawshank reference). I always had to call the guard who was next door to come over every time I needed to use the restroom.

    3. Agnes*

      I’m a professor as well, and I’m always amused by colleagues who say, “The IRS won’t let you file your taxes late, so I don’t accept late papers!” Um, the IRS will accept your tax return late, and in fact the approval is automatic if you don’t have to pay.

  13. Anonymous Educator*

    I used to teach high school, and I definitely tried my best to get students to realize that results mattered more than effort. If you can write excellent analysis in one or two hours, you get an A. If you spent several weeks revising multiple drafts and constantly improving, but your paper is terrible, you still get a D or a C- or whatever.

    Now, granted, I did have something akin to a participation grade that factored in general attitude and preparedness, among other things, but that wasn’t an actual grade. It was more like if a kid was on the cusp of two grades, that could potentially push her to the upper part if she had put in a lot of effort and shown a good attitude.

    You don’t get an A just for trying.

    1. TootsNYC*

      If you spent several weeks revising multiple drafts and constantly improving, but your paper is terrible, you still get a D or a C- or whatever.

      But this is where the response to “But I worked so hard on it” shouldn’t be, “tough, you get a different grade,” but “Yikes, that’s a weird ratio of Effort Spent to Results Achieved. Let’s look at what went wrong, and figure out how you can get a better ratio next time.”

      It’s a cry for help, even if the student thinks it’s a complaint. And even if it sounds like one.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        That is what I see, also. We don’t get to chose the wording other people use to express a need.
        If I had a dime for everything I heard “oh, it should take you a half hour to do these 5 problems”. BUT, it took the teacher 45 minutes to show an example of how to do the problem and he did the example quickly. It’s a huge disconnect and that is what students see.
        “Teacher, it took you 45 minutes to quickly explain this to us, how will we do that five times in a half hour?”

  14. LAI*

    As a college adviser, I think some students may be confusing “effort” and “process”. In academia, there is often an emphasis on process over outcomes. For example, in many math classes, it’s not sufficient to get the right answer. You also have to show your work to demonstrate how you got to the answer. Even if you get the wrong answer, many professors will grant partial credit if some of your work is right. In a composition class, it’s not sufficient to show up on the final day and turn in a paper – you have to attend class, participate in discussions, and demonstrate that you understand the process of drafting a paper, editing, revising, etc. This is because college is about learning. The purpose of a test is to prove that you know how to do something – but the purpose of a class is to learn how to do it. In this way, it’s fundamentally different from the workplace and I think it makes sense that a professor values different things than an employer would.

    Any student complaining that they deserve a higher grade because they put in effort is misunderstanding this concept. You don’t get partial credit for a wrong answer because you tried hard – you get partial credit because you demonstrated partial knowledge. You don’t earn participation points because you made the “effort” to show up to class, you earn participation points because you are learning something by your participation in the conversation. And ultimately, if you don’t learn enough to eventually demonstrate the required outcome, you still don’t pass the class.

    1. Shell*

      Heh, maybe I’m just a little too cynical on this concept because I’ve definitely had math profs who gave me zeros when I got the method right, but the answer wrong. (As in, I had the method completely right, but I accidentally plugged in 3 instead of -3 when I was doing the calculation, and thus my answer was wrong.)

      1. Gene*

        This was the way it was done at Navy Nuclear Power School. You could show your work demonstrating you know how to get the answer (sometimes a whole page of it), but forget a sign or misplace a decimal point, and that’s a zero. And let’s not talk about significant figures…

    2. TootsNYC*

      Such a powerful point!

      And likewise, grades are sort of funny, because they’re often cumulative. So you get lower grades at first, because you don’t know it yet. Then when you’ve finally learned it, you can’t erase the lower grades from the learning part of the time period.
      I see this in my son all throughout school. He’d miss questions on a test, so I’d go over it with him to be sure he figured out why he got it wrong, and whether he could get it right later–in other words, even though he missed it on the test, did he eventually learn?
      But he’d never get to bring that test grade up. And sometimes I don’t think the teacher did the same “let’s see what you missed, because the test is supposed to tell ME what it was I didn’t teach well enough for you, or what you got confused on.”

      As they get older, the onus is on the student to seek out that post-test learning. But in grade school, it really miffed me.

      And participation points, don’t actually mean you learned anything, but they’re a good way to try to persuade you to TRY to learn something.

  15. CMT*

    This is a really excellent question, but topics like this tend to bring out a “kids these days” response. It’s really the “kids” more than “these days” part that’s the problem. Humans aren’t born knowing professional norms. We have to learn them. This professor is awesome because she’s using this chance to educate her students, particularly the younger ones. But there are so many people who complain that Millenials (and I’m sure in the past it was Gen X, etc) don’t know how to do X or Y without doing anything about their complaints. Where young people should be learning these skills is a different, important issue, but just complaining that young people don’t magically have all the knowledge that experienced professionals do isn’t going to help anybody.

    1. OP*

      Absolutely. Specific kinds of workplaces can have their own weird quirks too, and I do my best to learn about these and let my learners find out from me instead of finding out the hard way later.

  16. Kitten Mitten*

    I saw a few posts that were similar above, but I’m just coming here to say that I wish work more often rewarded results over face time. All of my teachers in HS and College made a point of assigning work that would take hours … if you did it stupidly. The point was to make us efficient, critical thinkers.

    Well it worked, but I spent my first year out of college in the “real world” being chastized for leaving work at 5pm everyday and being told I’m “not a team player”. Eventually we did an analysis of workloads, only to discover I was actually doing about 50% more work than others. This story has repeated itself at every company I have attended. Sadly “appearance” and being “seen working hard” matters more than efficiency and results.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yep, and in some of the food service/retail jobs I’ve had, they just wanted to fill your hours–if you got your work done, it just meant getting more work, so if you actually liked what you were doing, there was no point in doing it fast. Getting done early would only get you a “You know, nobody’s cleaned the floor grout with a toothbrush recently…”

      1. TootsNYC*

        I had that happen to a friend who was an editor.

        She was efficient, AND she took work home and powered through. She met her deadlines. So when other editors had fallen behind (similar number of stories to edit), she was asked to take on one of theirs.

        Once, this happened to her twice w/ the same editor, same monthly issue. An editor got sick–and she was behind. So her work was divvied up. My friend got 2 stories while other people got 1. She got them done (and her regular workload). Then one of the other editors hadn’t even started her extra story, so it was given to my friend as well.
        My friend said, “I feel like I’m being punished for meeting me deadlines.” It didn’t go over well.

  17. Another Anon*

    I work in an industry notorious for dysfunctional managers, so I have a story like this for every workplace.

    I had one job where I had over a year of strong performance reviews. My manager left, and the director stepped in as my direct supervisor. She promptly started sabotaging and/or stealing my work. Shortly after, the alcoholic owner stopped drinking, and called me into his office to tell me I was terrible at my job and “had no future.” I launched my job search immediately.

    A few weeks later the owner started drinking again, called me back in and said I was doing an amazing job and gave me a raise.

    I left about a month later.

  18. Grand Mouse*

    Complaining and expecting to get a pass just for time put in isn’t good, but sometimes those comments could be frustration about something else, like a learning disability. As well as helping them understand time management and resources better, now is a good time to bring that up. College is a better time to identify and work on any disabilities interfering with work than once they’re tossed out into the workforce. It can help them be realistic about their limitations too, career-wise, if identified early. For example, I spend 2-3x as long on math as anyone else because of a disability. As much as I love STEM, I KNOW that my disorder will be a weakness.

    1. Anon for this*

      I was diagnosed at age 33 with ADHD. I was in the “gifted” classes in school and graduated with nearly straight As in high school. But I also barely slept those four years and had parents who pushed academics ahead of everything else (I didn’t have a job until college, and my mom once told me senior year that if I didn’t get my Econ grade up I would have to quit my extracurriculars because she was worried I would lose my college scholarship. I was getting a high B and had As in all my other classes).

      I had always equated “working hard” with success. It wasn’t until my boss asked me how I could be spending so much time in the office and seemingly so busy but completing less work than many of my colleagues that it really sunk in that I had to apply the law of diminishing returns to my work (see mom, I learned that in Econ!). Most things in the working world are pass/fail, not letter grades. The boss wants a memo analyzing whether the company should start using white chocolate for teapot spouts and handles. She doesn’t want 15 pages on the history of chocolate teapot manufacturing and the properties of white chocolate. She just wants something that’s quick and easy to read that tells her whether white chocolate is a good for spouts and handles. If you have a 3 page memo that does what it needs to do, don’t waste another couple of hours formatting it and adding tables and charts and making it a perfect example of a memo. Take 10 minutes to proofread it, make sure there aren’t any weird formatting issues, and get it on the boss’s desk!

      1. Anon for this*

        My point is that a huge disparity between time expended and product produced is often a sign that something is wrong. I wish someone had told me in high school that spending 4+ hours a night on homework wasn’t just a sign that my teachers were giving us too much to do but it was also a sign that I was not working as efficiently as I should have been.

      2. Anx*

        I have many symptoms of ADHD-PI or a combo of a sleep disorder and dyscalculia, undiagnosed. In theory I absolutely agree that results should matter more than time, but I’m also terrified that I’ll never be able to work efficiently enough to be a good worker.

  19. TootsNYC*

    You get E’s for effort.

    You get A’s, and raises, and promotions, for the quality of the actual results.

    E’s don’t count. A’s count in school, and raises count at work.

  20. Bonnie*

    I remember asking a new graduate how they measured success of projects and being told that the grade didn’t matter as long as they were happy with the outcome. I thought it was just a lack of experience with professional work environments. But maybe there was an underlying lesson they had received earlier in life.

  21. Isabel*

    This is similar to an issue I’ve noticed with interns and new hires in several industries.
    Often they seem to expect praise for asking “good” questions. I’m not just talking about asking how to do a task instead of trying to figure anything out. For example, in a meeting when company philosophy is touched upon, the new hire will interrupt the flow of the meeting to ask questions about the origin of the philosophy and then look around with an expression I can only describe as aren’t-I-clever.

    If this sounds mean, let me admit that I think I was a bit like this when I was young. All through school, we were encouraged and praised for “asking good questions.” I thought this was a good way to show employers that I was interested and smart. Every intern and first-job new hire should be told that in the workplace, people are… working. You will gain experience and knowledge in all internships and jobs, but it is not the job of your managers to engage you in the Socratic method.

  22. Tim*

    While I must preface this comment with acknowledgement that AAM is clearly right about how the working world actually functions, I do think there’s an underlying policy question here… what happens to the people who simply can’t get the results, no matter how hard they work or sincerely they attempt to improve? They (and their families) still gotta eat, and it’s plainly better for society if they do something which makes them feel productive.

    Obviously students/employees should do everything they can to learn new skills, hone their talent, etc., but not everyone can be at the top of the bell curve and focusing only on “results” (especially in industries where subjectivity can rule as well) is practically designed to highlight that. So to some extent, I think the “But, I tried!” refrain, though unrealistic, is a quixotic reminder to a disappointed authority that an effort was made in good faith and controlling what the student/employee could control in the process — their intent.

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