Learning from Mrs. G

As a night student at Howard University, Thomas Sowell was inspired by Marie Gladsden, his English professor, and kept in touch over the years. Years later, when he returned to Howard to teach economics for a year, he was still learning from Mrs. G.

A young African woman who’d studied under Mrs. Gadsden in Guinea failed the first two weekly econ tests. It seemed hopeless he told his mentor.

“So you think she’s going to fail the course?” Mrs. G asked.

“Well, she’s not going to learn the material. Whether I can bring myself to give her an F is something else. That’s really hitting somebody who’s down.”

“You’re thinking of passing her, even if she does not do passing work?” Mrs. G said sharply. She reminded me that I had long criticized paternalistic white teachers who passed black students who should have been failed — and she let me have it. “I’m ashamed of you, Tom. You know better!”

He met with the student  for an hour before every class. Eventually, she caught on and began doing B work.  Averaging in her early F’s, she earned a C for the course.

She was overjoyed, Mrs. Gadsden told him. “She was proud because she knew she earned every bit of it.”

Dr. Marie D. Gladsden died recently at the age of 92.


About Joanne


  1. This post really hit home with me. When you teach at a CC, you get some really hard stories – single parents desperate to earn a degree to get a job, kids caring for dying parents, people raising children of deceased siblings, etc. There are so many circumstances that have caused me to be flexible with deadlines. I once told a student that of course she could turn in a report by email so that she could be at the hospital while her daughter had a brain shunt inserted. That being said, I made it clear that I couldn’t compromise on content – they actually had to learn the material. I never had complaints from the students who had real problems, and at the end of the semester it was not unusual to have students who were truly proud of what they had learned, whether they earned an A, B, or C.

  2. This is only a tangent, but it also is one of my pet peeves…

    I teach intro physics… may students have a very difficult time in the beginning and fail the tests early in the semester. As the semester progresses, students abilities and confidence build, and many students (though certainly not all) show remarkable improvement. My final exam is comprehensive and challenging.

    I tell students that if they show by the end of the semester via the comprehensive final exam that they have mastered the material, I will ignore all their midterm exams. I tell them I reward improvement, and what ultimately matters is that they eventually mastered the material by the end of the course.

    I know this doesn’t work in all courses in which there really are distinct units and where the final is not comprehensive… but I imagine intro economics would be similar to physics in that it takes students a while to think like an economist and that the material builds on previous material. I just find it annoying when professors method of grading is to “averaging in her early Fs”… why? Why must you have such a system that you average in “early Fs” at all?? If she showed improvement, if your final exam is comprehensive and challenging… then you should encourage improvement, but most importantly, reward students WHO SHOW MASTERY, no mater if it took them until the end to demonstrate that.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      As a fellow physics teacher, I couldn’t agree more.

      I just find that I can’t come right out and say that I will “ignore” early bad grades. If I do, some of the students are seduced by the temptation to not work very hard until near the end. (Okay, seduced is too conscious and exciting a word. It would be more accurate to say they passively fall into the temptation). Anyway, instead I tell them I “discount” early grades if they show later that they “got it.” And I make it clear that my goal is for them to get it.

      • I hear you. Actually, my system is a little more nuanced. I have 3 exams during the semester. My final exam has 3 separate parts, each which cover the same exact material as the 3 midterm exams. I use a system called the “resurrection” final, in which students can “resurrect” points they lost on the earlier midterms… They have the opportunity to win up to 75% of the points they lost on each midterm.

        For example, let’s say on midterm #1 (vectors & kinematics), a student gets a grade of 40%. However, over the course of the semester, they master that material, and on Part #1 of the final (which covers the same material), they get a grade of 80%… then I reward them by “resurrecting” 80% of 75% of the points they lost on midterm #1… so 80% of 75% of 60% = 36%, bringing their 40% up to a 76%.

        The thing I really like about this approach is that it aligns my goals with the student’s self interest… I want them to go back and master the sections of the course they are the weakest in… and my system encourages them to go back and master the weakest areas because that is where they can resurrect the most points.

        • jab,

          That’s a really innovative way of encouraging students who didn’t get it on the first pass to keep revisiting it. I hope it’s an idea you share often.

      • I’ll agree here. Although the final grade can replace earlier bad grades (I’m math), I don’t actually *tell* people this, as many students will simply assume that they’ll be able to study hard before the final and make it up, which just doesn’t work unless you’ve been studying hard all along.

        When you have a course in which you *know* the final exam can replace the earlier exams, and a course in which you don’t, it makes sense to prioritize studying towards the second.

  3. I like Jab’s way of dealing with bad initial grades. The biology courses that I have taught don’t always divide into such discrete units, so I’ve used a different approach. I give a good-sized quiz the week before each test, and I drop the lowest quiz grade. It gives students a trial run and a chance to find any areas of deficiency, and the lower quiz grades aren’t enough to have a major impact on their grades. I review the quiz immediately after they turn it in so that they can study correctly, and then again after I give it back (right before the test) so that they can clear up any confusion. While it sounds very repetitive, my students really seem to benefit from having the pathways and mechanisms described several times, and as a bonus they aren’t studying at the last minute for tests since they’ve already been reviewing the material.