They gave me a C - but I deserved an A, didn't I?

Schoolchildren who are praised by their teachers for hard work, regardless of how good they actually are, may be in for a shock when they get to university.
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The young woman was distraught. For the first time ever she had been given a C rather than an A. She was also angry. She had attended all the lectures, done all the reading, written all her essays: she deserved an A. Her tutor, however, was adamant. She was a pleasure to teach, willing, cheerful, polite and hard-working, but she simply wasn't up to it. Her essays were badly argued and uninspiring, she failed to engage with her subject matter; her work could not be given more than C.

I was the arbitrator in this dispute in my part-time role as academic adviser to the Oxford programme of an American university. It highlighted for me a tightrope that every teacher must walk in rewarding effort: how can we do this effectively without causing young people to confuse effort with achievement? How can we do this without ourselves falling into the trap of rewarding effort over achievement?

My anecdote concerns a US student, but we can't take comfort in thinking this is an American problem. A friend who teaches at a university that has recently introduced a Students' Charter tells me that, having been given the right to insist that tutors justify their grades, students are lining up outside tutors' rooms every term to argue for a higher grade on the basis of their effort. Tutors, my friend says, are giving in from weariness, sympathy with worthy students and, it must be said, fear of litigation. The problem is likely to be exacerbated by the introduction of tuition fees. One can just imagine students arguing that they have not paid all that money, and put in all that work, simply to fail!

There are those who argue that we shouldn't reward effort at all, only achievement itself. In the older schools and universities, effort has traditionally been derided in academic subjects (though not on the playing field). Students used to boast about the lack of effort they put into work and revision. Tutors could be sarcastic about students who needed to work to achieve, believing they would never be high-fliers (one tutor I know still calls such pupils "honest donkeys"). One of the explanations put forward for the under-representation of girls in first-class degrees is that they put in so much effort they cannot be creative. Effort, seen in this way, is inconsistent with real achievement.

Such a view is no longer tenable. Employers now are rightly wary of those high-fliers who achieve without apparent effort. What will happen, they wonder, when effort is an essential part of getting something done? Do these people know how to make an effort? Will they make an effort? Can they? And schools are more concerned about pupils' self-respect than before, recognising that it underpins many of the qualities and skills needed for adult life. One of the most effective ways to raise self-respect is to praise pupils for their efforts as well as their achievements, recognising that in making an effort, they exhibit tenacity, determination and willingness, all highly desirable qualities of which young people can be proud.

But problems do arise when, in pursuit of our pupils' self-respect, we start to praise even those efforts that do not result in achievement. I recently watched a teacher ask a pupil to read a sentence; then, when the child remained mute, she read the sentence herself, praising the pupil for repeating the words as she read. What did the child learn from this? He certainly wasn't learning to read. (To be fair, the teacher knew she was being observed, often very unnerving).

This incident nicely illustrates the trap: when we reward efforts that have not resulted in achievement, we risk confusing effort with achievement. In doing so, we may be raising pupils' self-respect in the short term, but in the long term we are setting them up for serious disappointments of just the sort experienced by my young American. Outside school and the family, effort is valued only if it results in achievement. We forget this at our pupils' peril.

But it is easy to do so. Effort, we should remember, holds a particular attraction for teachers because it is by pupils' willingness to make an effort that teachers measure their own success. When pupils do make an effort, it is easy for teachers to convince themselves - sometimes correctly - that this is their doing. We all know the glow that is stimulated by a student's enthusiasm, whether or not that enthusiasm results in actual achievement. When a pupil doesn't even try to succeed, good teachers will always feel that they have failed. It is not surprising that it becomes attractive to reward effort for its own sake.

The obvious answer is consciously to reward both effort and achievement, perhaps giving separate grades for each. This has the twin advantages of drawing attention to the fact that both are important, and of enabling schools to write authoritatively on pupils' willingness and ability to make an effort (as well as on their actual achievements). But, if we do this, how do we maintain the self-respect of those pupils who consistently make a determined effort, but never achieve their goal? And how do we encourage effort in those young people who run off with all the prizes without making any effort at all?

There isn't an easy answer. Indeed, I think it is in walking this tightrope (and other similar ones) that good teachers win their professional spurs. The job of teaching involves a constant need to ensure that we live up to all our values, even in cases of conflict. We must keep expectations high and foster pupils' self-respect, expect pupils to keep rules and encourage their independence and creativity, and similarly, we must reward effort without letting go of the need to achieve. It is, in the final analysis, the teacher who succeeds in balancing all these values who will never be forgotten.

The writer teaches philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford. She is adviser on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and is academic adviser to the Oxford programme for undergraduate studies