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Teaching in the Department of Social Sciences


The central task of the members of the Department of Social Sciences is to guide the professional development of cadets in general and their intellectual growth in particular. Thus, we constantly are required to evaluate cadet performance and provide guidance on potential improvements. This process demands that we have an established standard of performance, that we know our students well enough to evaluate their performance against that standard, that we develop techniques for communicating evaluations to the student, and that we devise counseling and other motivational techniques to inspire cadets to improve their performance to meet the standards.
Evaluation is an integral part of teaching. It is the basis for providing feedback on academic and professional progress. Periodically evaluations are translated into grades in the form of formal academic progress reports, academic transcripts, or professional development evaluations for the Department of Tactics.
Grades are important. They provide feedback, incentives for improved performance, and they constitute a formal record of achievement that will be the basis for future personnel actions, both at USMA and after graduation.
An undergraduate transcript is one of a person's most important documents. It opens or closes doors to post-graduate professional schools, and it will be reviewed by prospective employers after retirement or departure from the service. If you teach sixty cadets per term for six terms, you will make your mark on 360 transcripts. It is extremely important to the institution and to the individuals that those marks reflect a recognized standard of performance.
The standard that we set for cadets reflects the collective personal standards of the officers in the Department. These standards are the result of your military experience and your academic experience as teachers. Be careful about comparing cadets to the performance of your peers in graduate schools. Most of us return to the Academy with a "graduate school' standard of reference. It is not a bad goal, but as an undergraduate standard of performance, it is a bit too high.
There is often a lot of discussion in educational circles about a fixed standard or a curve. This debate often assumes the form of criterion referenced grading versus population (norm) referenced grading. There is no debate on the issue in the Department of Social Sciences: we do not grade on the curve. We measure cadet mastery of a body of knowledge through careful design of course objectives, substantive material, and evaluation techniques. Averages below 67% should send a signal that performances do not meet the minimum standards. Our policy on major requirements and exams is that 67% is passing.
Cadets are an extremely carefully selected student body. 86% of the cadets were in the top fifth of their high school class and their transcripts reflect A- to A averages. The rest were B to B+ students. Average SAT scores are well above 1200. The overwhelming majority of cadets are at or above the 93rd percentile of college bound students. In general, cadets' high school performances are better than candidates for other highly selective schools such as Amherst and Dartmouth.
The following story of Cadet Smith is not uncommon. Smith played highschool football, baseball, and captained the basketball team. He was a National Merit finalist and president of the Student Council. His SAT scores were 760-Verbal and 530-Math, and he entered college in the 95th percentile of college bound students. Yet, Smith ranks 700 in a class of 1000 after three semesters at West Point. His grade point average is 2.25... a C+.
What's going on here? Is Smith dumb? You wouldn't think so. Is he lazy? Probably not. Smith's problem is that he entered West Point with a weak mathematics background relative to the average cadet. Consequently, given the heavy dose of math and sciences courses in the first two years of the USMA curriculum, Smith has to work hard to achieve a C.
Ah….but you know you can motivate him. You were a magnificent company commander and a dazzling graduate student. You know you can awaken this sleeping giant. Maybe, but consider Smith's dilemma. He is articulate, reads rapidly, and has a flair for the social sciences. But he is failing physics and chemistry. Consequently, he will devote the majority of his time and effort to those courses. You need to work hard at understanding the cadet's environment. You should not be quick to accept cadet rationalizations for substandard performance; however, you should be cognizant of the fact that some cadets will adopt an "economy of force" approach to your course if they are struggling in another.
Math, Science and Engineering. The good news is that it is delightful to teach Social Sciences to students with exceptional mathematical aptitude and analytical skills. The bad news is that the pedagogy emphasized by engineering schools generally and West Point in particular stresses daily performance and exact solutions. After a year of this experience, cadets dislike ambiguity and uncertainty. "There can't be two ways to analyze the Cuban missile crisis, let alone three." "Monetarists and Keynesians don't disagree; one of them is wrong." These are common perceptions.
The MSE pedagogy also affects writing requirements. Because they perform every day, cadets seldom can set aside a week to think about and research their topic. In addition, cadets are not generally familiar with your standards of research. If you do not take the time to explain your standards and outline correct procedures, do not expect good papers.
Learn about current cadet life. There are almost unlimited strange demands on their time. These demands affect their decisions to study. Your graded exercises should reflect an awareness of their schedule. It is simply not smart to schedule a major graded requirement for Third Class cadets the day after Yearling Winter Weekend. The best way to learn about your students is to talk to them. Volunteer for those activities that associate you with cadets in a number of different environments.
There is no required distribution of grades. As you might expect, grades in a core course will be somewhat different than those in an upper level elective. In core courses, experience indicates that you can expect about 15% to get A's, 50% to receive A's and B's, and 5- 10% to get D's and F's. Elective grades are usually somewhat higher, although elective course failures are not unknown.
Use grades as a developmental as well as an evaluation tool. Your grading should complement your style and your course. Give praise and encouragement as well as appropriate criticism. Correct their math and their grammar in a positive way. Make it clear that educated men and women are well grounded in the basics. Early in your term, give your cadets feedback on:
  • Their coursework.
  • Their facility with the English language.
  • Their analytical or mathematical skills. Let cadets know that you are aware of their capabilities and current limitations. Praise acceptable performance and critique shortcomings by demonstrating what you would have done or said.
  • Talk to your students before and after class. Discuss the value of a solid undergraduate transcript, or at least one that demonstrates improvement over four years, and how what you are teaching enabled you to understand this or that issue better. Discuss graduate school and your experiences there. Remind your students that they reported the reason they came to West Point was because of its excellent academic reputation and that they should make the most of their opportunity as undergraduates. Individual attention and counseling invariably will produce gratifying results.
    Grades are the incentive of your courses. The weight of graded requirements should reflect what you think is important. If a paper or oral presentation is lightly weighted, there is little incentive for your students to devote an inordinate amount of effort to it. Be consistent. Most of us respond to what people do, not what they say. Make sure that your rhetoric matches your major course objectives. If you want to emphasize the Term End Exam or a research paper, give it a major share of the total course grade.
    The Term End Exam should mirror the course. Term End Exams used to be called Written General Reviews. The latter name is more apt. The distribution of emphasis and the style of questioning should reflect the major course objectives and stress integration of the course material.
    Equity is important. Many instructors cover up the names on exams and grade "in the blind" to personality and to past performance. Whether or not you use this technique remember that you are only evaluating the recorded answers.
    The material in all of our courses is more than enough for five versions of the test. Make sure that each of your versions is comparable and challenging. The content of each version should differ by 50%. Approach each test with a professional attitude. Set high administrative standards and complete the preparation early enough so that other instructors can conduct an administrative review. Grammar is important. Exams reflect our standards. Be attentive to detail and avoid last minute fixes.
    In general, make sure that your questions fit the material. An essay on the five paragraph field order might be fascinating, but it does not fit the material. As we have discussed earlier but reemphasize as a major theme, make your exams developmental. Reinforce the main points. Exams full of trick questions and obscure facts defeat the purpose of both the test and the course.
    Questions are often categorized into four types:
    1. Rote knowledge.
    2. Recognition and understanding.
    3. Simple application.
    4. Complex application.
    In Mortimer Adler's discussion of truth and facts in his book, Six Great Ideas, will dissuade you from rote knowledge questions. A blend of question types (2), (3), and (4) probably provides the best results.
    Design your exams to fit the time available. A fair exam is not one in which only half the students can complete the exam by the end of the period. With proper preparation, students should be able to complete your exam in 80% of the total time allotted.
    Focus short answer questions on the material and less on analysis. Keep your questions simple. Use these to monitor reading requirements, testing key definitions and institutional understanding.
    You can go very wrong with essay questions. The trick is to focus the question. Narrow it down. Give the student a point of view to defend, e.g., “Write a letter to...;”, “ George Marshall said…;", "What do you think?" Broad, general questions produce broad, boring answers. You often deserve the answers you asked for.
    Cadets seem to like case studies. Remember to comply with applicable guidance on compensatory class time and grading standards. If you use group case studies, include individual requirements to challenge the inevitable free riders. Reinforce your case studies by testing the material on subsequent exams.
    Extra credit problems, papers, presentations, book reports and case studies are great ideas. Ad hoc additions to an extra credit program are terrible ideas. Equity is important. Any extra credit program should be clearly defined when the course begins, it must be open to everyone, and the student must have freedom to fail, i.e., receive extra discredit. A one-way extra credit program can cause problems for you and the student at course end time. Be careful and organized at the beginning. In general, the way for a cadet to recover from a bad examination grade is to do better on the next exam.
    Grades are important for all cadets. They are particularly important in the case of a failure. Because of the serious consequences of failure we make every effort to define required standards clearly and to ensure equity in our grading. Remember, in assigning an academic grade your only criterion is performance in the course. Potential for future service is evaluated separately in considering that appropriate action be taken after a failure. It should not be considered in assigning grades.
    Despite our best efforts, there will be instances when a cadet fails a course. In the event of a course failure, there is a prescribed series of actions that ensue. Suppose Cadet Jones has failed a course. Essentially, what happens goes like this. At the end of the term, the course director recommends that the cadet be declared a course failure. If that recommendation is approved by the appropriate tenured professor and the Head of the Department, the case is forwarded to the Academic Board for consideration. The Academic Board votes on whether Cadet Jones will remain at USMA and, if so, under what conditions. The Academic Board can recommend a variety of courses of action -- dismissal, summer school, or reenrollment in the course in a subsequent semester.
    Regardless of whether Cadet Jones fails a Department course or a course in another discipline, the Department will request that those of us who have taught him or known him submit an Impression Sheet. This important document is your vote on a cadet's future at the Military Academy.
    With three or four such observations, the Head of the Department can make an informed judgment about how to vote when the cadet's case comes before the Academic Board. It is incumbent upon all of us to evaluate our students not only on his or her mastery of the subject matter of the course, but also on bearing, duty concept, and potential as an officer. Note that you may have taught a Third Class cadet who fails a course during First Class year, and therefore you may be required to recall your impressions. It is important to keep records of all the cadets that you teach. The brightest yearling that you ever taught might fail a DPE course as a firstie and require an impression sheet from you. Note finally, in the spirit of volunteerism, that putting together the Professor's Folders and all of these impression sheets at the end of each term is a time sensitive, important, and difficult job. Please support the XO and the officers detailed for this event.
    Set the standard; know your students and the West Point milieu well enough to evaluate their performance; communicate your evaluation to the students; and inspire students to meet the standards. The cadets' transcript and future at West Point are in your hands; grading is clearly a serious responsibility. Cadets are an extremely talented and exciting group of young people. They are fun to teach. Make sure you blend your evaluation and incentive structure into the goals of your course. Structure your exams to reinforce course objectives. Make sure each question is worth asking. Make sure that your course and your performance have contributed to the professional development the cadets.