A Calculating Program
Hampton University professor’s grade calculator keeps students, faculty on top of academic performance.
Quo Vadis. The phrase literally means “where are you going?” It’s also the name of Hampton University professor Dr. George Burbanck’s innovative grade calculation program, which is saving academic careers at Hampton and winning converts at schools as far away as Nebraska.
Burbanck, chairman of Hampton’s Marine and Environmental Sciences Department, began development of the program about five years ago, inspired by his work with freshmen struggling to get off of academic probation. He recalls the moment precisely: He was sitting in an auditorium full of students and faculty, listening to the director of freshman studies explain to the students how to calculate and track their grade point averages.
“And I knew perfectly well how to calculate a grade point average, but she was confusing the heck out of me,” Burbanck says. “So, as I was sitting in the audience, I started jotting down a little square like a tic-tac-toe box, with multiplications and additions so that if you entered the figures in the right places, the formulas would calculate the grades for you.”
The first version of the grade calculator was a paper instruction sheet filled with happy faces and directions. “Fill this box with that figure, multiply this box with that, go to the happy face and so on,” Burbanck explains. He gave this version to the director of freshman studies, who was so enthusiastic about it she took it to a conference in South Carolina. She returned with plenty of feedback.
The consensus was that it was a great start, but there were problems. “You couldn’t do ‘what-if’ scenarios — you couldn’t really play with it. And, of course, you had to have a calculator,” Burbanck says.
So, over Christmas break, Burbanck sat down with his happy faces and his personal computer and started “kicking around.” When he returned to campus, he took with him “Survival”— as the grade calculation program was originally called — which anyone with Microsoft Excel could navigate with ease.
The original name didn’t stick, however.
“Originally, I developed it for freshmen on academic probation, and that was the attitude I thought they needed to develop,” Burbanck says. “But it began to seem awfully negative.”
An Invaluable Tool
Burbanck quickly started finding out that other people wanted to use the tool, too: the Honors College, where students receiving Presidential Scholarships had to maintain a 3.3 GPA; certain federal scholarship programs that required a GPA of 3.0; students who needed to maintain eligibility for athletics; and students who wanted to know if they had the 3.5 required to graduate with departmental honors.
“Basically, anyone who even remotely has an interest in the program, George will come over and install it and train that person to use it,” says Dr. Joyce Jarrett, assistant provost for academic affairs at Hampton. “This is not a man who’s just adept at developing computer programs. He is genuinely committed.”
Jarrett says she finds Quo Vadis “invaluable.”
“I’m the person that students will come to to appeal their dismissal,” she says, explaining that students whose GPAs fall below 2.0 are dismissed at the end of the academic year. In order to be considered for reinstatement, they have to take a reduced courseload — either in the summer if it’s a first-time dismissal or at another institution if it’s not — while maintaining a 2.5 GPA.
“They’re always coming to me and saying, ‘I’m going to do really well this semester. I’m going to make a 3.0′ ” overall, Jarrett says. Running their grades through Quo Vadis tends to be “sobering, because often students have an inflated idea of what they’re capable of. They think they can move from all Ds to all As in one semester, when (with the help of Quo Vadis) students often will realize that they can’t get off academic probation in one semester — that rather than a one-step approach, it will actually require a two-step approach.”
Dr. Freddye Davy, director of the Honors College, works with students at the opposite extreme of the spectrum. “I have a number of students who want to raise their GPAs, and they love the fact that the program can tell them just about anything they want to know related to their grades. How do I raise my overall GPA? What do I have to make in a particular class? Whatever they want to know.”
But Davy agrees with Jarrett that Quo Vadis can serve as a not-always-welcome reality check. “With freshmen coming in, especially the ones from high academic situations, you find they get lulled and fooled in the transition to college. The first semester is so much fun, and then the grades come along and it’s, ‘What in the world has happened?’ They can’t imagine not succeeding as they’ve been accustomed to succeeding.”
Davy says she’s working with a young man right now whose fall semester grades were so abysmal that his parents called to find out just what he had to do to keep his scholarship. Davy and the young man sat down with Quo Vadis at the beginning of the spring semester and discovered “there was absolutely nothing he could do,” Davy says. And there are no second chances with Presidential Scholarships, she explains — once gone, they’re gone for good.
But there was at least a sliver of a silver lining to the story. “While that may have been hard to take, it’s also good to be able to let the parents know that some funding alternatives are going to have to be sought.” And the young man? “He grew up really fast,” Davy says.
Burbanck’s interest in grades has actually led him to do a series of statistical studies in an attempt to profile the characteristics of A students versus B, C and D students. “And it was really, really interesting, what I found,” he says. Basically, the A students made fewer mistakes. “If you’re going to average an A overall, you can’t get many C’s because there are rarely enough tests to bring a C up. So what you find is that the A students make mostly A’s, and there’s very little variation in their grades. They’re extremely consistent. But each time you go down a letter grade, the greater the likelihood is that the student got that one really bad grade.”
And there’s another thing students trying to lift their grades from the basement need to understand. “It’s actually twice as hard to make A’s as it is to make B’s. It’s not a matter of scoring a few points higher; it’s a matter of making fewer mistakes. If you make a B, that means you missed between 10 and 20 points on a test. But to make an A you’ve got to miss between zero and 10 points. It’s pretty easy mathematically to get from a C to a B, but to get to an A you have to really settle down,” he explains.
In his counseling, therefore, Burbanck stresses the importance of consistency. “I try to make them understand they’ve got to keep their guard up 24 hours a day and not let that one bad grade sneak in. If they can do that, very often they can raise themselves up a whole letter grade.”
So the importance of Quo Vadis is not just that it offers reality but that it also offers hope, he says.
No student of Burbanck’s can get away with offering the refrain, “I’m going to raise my grade on the final.”
Burbanck’s extensive statistical analyses have shown that the grades students make throughout the semester and those they make on finals “are significantly the same,” he says. “What you make during the semester is an extremely good predictor of what you would make on the final.”
But there is no reason for students to despair if they get one or two bad grades. “As long as they’re not super-procrastinators — thinking they’re going to solve everything on a final exam that’s worth 15 percent — they can succeed,” he says.
Burbanck admits Quo Vadis has its critics. “I have professors who say it’s the wrong approach. ‘Why are you telling them they can get B’s? You should be telling them to go for A’s,’ ” he says.
But it seems clear the program has a future beyond Hampton University. Burbanck demonstrated the program at a recent HBCU Faculty Development Network conference and got requests from potential users at schools as far away as Nebraska.
Burbanck has no immediate plans to patent his creation. “In the sciences, there’s just more of a sharing attitude,” he says.
His concept and the layout of the program are copyrighted, however, and when he learns enough about programming to separate it from the Excel architecture, he says he probably will apply for a patent.
But he’s not there yet, he cautions.
“Right now, Quo Vadis is hard-wired for Hampton — for the way we calculate grade point averages and all of our requirements,” he says.
Burbanck is adapting the program individually for users at other schools who want to take advantage of it. His long-term plan is to reconfigure it into a program that’s flexible and adaptable enough to be used at any school anywhere in the country.
“That will all happen, hopefully, when I learn a little bit more about programming,” Burbanck says.
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