Archive for June, 2013

Grading and Its Discontents-Frequently Asked Questions

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  Below is the second of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

Frequently asked questions. The process of grading is misunderstood in only a limited number of ways, and they can be inferred from the type of questions that students tend to ask about their own grades. Here are a few examples.

It is not uncommon for a student to ask: “Why did you take off points?” After hearing that several times, I became curious about the kind of reasoning that would lead someone to ask such a question. The students seems to be assuming that they already had a full score and that the professor is therefore responsible for taking away some of what rightfully belonged to them. Needless to say, that is a mistaken assumption.

So I explain: It is not the case that you start out with a perfect score and then “lose” some points because the professor “takes” them “off.” Rather, you start out with zero and must earn all of your points. Moreover, a proactive student would not ask “Why did you take off my points?” but rather “Why was I not able to earn a perfect score?”

Learning is never directly caused by anything that a professor does. It happens as a result of the student’s own activities (reading, thinking, writing, etc.), while the professor can only facilitate that process. Since the responsibility for learning lies with the student, so does the burden of demonstrating that he or she has actually achieved that learning.

For a while, I took it for granted that students were cognizant of my responsibility for maintaining a reasonable standard of fairness. I started having doubts, however, after the third or fourth time that I heard the following statement: “If I don’t get an A in this course, I will lose my scholarship” (or “I won’t get into the nursing program,” or “I wouldn’t qualify for medical school”). What these students seem to be suggesting is that I should not treat them like everyone else in the class because of their special circumstances or difficult career paths. In principle, such a request shouldn’t trouble the conscience of any professor, for we are under no obligation to assign grades simply on the basis of what students want or need.

Yet being told that the entire life plan of a young man or woman depends on what grade I give them does put me in an awkward situation psychologically: I don’t wish to be the person who destroys someone’s dream, but I also have a strong need for integrity. It would be best for both parties if students simply do not share this kind of information with faculty members.

After receiving a poor grade on an assignment, a student has sometimes asked me the following question: “What can I do to improve my grade in this course?” What that question usually implies is that I should give such students an additional assignment so that they can make up for their previous, less-than-stellar performance.

I suspect the main reason students make such a request is that they haven’t taken the time to think through its implications. It’s obviously unfair to give an opportunity for extra credit to only one student, but giving the same opportunity to everyone in class is not always practical.

Instead of agonizing over what grades they are going to get, I wish my students would be more concerned about the state of their learning. For a student who is truly focused on learning, the appropriate question to ask is not “How can I earn a better grade?” but rather “What do I need to learn that will enhance my academic performance?”