Posts Tagged ‘grading’

Grading and Its Discontents – You Are Not Your Grades

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

This post is the final in a series of four.  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.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  The third was posted in July, 2013.  Here is the fourth and final of Afzaal’s suggestions.

You are not your grades. I want my students to avoid defining themselves in terms of a grade. I want them to know that grades represent nothing more than someone’s assessment of one or more instances of their academic performance. Given the nature of the grading process and the limited purposes for which it is designed, the grades they receive are in no way a reflection of who they are as people or even what they are capable of achieving in the long run.

Grades do not represent an objective measure of students’ intelligence, capabilities, talents, or potential, nor do they capture the essence of their character, soul, or worth as human beings. An A in a particular assignment or a course does not make the recipient a worthy person, just as a D or an F does not make anyone an unworthy person.

In discussing these matters with my students, my aim is to reduce their grade-related anxiety as much as possible. I believe that when students see their grades as pieces of information, rather than as external rewards or punishments, or as mechanisms of control, they are much more likely to discover the joy that is inherent in the very experience of learning.

Grading and Its Discontents-Via Negativa

Tuesday, July 2nd, 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.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  Below is the third of those suggestions.

Via negativa. I want students to understand that there are certain functions that grading is not designed to perform. For instance, grading cannot measure a student’s effort.

Sometimes a student complains: “I worked so hard in this course and spent so much time studying but I only received a. … ” That student is probably assuming that grading is intended to gauge the time and effort that students invest in their studies—an assumption that clearly isn’t true.

Professors rarely observe their students outside of the classroom or lab, which is why we are in no position to judge how hard or long someone has studied. We can only assess their actual performance. A student using ineffective methods of study would have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than a student who is using effective methods. Similarly, a student who is trying to do multiple things simultaneously, or is being constantly distracted by technology, is likely to accomplish much less in the same amount of time than a student who is giving full attention to the task at hand.

Grading cannot measure a student’s progress either. On the first day of classes in any given course, some students are already ahead of others because they have a special aptitude for, or a particular interest in, the subject matter. And some students are already at a disadvantage: Perhaps they grew up in an intellectually impoverished environment, or their personal inclinations don’t match the subject matter of the course, or they bring to the class deeply ingrained misconceptions that will inhibit them from fully engaging with the material.

Typically, professors do not take such an initial advantage or disadvantage into account when evaluating students’ performance, mainly because such factors cannot be realistically quantified. Some students must invest more time and effort than other students in order to receive the same grade. That may seem unjust, I tell students, but it simply mimics the way “real life” functions.

Even academic performance in the form of exams, presentations, and essays provides the professor with no more than a cross-section of all that a student learns during a semester.

Consider this common student complaint: “I learned so much in this course but I only received a. … ” It is true that the quantity of what a student learns is one of the main factors that determine his or her academic performance and grade, but it is also true that not everything a student learns in a course can actually be tested, measured, and graded in a reliable fashion. Indeed, the most important skills that any student can acquire—abstract thinking, self-awareness, empathy, perspective, personal maturity, respect, love of learning, curiosity, and responsibility—are all unquantifiable.

I try to help my students realize that learning is its own reward. No amount of accolades, trophies, diplomas, and money can equal the worth of one’s actual learning. It is impossible to reduce the full richness or value of a genuine learning experience to something as bland as a letter grade.

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?”

Grading and Its Discontents

Thursday, May 2nd, 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.  Below is the first of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

“The nature of grading.

Grading is a tool, I tell my students. And like any other tool, it is meant to perform certain specific functions. To explain those functions, I like to use a simple analogy.

Consider a car’s speedometer. It is a tool that performs two interrelated functions: (1) It measures speed, and (2) it communicates that information to the driver. In a somewhat similar way, grading is a tool that also performs two interrelated functions: (1) It assesses academic performance, and (2) it communicates that information to the student. When driving, you glance at the speedometer to determine the speed of the vehicle—if it is what you want, you try to maintain it; if not, you make appropriate adjustments. That is analogous to how students are supposed to use, and benefit from, whatever it is that their grades are telling them.

It’s perfectly normal to desire good grades since they serve as evidence that a student has demonstrated competence in a particular area. But problems arise when students assume that their primary goal in college is to earn good grades so they can achieve or maintain a certain GPA. That is like believing that the primary goal of driving a car is not to reach a particular destination but to achieve or maintain a certain speed.

Since grades have only instrumental value—rather than any intrinsic value—they must be treated as only means to some end, and never as ends in themselves. I tell my students: If your primary goal in college is to receive good grades, you will probably view the required work as an onerous obstacle and you’re not likely to feel very motivated to do the work. But you are most likely to receive good grades when you are so focused on learning that grades have ceased to matter.”

CITL Answers – October 2012

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Question: Grading is a difficult task. Sometimes grading can be objective; other times it can be too subjective. How can I grade more fairly and effectively?

Answer: Not only is grading a difficult task, it is a complicated one. There is no simple answer to your question. Many elements go into awarding grades that students earn. To be fair means that the grades reflect how well students per­formed on the learning goals for the course. To be effective means that the grades, awarded throughout the course, helped students reach the learning goals. The single best advice to get you on your way to fair and effective grading is a paraphrase of Walvoord and Anderson (Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College): teach what you grade and grade what you teach.

How Can We Stop Grade Inflation?

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

How can we stop grade inflation?  Just stop inflating grades!  I frequently return to a 2008 quote by Mary Biggs, which appeared in Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education.  She wrote that “the cause of grade inflation is the faculty.  We give inflated grades.”  Here we are in 2012.  We still discuss the grade inflation problem, but we are also still giving the same explanation:  faculty inflate grades.  To better understand what inflating grades does and does not do, check out a June 25, 2012 Chronicle article on the topic:  http://chronicle.com/article/To-Stop-Grade-Inflation-Just/132415/.

Why Faculty Inflate Grades

Monday, February 6th, 2012

In the 2008 book edited by Lester Hunt, Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education, Mary Biggs wrote that the “the cause of grade inflation is the faculty.  We give  inflated grades” (p. 112).  But, you might ask, why do faculty give inflated grades?  Peter Eubanks’ article in the August 9, 2011 issue of Inside  Higher Ed  offered three sources of pressure to give inflated grades.  Pressure from students:  students’ complaints about grades prompt “a nagging fear that minor grading errors have indeed been made and that the student should be given the benefit of the doubt.”  Pressure from administrators:  when faculty are expected “to produce good evaluations, [they can] feel a temptation to inflate grades to secure their own livelihoods.”  Pressure from colleagues:  faculty could believe that “if everyone else is giving out inflated grades, why should they be the ones to stand alone, only to incur the displeasure of students who may be confused by inconsistent standards.”  Finally, pressure to inflate grades comes from the faculty themselves: “efforts in the classroom have sometimes been inadequate, that poor student performance reflects poor preparation or teaching . . . , and that grades must be inflated to compensate for . . . failings.”  Which pressure do you feel most?  Eubanks’ full article can be accessed here:  http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/08/09/essay_on_why_faculty_members_participate_in_grade_inflation.

Most Common Grade

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

In Teachers College Record Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy published an analysis of grades at four-year colleges and universities.  The most common grade is the A.  Forty-three percent of all grades are A.  Private colleges award more than public institutions.  And, the South tends to award fewer As than the other regions of the country.

CITL Answers – November 2010

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Question: Grade inflation seems to be a hot topic these days.  Does it exist at Emerson and what can I do about it?

CITL’s Answer: There is a lot of controversy across the country about grade inflation. There are, however, no simple answers about its existence or what to do about it. Nevertheless, a commonly understood definition for grade inflation is the first step in answering questions. A University of Wyoming’s Webpage, called Grade Inflation: The Current Conversation, has this definition: “ . . . an increase in grades without a corresponding increase in the quality of student work.” For more information, visit that Website.

Once a definition is agreed upon, grades and student learning could be compared over an extended period of time to determine the degree of inflation on campus. Regarding what you can do about it, ask yourself if the grades your students earn are true measures of their learning. Then, to explore and address any grading concerns, sign up for the CITL’s Spring Semester workshop series: Effective Grading for Student Learning. Watch for announcements or contact CITL@emerson.edu.

CITL Answers – February 2010

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Question: Are Emerson’s curricula academically challenging when compared to peer institutions?

CITL’s Answer: Yours is an important question, but it is not easily answered.  The research on academic challenge (also referred to as academic rigor) indicates that the concept is rarely defined.  When it is, the definitions are so conceptualized that any comparisons are invalid.  Because other faculty have asked a similar question and Emerson has not adopted a definition of academic challenge, the CITL is undertaking a study to compare student and faculty perspective about the concept.  The findings may be used to guide grading practices and curricular developments.  If you are faculty and would like to participate in the study, you can complete a very brief questionnaire.  (You are welcome to encourage your students to participate, in our student survey.) Contact Karen St. Clair with questions about the study.