I find both of the poles in the current cross-blog discussion of grading policies a bit weird. There’s the people who say that a C is the average, and thus that should be reflected in the distribution of grades, with an A being one end of the bell curve. And then there’s people (most especially including students) who say that if they do everything asked of them, they should get an A.

The default state of grading at most institutions accords individual faculty a lot of philosophical latitude in the grades they give out, so this kind of fundamental disagreement about how to grade is not that surprising. I think most students are well-aware that different faculty have different approaches to grading: it’s a necessary part of the student’s art, to know what you’re getting into when you sign up for a particular course. You’ll sometimes hear faculty known as tough graders complain that their approach has a negative impact on their evaluations, or that students refuse to take courses with them. (Often this goes along with a somewhat cattier suggestion that faculty with many students are popular entirely because of their grading policies.)

I’m sure that some students do avoid a notoriously difficult professor. But quite a few such faculty end up with some very devoted cadres of their own. I think this is a case of a problem that solves itself in a curricular marketplace: the students craving a challenge, or knowing they need a strong taskmaster, find their way to a faculty who approaches evaluation in that spirit. I don’t think there’s any need to have that be the default, or to enforce this style of evaluation, however.

My personal sensibility shifts a bit from year to year. I’m not terribly consistent in my internal understanding of what I’m doing when I grade. In general, I tend to imagine the B as the default grade, and an A as a grade that says, “You did something considerably better than ordinary”. The C means, “This is really not as good as ordinary work”. Failures are either, “This is dramatically worse than the norm” or “You blew this off, and I can see that you did”.

I freely confess that I tend to have a slightly different understanding of how this scaling works out based on my understanding of what a student is capable of. The more I’ve graded a student, the more I form an expectation about what they can do. A student who has done consistently excellent, original work for me is likely to draw a much more negative reaction from me for doing ordinary work than a student who has done fine, decent but undistinguished work consistently. If I graded blind, I suspect I’d still have some pretty good guesses over time about the identity of writers, but maybe that would help shake up some of my assumptions. I’m weighing trying to do that next year for the first time.

Every assignment is different, too. Sometimes I get back papers and see such a common repetition of a problem or issue that I realize that there was something screwy about the assignment or that I didn’t explain something very well in class. So that tends to mitigate my grades. Sometimes I get back papers and everybody nails the essays so very well that I hand out A’s very liberally. I don’t believe that I have to produce the same distribution of grades every single time: I’ve had classes with a lot of B’s and classes with almost all A minuses. I really do think that sometimes you get a stellar mix of people or that there’s some kind of convergence in the class or that you’ve succeeded in getting the material across in some special way. Why not recognize that when it happens?

I also find that when you compare notes with other faculty about a particular student, even if their grades vary somewhat, you tend to find that they have a very similar appraisal of that student’s capabilities and commitment, the kind of information that isn’t expressed well by grades themselves. That’s an argument for some kind of written evaluations to go along with grades, of the kind we write for first-semester students at Swarthmore. Though what faculty say to each other is often much blunter or matter-of-fact than what we’d put into writing to a student. Which is again perfectly fine, it seems to me, because grading isn’t just an absolute mark of excellence against some objective benchmark: it’s also a communication to a student, one that encourages them to improve or compliments them for achievement or reprimands them for inattentiveness–in short, part of the art of teaching, which necessarily varies from person to person.

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12 Responses to Grades

  1. j. says:

    it seems to me like teachers who think other teachers’ grades aren’t meeting the right standards have either a conception of the subject matter as especially uniform, determinate, and possibly independent of the students or of the instructor’s presentation of it; or such a conception of the somewhat contrived tasks which students are usually set.

    it’s pretty clear why one would think of grading in some subjects this way; less so in others.

  2. AndrewSshi says:

    Well, first off, since you’re at a prestigious liberal arts college, I suspect that in general your students are above average, so above average grades aren’t unexpected.

    If, however, one were grading a course that was the only humanities course for a lot of engineers, well, one would have to be very, very generous indeed for the papers to have a B average.

  3. What you say here makes a lot of sense to me. I’m not following the cross-blog discussion, but when grades come up for discussion there’s often a one-size-fits-all attitude. Grades are essential or grades are evil. We have to attack grade inflation across the board or its not an issue. Etc., etc. But grading a physics class, a history class, an accounting class, and an art class are quite different things, and I don’t think we should expect the same attitude and distribution in all of those cases.

    I teach a class in songwriting, and I do all I can to deemphasize grades–the students pretty much have an A unless they screw up. I’ve also taught the first semester of music theory, and even though the material overlaps with songwriting to some extent, the theory class is like a math class–lots of assignments, lots of red ink, a serious midterm and final, and no default As (I also tend to think of B as the mid-level grade). The theory class is a prerequisite to a bunch of other classes, songwriting isn’t. That’s one way to rationalize the different approaches, anyways.

    (I see j. has made more or less the same point while I’ve been typing.)

  4. Rana says:

    I have to agree with Andrew – the average grade does depend on the students involved, at least if one’s grading criteria remain fixed regardless of institution.

    At my current institution, which is a commuter campus with a lot of older students juggling work and family responsibilities, the peak on my bell curve is both more towards the C range and the A leg of the curve is miniscule. I hope that the bell will move A-ward as the semester progresses; the students aren’t of below-average intelligence, but are both relatively inexperienced at college-level work and time-stressed.

    At another place I worked, there was this very odd curve that kept showing up in my classes (so I know it wasn’t just one anomalous class). Basically, instead of there being something bell-like, there was this odd bulge at the B+ side and no A-s, and then a sharp spike of As.

    For me, A-range work tends to combine originality with a firm grasp of technical skills. B-range tends to lack originality while being technically sound, or vice versa. C-range reveals a lack of understanding of the assignment, or an inability to meet much more than the basic requirements. D-range means something went noticeably wrong; Fs are just flat out failures. I don’t give many Fs, and I don’t give very many As, either. But, as I tell the students, this is because of the way student skills, interest, etc. average out; if everyone one day did A (or F) work, then that’s what everyone gets.

    Anyway, what I finally figured out was happening with that peculiar curve was this: the students in that B+ lump had the technical skills to do A level work, and many of them were capable of the sort of originality and insight that characterizes A level work – but they were holding that back. They had such an ingrained respect for authority that they did not believe it was appropriate, or their place, to insert any of their own ideas into the work. Rather, they believed that they were to do a good job re-presenting the things they had learned in lectures and in the readings.

    Once I realized this, and started aggressively encouraging them to offer their own insights on the material, there was a sudden spike in A-level papers and the bulge went away.

    I do have to admit I find something oddly difficult and frustrating about translating my gut sense of an assignment’s success into a “B” or an “85”. I’d rather focus on getting students to improve and meet their potential, than reducing their performance down to a statistic. Perhaps this is because I attended an institution that de-emphasized grades; although they did record them for transcript and financial aid purposes, you couldn’t see them unless you made a special request or there was a serious problem. Instead, you got written evaluations of your work at the end of each term.

  5. Rana says:

    Probably too it has to do with the training I received during my formative teaching years; I worked for a writing program that was pass-fail with an emphasis on student portfolios – the goal was improvement over the course of the class in order to meet an established threshhold of skills needed for the next class in the sequence, not grades.

  6. I’ve noticed a big difference between institutions. I have friends who teach at elite liberal arts colleges where a B grade leads to an office visit with lots of Kleenex, and where faculty need to give a warning to the class dean if they think a student might get a D. Where I teach, we use the full grading scale, and there are students who decide that their goal in one course (out of the five they take per semester) is to get a C so they can put their energy into the others.

    I’m explicit about grading criteria in my assignments and syllabi: I tell students that a B means that they have met my expectations in all regards; a C or D (or F, and I give several each semester) means the have failed to do so in some venial or mortal ways, and an A means that they have somehow surprised me. I also tell them that I can explain how to get a B, but that getting an A means doing something that can’t be easily explained and reduced to a formula. I get very few grade complaints. Even though there’s an irreducible element of judgment in my grades (and my TAs’ grades, in big courses), I find that students are usually content knowing that the standards are not arbitrary and are applied across the board.

    Like Tim, I sometimes find I’m more disappointed by students who are capable of greatness and settle for adequate work, but I also try to keep in mind the competing demands on their time.

    One way of framing the whole grading issue that I have found useful, both in my self-understanding and in presenting the issue to students, is to insist that grades are professional _judgments_ of students’ works. That’s a way to get around the false dichotomy that holds that grades are either entirely objective or wholly subjective, especially because I try as much as possible to convey the bases for my judgments. My emphasis on _professional_ judgments reflects my desire to communicate to students that our standards are not arbitrary, on an individual level, but reflect disciplinary standards that are grounded in a community’s standards, not an individual’s whims. Even if there are some differences in individual grading philosophy, they do still refer to some sense of what the discipline considers to be its norms.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Brian raises a side issue that’s really important. I also try to judge what a student is doing as a whole, in part because I recognize that a student who is heavily invested in the sciences here is dealing with pedagogical demands that are very different than mine, and the consequences of their grades in those subjects are different than the consequence of the grade in my course. I’ve said this pretty much out loud to my students–that if it comes down to a calculation one night about whether to devote six hours to writing a paper for me or six hours to prepare for their chemistry midterm, the chemistry choice is probably the sounder calculation in terms of the consequences. Not to say that they shouldn’t focus on my paper if that’s what’s more engaging to them, and not to say I’m inviting them to write a pile of crap in 30 minutes, but I want to be mindful with all my students of the total picture and where my class fits into that.

  8. north says:

    I????e said this pretty much out loud to my students????hat if it comes down to a calculation one night about whether to devote six hours to writing a paper for me or six hours to prepare for their chemistry midterm, the chemistry choice is probably the sounder calculation in terms of the consequences.

    Part of what you called the student’s art is to gauge those consequences, and accept that sometimes their grades in one class will suffer on account of their commitments to something else. The professor’s responsibility is to communicate that writing a mediocre paper because of time constraints won’t make you think the student is a bad person – just that they’re busy and this wasn’t their priority. I think it’s great that Swarthmore allows people to take a certain number of classes pass-fail, so students have a way of making exploratory choices with somewhat less perceived risk.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Seems pretty important to me if you’re serious about the liberal arts.

    I took an upper-level biology class on behavior as an undergraduate simply because I wanted to. Didn’t get a great grade in the course but I was honestly more interested in the material and so didn’t care much. It may be harder for the current generation of students to be that unconcerned, I guess–hence it’s important to encourage some of them to explore by ameliorating the costs of exploration.

  10. north says:

    I don’t know much about how it was back in the day, but I do feel like even in the time between when I started college and now (10 years) professionalization has moved younger. My little brother is worried about not having a plan – he’s 19, getting reasonable but not stellar grades, learning how to write better papers, and taking classes that explore his interests. What else is being 19 for?

    Though I’m pretty sure that my lack of interest in grades for their own sake, combined with some unfortunate early ideas about how I had to take a lot of science classes and the fact that I didn’t learn how to study until Swarthmore, just cost me some grad school admissions. I don’t think I’d give up getting to experiment and make my own mistakes for more acceptances, but since it doesn’t seem to have cost me the admissions I really wanted, it’s easier to think that.

  11. G. Weaire says:

    Robert Zimmerman’s not the only person who has to grade very differently for different types of course within their own teaching.* For me, it’s elementary language instruction vs. advanced reading vs. survey course in translation. My spread of grades is very different in each category.

    *Music departments – my wife is a musicologist who also teaches piano, so I’ve seen this at close quarters – are definitely the extreme case, though, in the range of different approaches under the same roof.

  12. Western Dave says:

    Grading student work can be very stressful and people rarely talk about that. One of the things that really helps is a written rubric. Since I switched to teaching Upper School from teaching college, I’ve become more conscious about my grading both because I do more of it and because I give very different types of assignments compared to when I taught college. The rubrics really help clarify some of those stumper papers that often fall outside what is often a typical pattern. If I’ve decided in advance that a paper with a great thesis but little or no historical evidence (or perhaps evidence for a different argument) is a B-, that’s a weight off my shoulders and speeds the process. Conversely a paper, no matter how elegantly written, that describes rather than argues and has no thesis isn’t getting out of the C range (these would be for my 10th grade college prep class. Grading scales for AP seniors are different with higher expectations and other courses differ as well.) If you are not using rubrics try them some time. They will save you heartache and your students will see where your priorities are. “Surprise me” is hard to understand compared to “shows original thinking and analysis beyond the reading and lectures A range; restates arguments and evidence of reading and lectures without original thinking or analysis B range. “

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