Tough Questions about Grading Standards

I’ve spent some time today reading carefully through my end-of-course student evaluations for my fall cryptography seminar. Our course evals are online here, which means that many course evaluations receive only a 60 or 65% response rate from students. However, I asked my students to bring their laptops to class on the last day and gave them 20 minutes during class to complete the evaluations. Not only did this raise my response rate to 100% (yes, every single student) but I think it provided students with time during a very busy week to leave some thoughtful comments, particularly about the balance of mathematics and writing instruction and activity in the course. I’ll come back to those comments in a future blog post, I think. For now, I’d like to reflect a bit on their comments about the grading standards in the course.

My crypto course counted toward the “mathematics and natural sciences” requirement in our general education curriculum. I’ve been informed that because of that, the grading standards in the course should be comparable to other first-year math courses. Ten of my 15 students completed other math courses in the fall.  I’m guessing that many of those courses were ones in our calculus program here, but I don’t know for sure. The average course grade in my course was significantly higher than the average grade achieved by my students in their other math courses, which seems to be a cause for concern for some.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that concern since I see comparing my students grades in my first-year writing seminar to their performance in other math courses (likely calculus courses) as apples and oranges. My course was small (letting me give each student more attention and support than they would receive in a larger course), elective (yielding a group of self-selected students likely very interested in the course topic), and writing-intensive (providing students with opportunities to revise their work and thus improve their grade over time). Of course their grades in my course were higher. I’d be a bit worried if they weren’t!

I don’t think you can judge the rigor of a course merely by looking at the grade distributions for the course. I can imagine very easy courses in which students get lots of Cs and very hard courses in which students earn lots of As. There are a variety of contextual factors that give meaning to those grade distributions.

Another reason I’m struck by the concern over my students’ grades is that the students largely perceived the course as being a rigorous one. Here are the comments about my grading standards they submitted on their evaluations:

  • “His grading system was very rigorous, but I got used to it.”
  • “Grading method of the essays could improve, however, because small mistakes make grade drop drastically.”
  • “Many of us also felt that the material in class was graded exceedingly hard.”
  • “He was always extremely helpful in office hours and reasonable in grading.”
  • “Professor Bruff is a tough grader… Professor Bruff made the material interesting, and understandable, it was just sometimes a disappointment to get those essays and problem sets back.”
  • “I feel that the essays were graded much harder than any other first year writing seminar.”

My grading apparently ranges from “reasonable” to “exceedingly hard” according to my students. Some of these comments were in response to my problem sets, I’m sure, which featured a mix of questions focused on cryptography (cracking ciphertexts, applying enciphering and deciphering techniques) and mathematics (modular arithmetic, some number theory and combinatorics). You can see all the problem sets over on the course blog. The other significant graded assignments in the course were essays: a three-page opinion piece, a five-page expository paper, and a ten-page argumentative research paper. You can find grading rubrics for all three on the course blog to get a sense of my expectations for these assignments.

I’m not sure how to respond to these comments from my students and my colleague concerned about the course average. The next time I teach the course, should I try to raise my grading standards? What does that even mean? Should I find ways to take more points off the students’ problem sets and/or essays? Should I do less to provide support and feedback to the students along the way? That’s problematic because if I learned nothing else teaching this course, I learned about some ways to be more effective as a writing instructor next time around! (More on that in a future blog post, too!) I could reduce the amount that class participation counts (currently 15%), but only by a bit since I still need to motivate students to participate in the out-of-class activities for the course (social bookmarking, pre-class reading questions, and such).

Perhaps the answer is what I often tell faculty colleagues: You can raise the bar on student expectations pretty high as long as the students perceive you as “fair.” In my case, I think that would mean grading in such a way that “small mistakes” didn’t “make grades drop dramatically” according to the students. Doing that would probably require a better shared understanding of what a “small” mistake is. I’ll admit that mistakes I see as “big” might be perceived by students as “small” unless I do a better job of communicating with my students. If my “exceedingly hard” comments turn into “tough, but fair” comments, I’m okay with that.  Communication might be part of the solution here.

It’s frustrating, however, since I felt that I set the bar pretty high in the course already. So I ask you, how do you balance having high expectations for students, supporting them well in their efforts, combating grade “inflation,” and keeping students more or less satisfied with the experience? Easy question, right?

Image: “Kicking the Sun,” Melinda Huntley, Flickr (CC)

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