Some Answers to Tough Questions about Grading Standards

You may recall my post from a few weeks ago, “Tough Questions about Grading Standards.” In that post I tried to reconcile the feedback on my fall course from my department (the grading standards in my course should be comparable to other first-year math courses) with the feedback from my students (my grading standards were “reasonable” to “exceedingly hard”). Not only were these two bits of feedback at odds, I had difficulty seeing how I could increase the difficulty level of the course given the goals I had for it.

I also objected to the use of course grades as the only measure of “grading standards” in my course. I was told by the department that the grades my students achieved in my course were significantly higher than the grades they achieved in their other courses. This seemed to me to be a poor approximation of the “rigor” of my course or of any course, since there are so many factors that contribute to the grades achieved by students in a course. How motivated are the students? How big is the class? How experienced is the instructor? My students volunteered to take my seminar, it was a 15-student class, and I have years of teaching experience. I would hope my students would do a little better in my course than in their calculus courses!

Moreover, a “rigorous” course doesn’t necessarily mean students learn much in the course. Giving students lots of work and very difficult exams will yield a low average course grade, but the students might not learn much in the process. Likewise, assigning a moderate amount of work and providing students with the help they need to master the material might yield high course grades, but the course might have a lasting positive impact on student learning.

All this leads to the question of grade inflation. Is it bad that grades seem to be going up everywhere? Not if that means students are learning more. (See Bret’s comment on my previous post for more on this idea.) But if the purpose of grades is to distinguish among students (that is, rank them), then grade inflation doesn’t help. If everyone gets A’s, then how can we acknowledge the truly stellar students?

I met with some department colleagues today, and it turns out that the grade inflation issue was at the heart of their feedback on my course. It’s not that they want the class average in my seminar to be the same as that of the calculus courses, it’s that they want my grade distribution to allow for distinguishing among students’ performance in the course. While I may not see grade inflation the same way my colleagues do, I can get behind the need to tell the A students apart from the B students in a course.

I’ll admit that there were more A’s in my course than I would have preferred. That is, the grading scheme I used didn’t do enough to distinguish among these students. That’s partially because they were great students and partially because this was the first time I taught this course as a first-year writing seminar. My plan, from the time I turned in the final grades, was to find some ways to raise the bar for this course. As I said in my last post, I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about that, but I knew I had eight months to figure that out!

While I still disagree with my colleagues on how to interpret a set of grades for a course and how compare the grades between courses, we found some useful common ground on this idea of distinguishing among students. My goal for next fall when I teach the course again is to end up with a nice mix of A’s, B’s, and maybe even some C’s. But I’ll want to accomplish that goal by designing reasonable and fair (if perhaps difficult) assignments and assessments for the students. As I mentioned in my last post, students can usually deal with a pretty high bar as long as they see it as a fair one. If they’re clear on my expectations for them and how they should go about meeting those expectations, then the grumbling about my “exceedingly high” grading standards should be kept to a minimum.

What I won’t do is grade students against each other. I trust Barbara Gross Davis on this point:

Avoid grading systems that put students in competition with their classmates and limit the number of high grades. These normative systems, such as grading on the curve, work against collaborative learning strategies that have been shown to be effective in promoting student learning. Normative grading produces undesirable consequences for many students, such as reduced motivation to learn, debilitating evaluation anxiety, decreased ability to use feedback to improve learning, and poor social relationships. (Sources: Crooks, 1988; McKeachie, 1986)

One of my department colleagues shared some interesting ideas on teaching students to write like mathematicians, even when they’re not writing proofs. (I suspect my grad school colleague Patrick Bahls might have similar ideas…) I’ll mull those over and share them in a future blog post along with some of my thoughts on the writing component of this course.

One last thought (for now) on grade inflation: If it’s seen as important to lower the grades that students get in courses, one option is to make the assessments more difficult. Another option is to teach less effectively. I really hope that attempts to stop grade inflation don’t lead to the use of that second option.

Image: “Inside again,” Aidan M. Grey, Flickr (CC)

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