Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grade season

Final grades in the two classes I taught this semester are due tomorrow. I dislike giving grades, partly because the Honors program in which I teach tries to wean students off reliance on grades as a measure of self-worth (training them to look to their own self-assessed learning outcomes rather than pestering the professor for quantitative measures of where they stand in the class), and partly because it's nearly impossible to communicate to students through the impoverished medium of the grade.

A few years ago I read this article about how professors try to use grades to send various messages to students. Try harder. Come to class more often. Do another revision. Thanks for the effort. You have potential. You're in the wrong major. Stop wasting my time. The very same letter grade is supposed to mean "even though your scores average a D, I know how hard you worked, so here's a passing grade!" to a student in one seat, and "even though your scores average a B, you slacked your way through this class demonstrating just how little you cared, so here's a C" to the student in the next.

How can a single letter carry all that communication? And how can we feel confident that what we mean to say by the grade is what students (and their parents, and financial aid committees, and graduate schools) will take out of it?

Grades are poor channels for carrying such complex messages -- nor do the reasons for the grade tend to survive the immediate context of the moment of grade-giving, although the grade itself persists for years on transcripts, affecting all kinds of processes.

I wish I could stop giving grades. But my institution demands it. I'm stuck with this five-fold (no pluses or minuses in our system) scale that is supposed to sum up the learning that occurred in my classroom. Tomorrow morning I'll make the semiannual compromises and suffer the nausea that comes from distilling my students into this attenuated set of outcomes. Pray for my soul.


Justin Ray said...

I was thinking about this recently as part of my internal conflict about whether or not I want to teach high school. I always thought (and everyone else thinks) I am the type of person who ought to be a stickler for grades--making sure that all should get their just desserts whether it ruins their futures or not. As your TA, I found myself being a little more liberal than that. Except in a few cases, I wanted to tell the students what I thought about their work through comments and give them the grade that wouldn't ruin their scholarship.

I think teaching high school will be an even more liberalizing experience for me. I've resigned myself to the fact that most of my job will simply be trying to give the kids something to do--putting a little structure into their lives in the process--with academic enrichment a secondary objective. Those who love to learn will survive those years and go on to real school. Those who don't will put their high school graduation on resumes when they apply for other jobs in the market. Either way, I don't want to give a grade that could ruin anyone's chances.

How well you perform on randomly selected academic material as a teenager shouldn't determine one's future. In college, it is different. It isn't about being babysat anymore. I wouldn't feel as bad about slapping a red F on a student's chest if they really, really deserved it. But they rarely do in the HC. Even if they did, they need not fear from you. I've said before, you are a very fair person. They really need to be afraid of that Frana guy...

Eric B. said...

Do you ever feel that students think they are entitled to an A? I remember both as a student and as an instructor that there were a fair number of students that felt that Honors classes were easy A's. In the few instances when I needed to give my Honors students less that stellar grades I dreaded the potential backlash. To be honest I was a very green teacher at the time; I feel much more confident in my ability to respond to backlash now. Strangely I was the recipient, some 4 years later at an alumni gathering, of animosity over a grade I had assigned.