Wednesday, June 28, 2006

He gets it, up to a point 

Despite the title the newspaper chose for the column, I think Jeff Bineham's column in today's local paper on grades and grade inflation in the university is quite sensible. Bineham says grades are assigned by faculty using three different purposes: how a student ranks versus the basic requirements of the course -- where just meeting them warrants a 'C'; how students performed relative to each other in the class (the best getting an 'A'); and how much of the work assigned is completed (completing all the work is an 'A'.) Many students, on the other hand...
assume they start with an A, and if they do things wrong the assessment moves down to a B, then a C, and so on. For me, the C indicates the student has done satisfactory work; for the student it is a sign of numerous deficiencies.
That matches my experience for a majority of my lower-division students. By the time they become juniors, most of my students understand that a 'C' is a standard that spans different classes in different years, and that we grade output, not input. Thus my students should be trained to Prof. Bineham's standard. And if they're not, that would be their problem.

Prof. Bineham then suggests that the answer to this may be the elimination of grades altogether.

Some colleges already employ this strategy. They believe grades are detrimental to learning and do not issue transcripts to students. The students become less concerned about high scores and more concerned about discussing interesting texts and writing excellent papers.

These responses share a goal: to change how students think about the meaning of grades.

When students themselves demand rigorous evaluation, inflated grades will be of little concern.

I'm not as convinced. Students want rigorous evaluation, but they also want clear signals to potential employers of their merit relative to others so that they can win the race for the good job. (Oh, but King! they are pursuing broader goals than career advancement in college! Sorry, not the ones I advise.) Students do seek prizes -- and that can be used to encourage additional learning, if one structures grades to provide incentives. For example, I've recently changed my gradesheets so that I don't tell students what share of the points already awarded they've received. Students would come in saying "I had a 'B' going into the final." That assumes they would earn a B on the final. Why assume that? I now say "here's how many points you have so far, and here's how many you need for these various grades. Study enough to get the letter grade you want." Give feedback early and often, and the level of whingeing about grades goes down.

First rule of economics, right? Incentives matter.

The other problem with the no-grade rule is the concern students will have to get more favor from the professor to get that better, now-more-subjective evaluation. What would this do to the student who takes views that are different from those the professor espouses? Would the elimination of grades increase or decrease the pressure on students to conform to the political stance of the instructor? "Oh, that sort of thing never happens." Really?

UPDATE: Prof. Bineham kindly emails me to say he prefers his other solution, that each grade on the transcript would also contain information on the average grade for the course. He's right insofar as for the "philosophy of grading" he prefers, this makes the most sense.