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What is a grade?

It’s not a gift, and you don’t get points for being old, young, pretty or ugly


 

Once, sitting with some colleagues in the faculty lounge, conversation turned to a woman who was about to graduate from our university at the decidedly non-traditional age of 75. During this conversation, it was revealed by a grinning fellow professsor that the student in question had failed one of my courses.

“You failed a 75-year-old woman?” someone said incredulously.

“Well, in my own defence,” I replied, “she was only 72 when she took my course.”

I was proud of this bon mot, but my witticism concealed a more serious issue. What is a grade?

Many students, and some professors too, think of a grade as a kind of gift received in a kind of quiet exchange. The student provides attendance and assignments and, in an act of reciprocity, the professor offers a grade. The finer the one gift, the finer the gift given in return. This notion is reinforced by the language we use: “Professor Zeitz gave me a decent grade on my paper, but I don’t know why it wasn’t higher.”

The danger of this view of grading is that it implies that grades are distributed on the personal whim of the instructor. Thus, a student who receives a low grade can shrug it off because, in her mind, it is the malice of the instructor that is to blame. I have literally heard students make precisely this kind of complaint: “I got a lousy grade in his class. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.” Even worse, when a student gets a grade that is close to the passing level, he cannot understand why Professor Wong just won’t give him a few extra points.

To my mind, however, a grade is not a gift. It is an assessment. It is an expert evaluation of the quality of work done for a particular assignment or on a particular test. It is not personal, and while there is no such thing as absolute objectivity, the grade should be based on clearly stated criteria which are, in turn, based on the expectations of the scholarly discipline in question. Nothing else matters. You don’t get points for being old, or young, or pretty, or ugly, or because you are on the basketball team. You don’t lose points for any of those things, either. And while a professor may reasonably tweak a final grade if she feels the student’s arithmetical score does not precisely match her success in the course, the question is still a simple if not easy one: to what extent did the student demonstrate a mastery of the course material?

This is why, to my mind, it is unethical for a professor to raise a grade simply to let a student get admitted to a graduate program, or keep a scholarship, or stay on a sports team. Those scholarship rules, and required averages, and team regulations are all there for a reason. And if professors raise the grades without academic justification, the grades become meaningless at best, misleading at worst. If those who are paying out scholarship funds demand an 80% average, and a prof helps a student keep that scholarship without having really earned it, that prof has colluded with the student in committing a kind of fraud because the student is taking money on false pretenses. If a sports league requires its players to pass all their courses, the prof who passes athletes just so they can play, is helping the team cheat. Such profs are cooking the academic books in much the same way crooked accountants fudge numbers in corporate backrooms.

People sometimes ask if I fail many students.  I reply that I never fail students, but sometimes, unfortunately, I am duty bound to bear witness to their failure. Even if they are 72.


 

What is a grade?

  1. Good comment of the question of grading. I totally agree that many people see grade as a gift in return for their attendance in the class and supposedly active participation. Many of my fellow students at UofT often tell me that they never understand why they always get such low grades when their paper had everything the professor asked. Grades are often not seen as the grading of a paper or work per sei, but as a “gift” (as you mentioned), in return for basic requirements.

    Yet I have to disagree on one point. You seem to imply that grades are always fair, and that if a professor gave a 79, well it is because the student deserved a 79 and not a 80. The problem with that is that it assumes that there is a very very specific meaning to each points between 60 and 100. Yet often it isnt so. A TA might give a certain grade to a student, not really seeing any difference between a 73 and a 76. One is simply closer to 70, the other to 80.

    Grades are often subjective, particularly when it comes to correcting essays. There are ample cases of professor raising the marks of students who had a very tough TA that did not correct the essays following the professor’s directives.

    Then, if a student happens to have gotten a 79 in a class, yet he needs 80 to keep a scholarship, I would definitely give him the one little point (giving that his story is true!). Because one point might have been lost for a very benign mistake during an exam. A wrong word or whatever might happen. “One point” should not determine a student’s access to a sport team, a scholarship, etc. It isn’t about giving a gift in this case, but rather understand that error might happen, and that thousands of dollars should not be lost just because of one little error or a TA’s random judgment.

    Of course, things are different when the student is failing in any case, or he is asking for a jump from 60 to 85. Drawing the line is not easy, and your solution is probably the easiest. But some understanding is also necessary. By the way, I would probably not have failed her, but wouldn’t have given her a high grade either.

  2. I did forget to mention that you did balance your argument a bit (“And while a professor may reasonably tweak a final grade if she feels the student’s arithmetical score does not precisely match her success in the course”).

    And also you seem to imply that what is wrong, is the outright falsifying of a student’s grade by a professor.

    But it’s important that professor do not take this to an extreme and show no mercy.

  3. I’ve seen students who’ve wanted to boost their grade a little given the opportunity through an extra assignment, which seems pretty reasonable to me.

  4. Michel, I think the problem is that, by and large, professors, markers, and TAs already overwhelmingly give students the benefit of the doubt on every single thing they mark. The instances of a marker or TA systematically undervaluing the work of the students is, to my mind, pretty small. TAs receive performance evaluations from their supervisors and students, and have to field complaints from students if their marking is problematic–on a pragmatic level, erring on the side of caution saves the TAs a lot of headache down the road.

    The problem too, is that your argument cuts both ways. Maybe a student who received an 80 should have received a 79. Maybe that 51 should have really been a 49. Left alone, these should average out with the 79s that should be 80s, etc. but if professors systematically only increase scores in these situations, then what you end up with is grade inflation.

  5. In response to the first comment posted – there is a significant difference between a 79 and an 80. One is a B+, the other an A-. As both a student and a TA, I was told that giving a student a 79 was a strong message. This message was that the paper was good, but was just missing the smallest extra effort required for an A. I think that this distinction is extremely important. And there isn’t a single TA out there who hasn’t been taught to make this distinction, both as students and as markers. That’s how they made it into grad school and became TAs in the first place.

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