26 January 2014

Sure, My Grades are Inflated. Got a Problem with That?

The first assignment of the semester always generates cries of dismay.  I use the full range of numbers available to me in my grading rubric and most students earn scores that, if they were correlated to a conventional letter grading scale, would end up being a high D or low C.  "Pay no attention to what the letter grade would be!" I exhort them.  "The grading rubric is a guide to help you build on your strengths and recognize your weaknesses--it's a tool, not a label of your worth as a student and human being.  Let the numbers guide you as you rewrite the paper, and you'll do much better on the next version."

And then I reassure them, "the way the grading usually works in my classes is, you do everything you need to do and show up to class regularly, you'll get some kind of B.  Put some muscle into and get interested and you'll get some kind of A.  People usually only get C's or lower if they miss a lot of classes, hand in papers later, and pass up opportunities to revise their work."  I mean it because it's true: that's how my grades usually work out.  Students rewrite a lot of papers, they do a lot of talking and interacting in class, they become better thinkers and writers, and  I end up giving out a lot of A's when the final grades come out.

If I could come up with a good reason why the world would be a better place if I gave out more C's and D's, I would do so.  But I can't.

The gatekeeping function of higher education?  If students aren't grad school material, a GPA boosted by an A in my class isn't going to get them in the door independent of their personal statement and recommendations.

Standards?  A student who does all the work in my class, pays attention to my feedback on papers, and actively engages with the material in class discussions and exercises will know more and write better at the end of the semester, and I'm happy to reward improvement independent of the students' starting point.  Every effort I've ever made to make more fine-grained distinctions between students has ended up rewarding the students who came to the class already well-versed in literary study and highly practiced in standard written English, and it penalized those for whom the material was more of a stretch.  In upper-level classes for the major, that may be a distinction worth preserving, but in general education classes designed to make the study of the humanities available to the full range of students, it seems more desirable to encourage improvement than to rank students.

Incentives for learning?  Students are more willing to take risks and try new ideas if they know there's a net.  High stakes assignments scare them into relying on the techniques that got them through high school.  They try to game out a right answer that they assume must be out there somewhere rather than pushing themselves to understand the material.

The common theme here is feedback--lots of it, throughout the semester, on papers, on exams, in small assignments, in class discussion, in office hours.  When students feel like a real human being is paying attention, catching their mistakes, encouraging them to think more deeply, they step up and respond.

I've also been surprised about how non-strategic students can be about their grades.  For several years, I made participation on a course blog a central requirement of my courses.  Students had to post a certain amount in order to meet the basic requirements for the course, but there was always an ample "extra credit" provision that allowed them to count posts in excess of the requirements towards their final grades. My extra credit policy and my blog grading was so generous that students could have easily compensated for lackluster grades on difficult papers and exams by posting a lot on the much easier blog.  I only recall two students who figured that out and exploited it as a workaround for their mediocre formal writing skills.  For the most part, students who exceeded requirements on the blog also performed well on papers and exams, and students who didn't do well on papers and exams tended to post at or below the minimum on the blog.

The difficulty students have in strategizing makes me skeptical about the usefulness of contract grading, where students decide in advance what grade they want, and then they agree do that much work. There's a lot to be said for any approach that encourages students to reflect on their choices and take responsibility for them.  As Brooke Lester points out, if a "mature, typically-responsible student can eyeball my syllabus and opt out of some assignments (maybe planning around commitments in other classes or at work or at home), and is willing to accept, eyes-open, the consequences for her grade, then I’ve got no problem with that at all."  Are students that good at figuring out in advance what will best work with their other commitments?  And should helping them do that be our priority? It's a necessary life skill--I'm just not sure that college classes are the best place to emphasize it.

My two problems with contract grading:

1.  It reinforces the idea of education-as-vocational-training.  It encourages students to think about the credential, rather than the learning that the credential represents, and it rewards a "just-this-much-and-no-more" parsimoniousness.

2.  It undermines the transformative potential of the subject matter.  Students start out believing that they don't know enough to excel with unfamiliar subject matter, that they're "numbers people" destined to struggle with the mushy subjects like literature, that they're bad writers, that they just aren't that good at the courses they take because they have to.  Some of them may be right, but a number of them can discover that they know more than they think they do, that habits of skepticism that serve them well in the sciences can be adapted to the study of the humanities, that academic writing on non-STEM subjects can still involve rigorous standards of argumentation, that cultural artifacts are interesting objects of study, that making sense of how imaginative works do what they do is fun and rewarding. Contract grading doesn't necessarily reduce that realm of possibility to a tedious "Do X for outcome Y" kind of equation, but it seems to encourage students to think in self-limiting ways from the outset.

Note: I'm taking a break here from the adjunct-roll I've been on--but the question of grading is not unrelated to the precarity of adjunct faculty.  It's a mistake for anyone without job security to grade more harshly than their colleagues.  Nonmajors can vote with their feet and take other classes (including classes in other departments) to fill their requirements.


  1. The only time I think it would would be if we really could give honest grades in freshman classes. I get these people in Spanish 3 who cannot say a word, and do not know that they know nothing because they have gotten Bs in Spanish 1 and 2. To me, B means competence; to them, it evidently means having passed certain kinds of tests they were heavily coached for. I asked one of the instructors about this: did so-and-so really do that well in your class, am I missing the right way to teach her? He said: "I do not remember that student but I will tell you that a B from me is iffy. It could be a low B, it could have been garnered by getting a lot of completion points; the actual achievement level could be closer to D. I do not stand by any student to whom I have not given A." BUT we have to let students down to D, progress to the next level, and it really drags program quality to a low floor.

  2. A really insightful post, thanks. I also responded briefly in the Comments section of the Seminarium post you link.

    I also wind up with inflated grades for which I don't apologize. While I don't tend to offer a lot of rewrites, I do assign a lot of short assignments beginning early in the course, with substantive feedback toward later efforts; I sometimes weight late work more heavily as well. Students quickly discover that if they simply do what's assigned, in the way that it's assigned, on time, then a "B" is assured and an "A" in reach…then they get busy reaching. Students destined for a C or lower (that is, those who aren't going to do the work) typically drop out by mid-term, which is good for them (no failures on transcript) and good for me. So the median grade ends up around 90-92%? Bothers me not at all.

    On education-as-vocation and the impossibility of grading with integrity as an adjunct, I comment back at the post you link. But, short version: Amen!

    I'm so glad to have discovered your blog! Thanks again for such a thoughtful post.

  3. @profacero: part of the problem is that grades signify such different things for different kinds of learning. In fields like foreign language or math I can see a case for rigorous and fine-grained standards that ensure that students only go on to take a given course once they've mastered a prior course.

    Were I Queen of Higher Ed, I would even go a step farther and decree that subject matter that involves a fairly linear kind of skill-based mastery NOT be divided into individual semester-long course units. The first two years of study would proceed in a lab/workshop format centered on hands-on activities, with externally administered exams that could be taken at each students' pace. Once they achieved a sufficiently high score on all the exams, they could pass on to advanced study (which could happen after six months of work, or 3.5 years, depending on how quickly the student learned).

  4. @Brooke Lester: thanks for your kind words. When "a "B" is assured and an "A" in reach…then they get busy reaching."--EXACTLY! I'll look forward to following your adventures with the contract grading format on Seminarium.

  5. As long as we're on the theme of not apologizing, I give non-major students significantly lower grades than they are accustomed to receiving, for which I don't apologize.

  6. See, this is why I feel no need to blog--you're saying everything I might have said but never even thought of saying! Thanks for helping explain myself to myself. I, too, give what might be seen as inflated grades, but they reflect pretty clearly the level of engagement in my classes as well as the way I've weighted written assignments against exams. So I'm no longer going to apologize for this, even in my own head.