Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Grades: Touchiest Subject for a Lot of Us

Recently, grades have been on the minds of a lot of us.  We are writing exams, grading, and fielding annoying emails after grades were posted about why they didn't get the grade they "wanted" or even worse "deserved".  The most interesting exchange I had was in regards to one student who was getting a straight D in the class.  The student wondered why the curve our prof instituted didn't lead to an A- on the final grade.  Truth be told, the student began bombing mid-semester (as shown by the grade book and even with a HEALTHY curve, they only ended up with a D).  But still, they "deserved" the A- at least!

Grades are rough.  When I was teaching on my own and in charge of writing up assessments on papers, it was hard to express myself in a way I felt comfortable with two main types of students - those who are trying and failing (the ones I WANT to improve and help) and those who are obstinate, flippant, and rude (the ones that don't try).  Many of us fight with ourselves about whether to just pass the first type of student knowing full well that they tried.  This was especially hard in a required but otherwise out-of-the-ordinary class like stats.  Students in this class most likely won't use methods training again - especially not those barely passing!  Never will they need this info for their daily lives working a standard desk job.  The latter type of student makes your life so much harder. You know they will protest the grade.  You know they may even harass you outside of office hours.  Last year, this meant a student stalked me in the library, waited for me outside my office door, and also, most likely, left notes on my car.  I was freaked out.  I just wanted to pass him to get him out of my hair.  In the end, the faculty member in charge of the grad-taught labs divvied up the final grades so I, in the end, just handed it over.  Most people will pass these annoying students because they don't want to have them repeat the class next year.

But is that the best solution?

A recent article in the Boston Globe points out concerns about grade inflation at Harvard.  My advisor from Indiana, my undergrad, complained about this problem from when he was doing his doctorate there.  He claimed students were basically precious snowflakes that couldn't put up with the mighty blow of being dealt anything less than an A.  After all, many of these kids had probably never seen an A- in their lives prior to college.  And, I admit, an A- seemed like a big, fat F to me in college - but not because I'd never seen one, my 3.95 college GPA was significantly higher than my high school GPA.  I hated most of high school and only graduated with like a 3.85.  I didn't try.  I was just capable of more.

But it's not just at Harvard.  Most of us can attest to the fact that we face pressures when grading - pressures leading to a test that has a 68 average being not "perfect" enough and an 85 average being "too high".  Shooting for that perfect 75 is often really hard.  And is it fair to shoot for it? You have to decide but, as you do, you also must answer to the department chair, the DUS, and, of course, a future tenure committee.  More importantly, you have to answer to your students.  They will, most frighteningly, determine your worth on teaching school job markets.  You can't piss them off too much or your reviews will look like crap.  Hiring committees matter.  Also, you will have students parading into your office and crying.  And, as I learned earlier this year, parents calling you screaming.

So, it's your choice.  You can either risk it and fight the grade inflation or you can pass the students who will cause an uproar.  What's the solution?  I really don't know.

I do know that certain appeals processes should be made more realistic and that it really should be made clear to students that we are not customer service representatives.  They are here to learn.  Should they choose not to, their grades will suffer.  Our current appeals process almost makes the students WANT to try.  Faculty members who have come here in recent times have been almost blind-sided by how willing students are to waste their time on appeals.  These students are usually here on aid that is somehow merit-based.  Financial aid will not only take away their scholarships, they will also require them to pay back loans on classes that they have stopped attending well before classes were done for the year. These students usually bring up bogus medical excuses and can threaten to sue.  A prof I worked for (in a class I TA'ed) had a student threaten legal action after a 6-month-long appeal went nowhere.  That case also went nowhere but it isn't the only example of such things in the last 4 years since I got here.  Appeals should be granted in legitimate situations.  And the burden of proof about things shouldn't rest on the shoulders of the instructor but the student.

I think the best solution is best summed up by a video that's been floating around my facebook for some time now:

Keep saying "no" and alternative "I'm sorry but...".  It usually works and then you don't completely lose your ability to stand strong.

What say you on such topics?  How do you cope with grade protests?  Grade inflation?