Thursday, December 29, 2011

Profs, do you actually think about how you grade? (by MaryBelle)

Professors do not seem to fully understand what grades “are” or why grading criteria are important to thoughtfully develop.  Since there are some faculty members who read this blog, I thought I would outline some specific issues. 

Also, this makes me really mad or something.  Grr.

So what “are” grades?  Grades are essentially a currency that every professor gets to personally design (within certain limits that I’m not entirely aware of).  They are an obvious motivational tool, but they’re also the most clear-cut and objective signal a student can receive regarding their performance in a particular class. 

What do these “signals” accomplish?   Like all communication, they impact behavior–in this case, we’re mostly referring to the amount of time spent preparing for a course, studying methods chosen, and so on.  

This behavior is important–or we assume it to be.  I mean, if you’re not a professor who believes that the way your students interact with you and their coursework is important, I suppose you should just stop reading.

Finally, I wonder if anyone would dispute that the best behavior educators can possibly encourage is the learning of course-relevant skills and information that will ideally have an ultimately positive effect on students’ lives for the foreseeable future.

So we have these four bolded ideas that I feel are rather inoffensive and that almost everyone can agree to.  Restated:

1)     Grades are an effective method of communicating performance in class
2)     Communication impacts behavior
3)     Behavior is important, and influencing it is of considerable relevance to the idea of education
4)     The behavior educators should most encourage is the learning of important, course-relevant information

“Therefore,” professors should take their grading systems seriously as tools that directly shape learning.  And some of them probably do! 

I just think they kind of suck at it.

I’ve been talking somewhat abstractly for a while, so enough of that—here are some concrete mistakes I’ve seen made, repeatedly, over my years of schooling.   These aren’t… really huge deals or anything, and they might even be considered “best practice” for all I know.  But if you’re going to take grading systems seriously as useful communication and reward tools that make meaningful differences in our lives, maybe you should be thinking about them anyway:

Unforgiving scales.  “Unforgiving” in the sense that past failures are, in virtually all courses, treated with equal weight to present successes.  This is off-putting for a number of reasons, the most important being that improvement is really super cool and is nothing if not evidence of that “learning” thing we were talking about before.  I had a statistics professor who shifted people’s grades up at his discretion based on improvement trends.  Seemed to work fine!

“Secret” grades.  This mostly manifests itself in the form of participation scores, which are “hidden” until the end of the semester (at which point it’s obviously far too late to do anything about them).  This can reach an extreme in certain courses that actually provide no objective feedback, ever.  Neither of these is a totally invalid way of teaching, but they’re both fundamentally unsettling in a way that demands a greater level of trust between professor and student than normal.  If you don’t have that, or if you’re just not willing to put in the time, then please just show me my grades so I know where I stand whenever possible. 

Nitpickiness (for lack of a better term!!).  It totally makes sense to point out errors in a student’s work—even tiny ones or ones based on ambiguous guidelines (which is a topic for another day).  That doesn’t mean you have to dock points for every little Excel formatting error, though.  Some students—good ones!—will see those lost points, conclude that you care too much about maybe-slightly-impertinent things, and proceed to grind the next assignment beneath their heel in an hours-long perfectionist studybinge.  You’ll love the final result, but it isn’t really useful for fulfilling (4).  If anything, intrinsically motivated students may become deflated or bored by this sort of unnecessary enforcement of minor details (hi!). 

This is all just scratching the surface, of course—I could go on about the numerous design issues plaguing the classes I’ve attended (even the good ones!) for hours and hours, and even the items listed above are simplified to the extent that I’m fairly dissatisfied with them.  But the ultimate idea here is that “designing grades thoughtfully is important.”  Hopefully I’ve demonstrated that.  Grrr.


  1. Your fourth supposition is flawed. We are here to learn much more than the timeline of American westward expansion or the relationship between the human femur and age at death. Formatting an Excel file matters outside these walls, therefore it has to matter while we're here. This blows up your "nitpickiness" argument.

    Participation points are easy to get. Read the material, raise your hand, get points. Easy. There's no secret to participation.

    Which leaves timely communication on the table. If a professor does not have an assignment graded before the next assignment is due, they should adjust their dates. I need to see how the first paper was graded, what the professor valued and devalued, so that I can do my best work and avoid surprises. Two-way communication is key and timely communication can make the semester easier for students and instructors alike.

  2. "Formatting an Excel file matters outside these walls, therefore it has to matter while we're here."

    Sure, it matters. The question is whether docking points is an appropriate way of communicating that. Largely speaking? Probably not. At the very least, it's a practice that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, because in my experience it's been distracting at best.

    "Participation points are easy to get. Read the material, raise your hand, get points. Easy. There's no secret to participation."

    Except for the part where I am not actually shown what my score is until the end of the semester. That's the definition of a "secret."

  3. MaryBelle, are you unaware of the degree to which you participate in class?? If you do not know the basis on which the participation grade will be determined, ask the prof. If you want a sense, midterm, of your participation grade, ask the prof! No secret there.


  4. Right. Well, what you are suggesting is akin to an eBay seller telling me to track the status of the package they're sending me. I *should* do that-- it's the responsible thing to do! But as the provider of a service, the seller should feel pretty obligated to cater their service to the needs and desires of the buyer as much as they feasibly can. Every buyer's situation is different, and some might be lazy punks or whatever, but they're all buyers just the same.

    The "do it yourself" argument can be used to justify all sorts of silly things. It's not a valid justification of poor service *or* product design.