Thursday, 19 February 2009

QotD, screw ever getting a teaching award edition

The entitlement society marches on:

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. [Jason] Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

It will come to no surprise to any observer of contemporary collegiate culture that Mr. Greenwood is a kinesiology major, often a refuge for future gym teachers and meathead football coaches who think the education school’s curriculum is far too challenging. “Doing everything the teacher asks of [you]” isn’t A-worthy; doing everything the teacher asks of you better than most other people do it and achieving mastery thereof is A-worthy. And I say that as someone who has historically been a relatively lenient grader.

Bonus quote:

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

Via QandO, Critical Mass, Orin Kerr, and Jacob Levy, the latter of whom dissents in part.

Snark aside, I think “consumer demand” by students is a less compelling aspect of the problem—or at least the dimension of the problem I see at TAMIU, which is rather different than the dimension I observed teaching at selective private institutions—than the complicity of faculty and—particularly—administrators in encouraging faculty to reward students for occupying space and going through the motions in a misguided effort to retain students (and, perhaps more importantly, their associated free money from state and federal coffers—the marginal cost of student instruction is essentially zero from an administrative perspective) in college who have neither the interest nor actual need to complete a four-year degree.

My past thoughts on grading in general can be found here and here.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Lounging laptopless

After grading 2008 exams in 6 days, loitering on the deck with my Nokia N770 and a Yuengling is nicely relaxing. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get done early so I can get the full beach experience.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Dangerous curves

In response to an Orin Kerr post about a grade complaint lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts, Megan McArdle asks why professors use curves in the first place:

[W]hy do faculty, particularly at the undergraduate level where the task is mastery of a basic body of knowlege, set exams where the majority of the students can’t answer a majority of the questions? Or, conversely, as I’ve also seen happen, where the difference between an A and a C is a few points, because everyone scored in the high 90’s? Is figuring out what your students are likely to know really so hard for an experienced teacher?

I’ve spent a lot of time the last four years looking into psychometric theory as part of my research on measurement (you can read a very brief primer here, or my working paper here), so I think I can take a stab at an answer. Or, a new answer: I’ve blogged a little about grading before at the macro level; you might want to read that post first to see where I’m coming from here.

The fundamental problem in test development is to measure the student’s domain-specific knowledge, preferably about things covered in the course. We measure this knowledge using a series of indicators—responses to questions—which we hope will tap this knowledge. There is no way, except intuition, to know a priori how well these questions work; once we have given an exam, we can look at various statistics that indicate how well each question performs as a measure of knowledge, but the first time the question is used it’s pure guesswork. And, we don’t want to give identical exams multiple times, because fraternities and sororities on most campuses have giant vaults full of old exams.

So we are always having to mix in new questions, which may suck. If too many of the questions suck—if almost all of the students get them right or get them wrong, or the good students do no better than the poor students on them—we get an examination that has a very flat grade distribution for reasons other than “all the students have equal knowledge of the material.”

It turns out in psychometric theory that the best examinations have questions that all do a good job of distinguishing good from bad students (they have high “discrimination”) and have a variety of difficulty levels, ranging from easy to hard. Most examinations don’t have these properties; the people who write standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and GRE spend lots of time and effort on these things and have thousands of exams to work with, and even they don’t achieve perfection—that’s why they don’t report “raw” scores on the exams, instead reporting “standardized” scores that make them comparable over time.

If you go beyond simple true/false and multiple choice tests, the problems become worse; grading essays can be a bit of a nightmare. Some people develop really detailed rubrics for them; my tendency is to grade fairly holistically, with a few self-set guidelines for how to treat common problems consistently (defined point ranges for issues like citation problems, grammar and style, and the like).

So, we curve and otherwise muck with the grade distribution to correct these problems. Generally speaking, after throwing out the “earned F” students (students who did not complete all of the assignments and flunked as a result), I tend to aim for an average “curved” grade in the low 80s and try to assign grades based on the best mapping between the standard 90–80-70–60 cutoffs and GPAs. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but in the end the relative (within-class) and absolute grades seem to be about right.

Update: More on grading from Orin Kerr here.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006


Except for a few stragglers, my grading is over for the semester. I didn’t have a lot of laughs, but the student who wrote that one of the issues supported by Joe Biden was the genocide in Darfur easily won the “bad sentence structure leads to exactly the wrong conclusions by the reader” award. (Other sources inform me that, in fact, Sen. Biden is opposed to the genocide in Darfur.)

Or, as Ryan put it once to Dwight on The Office, “I don’t think that means what you think it does.”

Thursday, 4 May 2006

Grading quotes

Continuing the theme: one of my future colleagues at SLU had a postcard that said “Grading is Violence” up in her office, which gave me a bit of a chuckle.

And, since it’s been a while, here’s a NewsRadio quote from the first season episode “Big Day,” where Jimmy is awarding the annual bonuses to the staff:

Dave: So, big day, huh?
Jimmy: Exactly. Big day. You stoked?
Dave: Uh, yeah, yeah, I suppose so, sir. And you?
Jimmy: Me, I’m miserable, Dave. Yeah, figuring out the annual bonuses is pure hell.
Dave: Oh, why?
Jimmy: Well, you got to take a living, breathing human being and put a dollar value on its head. It’s, uh, the devil’s work, Dave. It’s bad hoodoo.
Dave: Yeah, it sounds like it.
Jimmy: Yeah, it used to be the hardest part of my job.
Dave: Oh, what changed it?
Jimmy: I made it the hardest part of your job.
Dave: When did that happen?
Jimmy: Just now.
Dave: Well, thank you sir.

I think grading is the hardest part of my job—and grading essays is the worst. The only things I have discovered thus far that work well are (a) making the scores out of as few points as possible (I’ve started using 15 as a baseline) and (b) coming up with an objective grading rubric with a few basic point values (i.e. 10, 12, 13, 15) described and standardized adjustments for things like grammar. I don’t think it works perfectly but it’s better than the random walk that my grades seemed to be based on before.

Grade this

Steven Taylor makes a point about grading that I should nail to my office door, or at least my Blackboard announcements page. It simply amazes me how much grade-grubbing I get, and my ex-students will generally attest that I am not a tough grader to begin with, at least on above-average work—I’m still not quite sure how I landed in the toughest 40% of graders at Millsaps, but I doubt it was through any conscious effort on my part.

To give an example: my methods class essentially got 20% of their final grade gratis and the average final paper grade (worth 30%) was around an 87; even with a somewhat tougher set of midterm grades, the class average going into the final is just over 90%. Granted, I don’t expect the average to stay above 90 after the final, but nobody who did the work and made an honest effort is going to get out of the class with less than a B-.

Thursday, 16 June 2005

Reducing grade grubbing

Michelle Dion offers some sound advice to those instructors who want to reduce student lobbying for grade changes, inspired partially by this WaPo op-ed from earlier in the month.

I think a well-defined, clear grading policy is key; while I don’t do everything Michelle does (I don’t have enough time in my life to track attendance, and anonymous grading is unlikely to work in small classes anyway—even if I had the TA support to do it), I always make it clear at the outset what assignments are worth. It doesn’t eliminate the complaints, and sometimes I do make clerical errors that would lead to legitimate complaints anyway, but it does reduce them somewhat.