An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.


† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.