After my brief post about grading on Monday, I received a number of questions and comments about my policy. I'd like to expand a bit on my grading philosophy.
I grew up the son of two college professors. My late father taught philosophy for forty years, first at the University of Alberta and then at UC Santa Barbara. My mother taught the same subject, as well as religious studies and humanities, at Monterey Peninsula College from 1975-2003. As a kid, I can remember my mom during exam times: she would retreat to her study with stacks of blue books and papers, emerging periodically for coffee. There were frequent expressions of exasperation with what her students had failed to grasp.
I had my first experience as a "grader" when I first began to work as a teaching assistant at UCLA. The first course I TAed was a "Roman Studies" course offered in the Department of Classics in the spring quarter, 1991 (I took so many Latin courses, I might as well have been in that department). The professor, bless his heart, was a stickler for what he called "grade norming". Before we handed papers back to our students, we had "grade meetings." In these meetings, each of his six TAs had to share an example of what we considered an "A" paper, a "B" paper, and a "C" paper. We read the same papers, argued intensely, and were -- not surprisingly -- stunned by some of the discrepancies that appeared.
We found that there were a small number of superb papers that we all agreed were of "A" quality. But beneath that, subjective chaos! What one TA considered a strong B, another considered a high C. What I might consider a low C, another would consider absolutely hopeless and undeserving of a passing grade. We were grading essays on a wide variety of criteria: content, style, the strength of a thesis, the grace of an argument. The professor in charge of all of us was very patient, urging us to learn from one another and to pay attention to the insights and intuitions of our colleagues. He also told us that grading in the Humanities would always be an inexact operation, as much based on art and impulse as on science and certainty. Interestingly, he never asked any of us to change the grades we had given after we had gone through the "norming" process, though he did ask the toughest and the most lenient of the TAs to consider changing their stances.
In my seven quarters as a TA at UCLA, I had only one other prof who made her TAs "norm". Most of the rest simply gave us absolute control over the grading. In theory, the professors were supposed to review each final grade the TAs assigned; in practice, most of the time the professors simply signed the grading sheets and went off to the south of France while their assistants made the final decisions unsupervised.
In my early years, both at UCLA and at PCC, I was a fairly easy grader. I was always a "tough A", but a very easy "C". There were some semesters where I failed absolutely no one -- except for plagiarism or a failure to turn in a term paper and a final. My old policy, born of a misplaced compassion and a need to be liked, was "if you show up, you pass." Students who came to office hours and showed genuine (or feigned) interest in the subject were likely to get easy Bs. It took me at least five years of full-time teaching at the community college to tighten my standards.
At Pasadena City College, we can't modify final grades with pluses or minuses. Several years ago, a proposal went before the faculty senate to allow us to do just that. I strongly supported it, but for a variety of reasons, my colleagues shot it down. Thus there are but five grades we can give, unmodified: A,B,C,D,F. Even now, that causes its own share of frustrations! Two students can both earn identical B grades, but one narrowly missed an A and the other barely scraped above a C. The difference in the work the two students did is immense, and yet the final record from the course doesn't reflect that. I find that maddening, and long for the day when I can give "A-", "B+", and "B-" grades.
At PCC, no one monitors the grades tenured professors give to their students. Tenured faculty get evaluated every third year. I've had tenure since 1998, and since that time, I've never been questioned about my grading distribution. Somewhere, someone collects data about which professors assign certain grades, but it is understood that we have absolute and final say over the marks we give. The only limitations on our grading decisions are the legal ones: we can't use grades to punish or reward, in exchange for money or sexual favors, we can't give grades based on race or sex or religion. On the rare occasions when a student does challenge a grade, the only way that they can get the grade overturned by the administration is to prove bias. The professor, like a defendant in court, doesn't have to prove anything. In my years at PCC, the administration has never overturned a single grading decision made by a tenured faculty member.
Whew, enough background.
Today, I grade using a mix of objective and comparative factors. In order to get an A on a paper, a student must have a solid argument and clear prose. I don't negotiate on that. On the other hand, I think that students do need to understand where they stand in regards to each other. If "B" means "superior" achievement (which is how the state defines a B), it must be superior to something. How can something be "superior" in a vacuum? If an A denotes excellence, it means the student has excelled -- and to excel means to surpass, and you've got to surpass someone! We can't recognize the good, the true, and the beautiful without also knowing the bad, the false, and the ugly -- that's a truth that is aesthetic, theological, and intellectual.
How other people do does matter in academia. Whether or not you get into grad school, or get a scholarship, depends not only on the work you do but on the work your competitors have done. Financial aid and admissions are zero-sum games, whether we like it or not. And refusing to recognize that reality in our marking of student papers does those students a tremendous disservice.
When people ask me about my comparative grading policies, I use a story from my running career. In 1999, I ran a lot of 10Ks. I was in the best shape of my life. One bright and shining day out near Marina Del Rey, I ran my all-time personal best: a 38:49. (Trust me, I couldn't get within six minutes of that today.) I was immensely proud of my effort! Of course, it was a popular race with thousands of entrants. Despite my "PR", I only finished 28th overall and 5th in my age group. No medal or ribbon for me.
A few months later, I did a small community 10K at the Rose Bowl. On the second lap of the race, to my own amazement, I took the lead. Me, with a police motorcycle escort! I was ecstatic, feeling like a Khalid Khannouchi or a Paula Radcliffe. I looked over my shoulder and saw I had 200 meters on everyone else, and I actually slowed my pace, checking to make sure I had enough in reserve if I needed to kick at the end. Everyone else faded (it was a hot day), and for the one and surely only time in my life, I felt tape across my chest. I won the race -- in a very pedestrian time of 40:59, more than two minutes slower than my PR. I got a medal and a ribbon (alas, no prize money). I was very proud, even if I had only defeated a grand total of fewer than fifty rivals.
The point? In life -- and real life is a lot like running -- whether or not you win or place is as much about who you are competing against as it is about your own efforts. (Good thing God doesn't work that way!) That may sound positively Darwinian, and to compare road racing to grading will no doubt cause some of my readers to splutter in indignation. But when it comes to grants, scholarships, jobs, prize money, and everything else, we work and study and compete in community. Grades ought to do more than reflect an individual student's mastery of the subject; grades should also reflect where that student ranks in relation to his or her peers. Mind you, it's not an either/or, but a both/and. I would never use purely comparative grading, as that might encourage a conspiracy of mediocrity among my students ("Hey, guys, let's all write equally sloppy papers"). Individual understanding of the material is vitally important, but that factor is only part of the final grade -- the other part is designed to let the student know where it is that they stand relative to their friends, colleagues, and, in the final analysis, fellow competitors.
I've developed this policy over fifteen years of college teaching, and am accustomed to defending it. But if you don't like it, have at it in the comments section.
Note to Col Steve: I'll answer your question in an upcoming post.