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July 17, 2006



Why on earth would it matter if I had the only "A" or was one of hundred? I don't really see school as a competition, except with myself. It is to show that I have learned the subject material, not that I'm better than anyone else.


The original meaning of the word "grade" comes from the Latin gradus, which means "rank". To me, that's what grading is: a ranking of students based on their performance. Objective excellence is the dominant factor, but students deserve to know where they stand in relationship to others. School may not be a competition, but the job market will be -- and at the community college level, we need to be frank with our students about where they stand, while encouraging them to do better and better.


I don't like the whole concept of grading, really, in general. (And before anyone starts going off on "sour grapes" I've consistently earned "A"s and "B"s and have never dropped off the honor roll). I just don't feel that grades are really an accurate assesment of a person's skills or what they've learned.

For instance, I have many times done a "brain dump" on tests, where I cram a lot of knowledge in my short term, write it all down, take the test, and have completely forgotten what I memorized a half an hour after a test.

I can take an essay test, in a subject I have never heard of, and make a "C".

If it's a multiple choice test, I can again score consistently well, even if I know nothing about the subject, because of being able to play "one of these things is not like the other".

So really, all grades are demonstrating are how well one can work the system.

Why do students deserve to know where they stand in relationship to others? In my school at least, grades are private information: it's not something we get to know. And even if there is a "class ranking" it really doesn't matter: my "A" is an "A" whether or not it's a 98 or 91. Again, what does it matter if my neighbor scores worse than me? I know what I can do, and that's all that is important.

The job market is not school (oh boy is it not). And, where I was in college is not going to make a bloody bit of difference to my perspective employeers: when I go, they're going to want to know how many flight hours I have, what certificates I have, and who I know. They won't care if my GPA's 4.0 or 3.5. The only people who care what my GPA is are the people I'm begging scholarships from. So think about that: you might think that your "A" is indicitive of "average", but that 2.0 you're putting on someone's GPA means they might not be able to come back again next fall because most people think "C"s mean "not good enough".


Wow, that was rambling.

My points:

a) Grades do not necessarily demonstrate a mastery of a subject.
b) One's relationship to another in an acedemic setting is superflurous, and is not an illistration of knowledge or excellence in a subject.
c) The competition in school does not equate to the competition in the job market.
d) The common perception is that "A"s are meeting the requirements of the subject, and not exceeding the subject base. This perception is reflected in scholarships and grants, and that is why to be in "solid acedemic standing" or "good acedemic standing" is normally defined as 3.0 or better (most are 3.5). The system were "C"s are meeting the requirements of the class and then going above and beyond for "B"s and "A"s hurts students who need the 3.0 and 4.0 on their GPA in order to keep scholarships and grants.

Sorry about that. Preview is my friend.


How does your grading policy work out? Does it lower student opinions of you? Do you have to fight students or administration about it?

(Signed: Someone who's about to start teaching a college course.)


Well, Mandolin, with tenure I don't have to fight the administration much about anything.

Some students do complain. Usually they argue that since grade inflation has become the cultural norm, I am doing serious damage to their GPAs by insisting on a more traditional, rigid grading system. BTW, here are my grade percentages from last semester:

As: 15%
Bs: 32%
Cs: 44%
Ds: 2%
Fs: 7%

Most of those Fs are administrative (or for plagiarism). I would say that I give 47% of my students above a C! I have colleagues who are much easier and others who are much harder.

If you check out ratemyprofessors, you'll notice that usually there is a consistent correlation between perceived overall quality and overall easiness. If I were an untenured person, it would be hard not to keep that in mind. Balancing one's commitment to intellectual integrity with common sense survival skills is important. As a tenured lad, I don't need to care as much.


That's a very nicely written rubric ...
*makes a note that Hugo wrote it and stashes it for future use*



The "blood type diet" thing sounds like a load of crap. Asian cultures have used blood type as a way of telling personality, zodiac-style, for as long as blood typing has existed.

Your blood clotting factor has absolutely nothing to do with your metabolism, and it and your Rh factor are only two of scads of possible "factors" to look for in your blood. They happened to be chosen so blood could be transfused in most situations. But they have nothing to do with any part of you other than what makes your blood clot.

Please don't follow diet advice that is based on pseudoscience.

Kat with a K

In general, I agree with you that grades should mean something. But I think there's something to be said for context, too. If your grading system is wildly different than that of the majority of professors at your institution or in your field (and I'm not saying it is, obviously, as I don't have that information), I'd think it would be more constructive to work from within to improve overall standards, rather than to "punish" your students by evaluating them in a different way than their peers are evaluated - and in a different way that's "hidden," since the end result (the letter grade or GPA) looks like it should be congruent to the results of others. (It would be different if you were grading them with, say, colors, because then a third party would have to ask what "blue" meant, rather than just assuming that your B meant what everyone else's B meant.)

That said, I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment this evening when, before handing back papers, my professor said "I think you all got As." And, as a grad student, I think that rather than "easy" or "hard" grading, I'd prefer clear expectations and interesting assignments.


My boyfriend and I agree that it feels damn good to know we 100% earned our grades!


I'm A+ blood type also! I've never heard of this diet...obviously we can eat the same, if what you say about this diet is true. Let us know the particulars. Although, I don't believe in diets, whatever your diet is, should be the way you always eat. If you want to lose weight (which I can't imagine you do) then all you have to do is expand your aerobic work-out. All i"ve done this summer is added aerobic activity everyday (something I wasn't doing before) with no special diet, and I have seen a drop in inches...I don't know about weight. I don't own a scale, I can just tell by the thickness around the middle. If I'm getting thinner around the middle I know I'm doing okay.


Why do students deserve to know where they stand in relationship to others? In my school at least, grades are private information: it's not something we get to know. And even if there is a "class ranking" it really doesn't matter: my "A" is an "A" whether or not it's a 98 or 91. Again, what does it matter if my neighbor scores worse than me? I know what I can do, and that's all that is important.

I agree here. What you do personally is what matters. That's why I've never understood the logic in "Curving" grades. A grade should be unaffected by how a class does overall, and instead, how well you personally learned the material.

I'm not trying to lose a significant amount of weight, mind you. But I am tired of feeling tired so much of the time.

Hugo, if the Kabbalah video is any indication, you are already too thin. Maybe it was the lights...

Forget Peanut Butter and Coffee. Eat some red meat already...

David Thompson

But I start out my grading with a presumption of a C, of averageness, and then look for signs that this paper is more distinguished than the others to which it is compared.

Relativistic grading is cruel. Bobby can bust his ass and write a good paper that hits all the points and demonstrates insight and a good command of the subject and get his 'A', but add one or two brilliant kids in the class and Bobby gets a 'C' for the exact same work. I never liked curve grading, because the net result of my being in a curve class was to push everyone else's grades down. I dont think other people's grades should be based on what I can do.


I have strong feelings about the grading thing.

Grades aren't just a way of ranking and evaluating your students: they're also a way of communicating that evaluation to other people. In the case of your students, they're a way of communicating to four-year colleges how well your students have done in the class. It is very, very important that you communicate this effectively. What's at stake here is your students' ability to enter into the middle class.

In theory, you communicate your evaluation of students' work most effectively if you have a wide grade spread. If you give half the class an A, the admissions person looking at a student's transcript has no way of knowing whether the student was excellent or merely adequate, since the grade for excellent and adequate students would be the same. This does a disservice to the truly excellent students.

But here's the catch. The admissions person doesn't have any way of knowing your personal grading scale, unless it's somehow indicated on the student's transcript. If the transcript includes a grade spread for the class, then I think you're right on target. The person reading the transcript could see that a very large number of students got C's and infer that you're a tougher grader than most teachers and that a C isn't a terrible grade in your class.

But unless there's something on the transcript to indicate your grading scale, you're doing your students a tremendous disservice, because you're failing to adequately communicate how they did in the class. If other professors at your university treat a C as a terrible grade, indicating unsatisfactory work, then people reading transcripts from your institution will assume that you work that way too. Looking at an individual student's transcript, they will have no way of knowing that you work on a different grading scale than everyone else, and they'll just assume that the student blew off your course. Given that you teach courses on gender and sexuality, they may also assume that your student blew off your course because he or she harbors prejudices about the importance of the subject, when in fact he or she does not.

My younger brother went to a college that did not practice grade inflation and that had considerably lower average grades than its peer institutions. He graduated in the top quarter of his class with a B average. When his college sent out transcripts, they sent a note explaining the grading system and giving a statistical breakdown of grades in the college, so that the person reading it could evaluate what each grade meant. This seems to me to be a good way to communicate what grades need to communicate: you get a wide spread, so that it's clear how well a student really did in the class, but students aren't punished for going to a school that uses a tougher grading scale than other colleges. But I just don't see any way to do that at the level of the individual class or professor.

I'm a lot newer at this than you are, but my current policy is to try to adhere as closely as possible to the general grading scale in my department but to be brutally honest in written comments. I'm not sure this works so well, though, because the merely-adequate students often don't read the comments. Also, I spend a lot more time writing the stupid comments than I should.


And now I just realized that Kat with a K said what I said, but in a much less long-winded way!


What Hugo is describing isn't a curve. And given that he teaches at a community college, I doubt that his criteria for going above and beyond is of herculean proportions. No offense meant there Hugo, my mom taught at a community college for a long time. I heartily agree that it is good to separate the achievers. Otherwise, why work as hard as you can?

Stupid anecdote: When I was in college, my gen chem was BRUTAL. The median on tests was often around 30. So a 30 would be a B- or C+ depending on who was teaching that quarter. When a few students got around 70, you knew that they knew their shit. I look back on that class with fondness, proud that I got through it.


Sally and K, you might be interested to know we have no uniform grading scale in our department. One of my colleagues in history gives 40-55% As; another gives 6-7% As. (And no, I'm not telling who's who.) I certainly fall in between two extremes, but there is no agreed upon standard that we all share.

I agree that the college ought to send out an explanation of its grading system. But that's not my bailiwick, and if the records office isn't doing it's job, it's not an excuse not to do mine.

First and foremost, my obligation is to the subject itself. SECOND of all, my obligation is to my students. I got that order clear when I first started teaching. Every student "needs" an A for a scholarship, or to get into a better school, or to get a discount on their car insurance. If I take that into account, I ought to dispense As for basic competence and make my students and their parents happy. I'll also end up giving them a false sense of their own abilities -- and set them up for rude awakening farther down the line.


No offense Hugo, but I have to say that that kind of grading rubric drove me *batty* in high school and college. I was a high achiever, and I probably would be one of the ones who raised their hands to say to that they'd prefer to get one of five A's rather than one of 100 A's, but I'm not sure I'm convinced of your logic that this is somehow based on how the "real world" works.

I mean, if by the "real world" you mean your average salaried, office job (what a lot of college grads aspire to, and presumably are being prepared for), I don't really think people are evaluated by how they compare to everyone else. They're evaluated by how well they do their job, which of course stratifies people by relative ability.

Hmm. All of which is to say, I have no problem with the idea that C's should be average and A's should be rare, but only giving your students the nebulous guidelines of "do better than everyone else" is not my favorite. You'd do a better thing by figuring out *exactly* what it is that sets papers apart--you start to do this, by talking about insight and grammatical errors--and setting the bar for A's high enough that only 7 percent of your students, on average, hit it. (But theoretically, 100 percent *could*, if they tried hard enough.)

I think setting very high standards and being explicit about what they are might even produce better work--after all, there are always going to be some people who look at a rubric like that and say, "Why bother? I've never been the smartest kid in the class, so there's no way I'm going to get an A. Why bust my butt?" Whereas if you set the bar high, and it's theoretically attainable to everyone (even if hard to get to), people can at least feel like it's worth the effort to try.

Sorry to write such a long comment--this is something I felt strongly about in college (and evidently still do!). I always felt like I got the most out of the hard, hard classes where professors were very explicit about what it took in terms of content mastery and writing and so forth to get the A. At least I knew what I was shooting for and could work for it. The classes that were graded based on how you do in relation to other students were always easier for me, but I secretly loathed them, as I never felt I wanted to speak up in class or study with other people lest they find out you're the curve-killer.


AB, if you download my grading sheet, you'll see I am quite specific about what it is that generally constitutes an A -- and it isn't just "better than everyone else's." Mine is a mixing of objective and relative standards; one without the other is incomplete.

Oh heck, I'll just paste in my definition of an A:

An A means you’ve written an exceptional paper, marked by a complete absence of spelling or grammatical problems and a sophisticated understanding of the topic on which you are writing. An A paper is extremely well-organized, written with a more extensive vocabulary and with more skilful use of prose than a B or a C. An A paper defends its arguments with clear and convincing evidence, and does so in a manner that is more graceful and impressive than even above average papers. While an A paper does not have to be flawless, what few flaws it does have must be so minor in either form or argument that they in no way detract from its general excellence.


I did read your rubric, Hugo; I was responding more to your post where you say that "a grade lower than an A is not evidence of wrong-doing" but is rather an indication that you're not in the top 10 percent--I guess what I'm trying to say is that as a student I remember being very frustrated by that sort of feedback. (And I realize that since I'm not in your class, you are not posting entire conversations, it's entirely possible that I'm misreading how you actually interact with students about grades.) If it's not an A, there *is* something wrong with it--whatever it is that the paper lacks compared to that 10 percent of top papers (a novel or thought-provoking thesis, etc etc). I guess I read your rubric and your post and thought that it seemed that you are assuming that students would come to you asking about paper grades simply because they are concerned about the grade (and thus would be mollified by hearing that most other students also got a B or C) as opposed to being genuinely interested in figuring out why their paper didn't meet the A standard (and thus would not really care whether most other people get A's or C's).

Like I said, I have no idea how you interact with students, and it's possible your post and rubric are very different from how you give feedback when people come and talk to you. I'm just trying to point out that the goal of having an A mean something special while a C is standard doesn't necessarily mean that you have to do grading based on how students perform relative to each other, that's all.


Ah, I see above you've added to your post--I guess where we differ is that I don't think that "one without the other is incomplete." I prefer only the objective standards, or at least to only have the professor talk about the objective standards, as that was really the only thing that I had influence over.


Last thing I'll say on this issue. Since I think you are still vegitarian, you should call your doctor and order a blood test to see what your red blood cell count is. You should actually be doing this religiously every three to four months or so. Even if you eat a truck-load of spinach every-day, you might still be deficient in iron. And iron supplements are not the same thing since their absorption is inhibited by calcium intake in the same meal. Also, never take an iron supplement with vitamin E either.....iron supplements are actually not a good idea. You should get all your iron from what you eat. Although, taking vitamin C with iron (if you take a supplement) can increase iron absorption by 30% or so....But few formulas have the right combinations so it's best (I think) to just get your iron in your food.


I had to come out of lurk mode for the grade topic...

Though I understand the impulse to make grades "mean" something by having students see where they stand vis a vis other students, I think this is manifestly unproductive in evaluating what students have learned.

Hugo implies that if one starts from the premise that all students have an A and deduct from there that you end up with the type of grade inflation where an A equates to average. I have to disagree here. All of my students start out with an A, whether or not they keep it is up to them as an individual. I make my standards very clear,giving them handouts before the assignment is due on what an A paper looks like (clear thesis,good evidence, good analysis, minimal spelling or grammar errors, meets page requirements, no or few factual errors, etc.), a B paper, a C paper, etc. This means that regardless of what other students write in their papers, an individual student knows what is required to get an A and can thus expect that grade if they have met *my criteria* regardless of whether another student did it better.

This does not result in rewarding mediocrity, but instead sets the bar high to begin with and lets students meet it on their own intitiative. Curving just means that a student who put the work in but may not be as eloquent or polished as another is penalized for doing what I asked them to do to demonstrate what they have learned. I hardly think that is an equitable way to grade. And by the way, having clear, but high requirements that any student can meet curve be damned rarely results in giving 50% A grades (in some classes it will be 7%, another it could be 30% depending on class dynamics).

I have to say that as a student (though I would have been the person who threw the curve) I would have been offended if my teacher graded me, not on how well I demonstrated my understanding of the material, but on how well I demonstrated my understanding compared to the other students. That places far too much subjectivity into the equation- if it's an A paper, it should be an A regardless of how many other A papers you might have.

Col Steve

I don't really think people are evaluated by how they compare to everyone else --- hmm, my personal experiences in the public service and academia combined with interactions and conversations with peers, friends, and other people in the private sector make me question that statement. Kenneth Boulding (an economist) stated, "It is often not the absolute value of a variable which is significant but the difference between your value and that of some other comparable person or organization."

In general, people who rise to mid/upper-level management, especially in the private sector, are competent at meeting the goals and objectives set by their organization. So, how does senior leadership determine the "best" from an already "qualified" pool of applicants? Using only "objective standards" such as billable hours for lawyers or published articles/student evaluations for professors ultimately requires a ranking unless the standard just happens in the rare instance to equate the need (positions) with the supply (applicants).

I believe Hugo is right in haivng a "mixing of objective and relative standards." I'd also add "subjective standards" because criteria such as "sophisticated understanding of the topic, a more extensive vocabulary and a more skil(l)ful use of prose" do not lend themselves necessarily to hard objective standards in the social sciences. Subjective standards, as most everyone who's been on either side of a selection/hiring process knows, are part of the "real world" too.

Hugo - I am curious about this line: "First and foremost, my obligation is to the subject itself. SECOND of all, my obligation is to my students. I got that order clear when I first started teaching." A few months ago you wrote:

Somewhere, deep inside of me, is an omnipresent awareness that I'm serving something bigger. That something is partly the institution of the college; partly Clio, the muse of history; partly all of those who worked so hard to teach me; and, ultimately, God himself. It's difficult for me to be more precise than that. All I know is that I'm almost always aware that my teaching is a form of service, and not merely to my students themselves.

I'm curious how "Clio" (or gender studies) became first. I would think (leaving God aside) your first obligation would be to the support the mission of PCC and California Community Colleges -- The mission of Pasadena City College is successful student learning. I agree that mission does not mean necessarily pleasing the students/parents. What does an obligation to the subject actually mean?


The use of the subjective is unavoidable in grading, no matter how objective the criteria might be, which is why curving irks me even more.

The fact that in the "real world" (ugh...I hate that term) subjective criteria is often used for promotion does not mean it should be applied in education. I realize that in our corporatized model of higher education we are supposed to be training "workers" with "skills," but aren't we also trying to "educate" them. If education is the goal, I do not see how applying a corporate model encourages that. If all of my students master the material I required of them at the level I determined for a specific grade, why shouldn't they all receive that grade? This is where the corporate model breaks down (of course you cannot do this in most work environments) and professors are accused of grade inflation

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