Friday, February 20, 2009

Student Grade Expectations

To most of us teaching here this is probably not news, but I thought it was worth posting:

NY Times: Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes

I suspect that the gut reaction for most of you is the same as for me: disgust. Grades are a mode of assessment, not only of effort, but of the quality of a student's work (perhaps on the theory that this, in turn, is a way of assessing that student's skill or skill+effort). When I read that students are willing to ask, boldly, "what else is there?" when considering grading criteria beyond effort, I am left in abject horror.

That's what my attitude is (well, most of the time). But what should it be? Certainly, grades aren't just about effort, but is it really still reasonable to treat a C as an acceptable grade for a diligent student who meets our expectations? And if not, what does this mean for grades; or, rather, what do grades mean? Should graduate schools (or whoever cares about undergraduate grades) just treat transcripts as reports on how hard-working their applicants are?

And even if we should grade that way, can one, in good conscience, continue to do so knowing that one is alone in so doing, and that one's students will suffer for it in terms of comparative standing? What do we do when we have to choose between our convictions about grading and our convictions about fairness?


  1. I recognize the comments in that article. They should much like the things that my students say when I explain to them why their paper really does deserve the B or C that I gave it. I've actually had a student say to me "This is a good paper! I worked really hard and there aren't any spelling mistakes at all!" I had given him an F because he apparently ignored the assignment. He was right that all of his words were correctly spelled, though.

    Kids seem to expect that if they do something (anything?) they should get an A. And not an A-, either.

    I generally grade as though a were the average grade. Perhaps that's a bit of grade inflation on my part, but it seems right. The grade of C means that they need to do some more work to reach the average.

    I have the mentality that grades must be earned and that an A is exceptional. The students seem to think that they should automatically get an A, and that anything subtracted from that had better be justified.

    I'm not sure what to say about the last paragraph in the OP. I have heard that there are departments in my school who give graduate students almost nothing but A-grades. My department, on the other hand, is perfectly happy to give B-grades. I think that's a bit unfair, but I tend to think that it's unfair to those grads in the A-giving-programs. When there is no way to differentiate between the exceptional students and the average students it is the exceptional ones who lose out.

  2. Part of the problem is that different departments have different "normal" grades. In some departments anything but an A for a graduate student is the same as a D or an F for an undergraduate.

    What distinguishes the exceptional students is not grades but other things.

    Is that right, fair, just, ethical? Ah, that is a completely different question.

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