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How do I reassure my students that my grading really will be “strict but fair” when the university has an “official” grading policy?

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( 3 months ago )

One of the biggest challenges I face year after year in teaching—and one that seems to affect my teaching evaluations—is that students are convinced that they are doing poorly in my course, no matter how much I reassure them that this isn’t the case.

Part of the problem is that the university provides a standard grading scale, and many of the instructors in my department strictly implement, a grading scale where you need to earn 90% of the available points for an A, 80% for a B, and so on. A fixed, unalterable predetermined scale irks me significantly for a number of reasons:

  • Chasing after an arbitrary goal is a bad way to actually learn material. I’d rather students worry about being able to apply what I teach them later than the grade they’re going to get.
  • Difficulty must be pre-judged, and gauged accurately, to ensure a fair grade distribution. This means if I screw up the difficulty of a question, I end up “hosing” my students.
  • There is little opportunity to recover from one or two mistakes on an exam during the semester, particularly if they are worth a large portion of the grade each. I don’t think one bad day should screw things up for my students.
  • I could impose an alternate scale but then I’d be committed to that—same basic result just different checkpoints.
  • Because of the nature of the class, it’s easy to make a mistake early on in a problem that means you can’t solve the rest of the problem, and the result must unfortunately be a low score (a student might make an error early and can only get 5 out of 20 points, but a mistake later on might result in a grade of 18 out of 20).

So I use the basic scale, but adjust it in the students’ favor at the end of the semester to adjust for what I think makes a fair and equitable grading distribution, and most students do reasonably well, because that’s an accurate reflection of their performance overall. But no matter how much I tell the students in the class that this will take place, no one really seems to believe it. (A typical distribution will typically be 20% A’s, with most of the rest B’s and C’s.)

Is there a way I can convince my students that even though my grading is strict but fair, even when students don’t get very good scores on individual graded exercises?

There has been some issue about the amount of adjustment going on, so I should probably clarify. Typically, the curve amounts to about two-thirds to a full letter grade: so the borderline for an A would be in the low 80's rather than 90. This curving amount leads to a distribution that is about 20% to 30% of the students receive an A, with about two-thirds B's and C's, and a smattering of D's and F's.

There was also the issue of how much grading is done, and it caused some confusion because I worked in two different positions where the grading is completely different. For the course I'm describing in this question, the students receive grades on every homework assignment, take a series of eight quizzes, and have a project in addition to a final. So students know what the "worst-case scenario" will be if there is no rescaling, so there is plenty of opportunity for feedback and course correction. My issue is absolutely not with grading—it's with grading on a predetermined scale.



( 3 months ago )

Dealing with the university "standard" is much easier than it seems, since they don't (can't) determine what a "point" is. So 90% of the available points is meaningless.

There is a form of grading called "cumulative grading" (maybe some other terms apply). Decide that the course as a whole is "worth" 1000 points. Create student exercises/exams/whatever that total to 1000. For example, Project A is "worth" 300 points toward the goal. When a student does an exercise they get a certain number of points up to 300. (See below for refinements.) Every piece of graded work has a value, possibly all different, and they add up to your total.

The list of tasks and their individual point "values" are listed in the syllabus. Students get to see the big picture, up front.

You can penalize for late work as you like.

The students always know exactly where they are. When they earn 700 points they know that they have a C or better - guaranteed. The University is satisfied and the student knows absolutely.

An additional element/benefit of this is that some students have many things to do and my class may not be the most important thing. They might be satisfied with a B if it gave them time to work on other, higher priority, things and they could do so without risk.

Important Refinements.

I always let students repeat/refine their work for regrading. They couldn't earn full points on regrading, but, say, up to 90% of the points lost at first grading could be returned to them if they improved the work sufficiently. This means, essentially, that if they got 270 points on that project, missing out on 30, that they could earn back 27 points leaving them only 3 points short of full marks.

Re-grading gave two advantages. One is that I never got whiny complaints about points. Second, when I thought a student (or team) really needed to revisit their work, I could give a relatively low score on the initial submission. They thus had more incentive to improve it.

You may not want to do the following, depending on your load and your students, but I didn't limit the number of times a student could re-do a piece of work. I made exceptions only if it got excessive as the down side, for a few students, is that they obsess over some early work, falling behind on the new. So it takes balance.

In computing summary grades, no student ever misses a mark by an insignificant amount. If someone is ten points out of a thousand short at the end of the term their grade is "rounded" up. This is perfectly justifiable as there is likely some (hopefully small) subjective element to any grading of projects and the like. I gave up on "objective" exams a long time ago, since they measure only poorly and can be greatly affected by other things such as student stress, etc.

Finally, at the end of the course, I looked at the grades overall according to the above measures. I asked myself whether this seemed to be a fair measure of what the group as a whole learned. Usually it was fine, but once in a while it turned out that the grading itself was somehow off, and the students were better than the curve suggested. I'd make an adjustment. No one ever questioned this, nor would they have any reason to. Tenure is a great thing, however, when you want/need to do something that the University frowns upon. At the end of the day (term) you need to be reasonable.

Note also that I had a reputation around the University of being very hard/strict/demanding. But the students always had a reason to feel good about themselves and how they did. This is, in some ways, nearly as important at the technical (Computer Science) things I taught them. Actually being more gentle than your reputation is a plus.

Also, note that the philosophy behind this whole scheme is "You aren't here to prove to me that you don't need to be here."

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