grading standard

I’m pulling this out of Andrew’s grading policy thread because I’m interested in responses to a very specific question (although the question is relevant to his thread). It is this: What is an A? If I can find nothing wrong with a student paper, they did everything I asked them to do, they worked hard, but it lacks creativity, pizazz, intellectual insight — is that an A or not?  Some papers are clearly better because they are “smarter” but is it fair to downgrade people just because they are not as smart as other people, when you cannot identify anything they could possibly do to improve except, you know, somehow have more to say? It may be relevant that in my system there is an AB grade between A and B. Other schools may be able to distinguish between A and A+ or A-. Do these intermediate grades affect your answers? This is an honors class, and pretty much everybody in it is basically smart and working hard, but some are “better” than others even so. Does that affect your answer? (This is intimately tied to the question of whether grading standards should be absolute or relative, and what the absolute standard should be.)

Note that this distinction is pretty much the same one we make in professional life between the journeymen/women who do well-crafted ordinary science and the “stars” who change our thinking with original insights.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

28 thoughts on “grading standard”

  1. I’m also interested in hearing what people think about this. I used to teach at a selective, private liberal arts college. There, the A was a marker of distinction. So a competently written paper that covered all of the requirements without “creativity, pizazz, intellectual insight” would earn a B and few students complained. In my current institution (a large state land grant institution with relaxed admission standards) the same paper would earn an A. Failure to award an A leads to grade-grubbing complaints and vindictive comments on teaching “evaluations”.

    This kind of bothers me… I find grading to be the single biggest challenge to University teaching. We try to take it seriously… to both evaluate and reward, but wonder about the validity. Today, I routinely award A’s to papers that hit all the criteria on my rubric… only to discover in conversation with the same student weeks after the semester that their “mastery” was of the most superficial sort (connected to my instructions and rubric).

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  2. I’ve puzzled over this myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that the grading scale is a matter of judgment. It can be relative (A is the top 15%) or absolute (A means you master skill X at a certain level). I also believe that grading is relative to the class. For intro soc, I’d definitely give an A to the dull, but competent paper. For senior thesis, this is clearly not enough.

    Corey wrote: “Today, I routinely award A’s to papers that hit all the criteria on my rubric… only to discover in conversation with the same student weeks after the semester that their “mastery” was of the most superficial sort (connected to my instructions and rubric).”

    I’ve stopped worrying about this. My belief is that professors teach classes, not mold students. We present material and evaluate based on written criteria in the syllabus. Unless it is a very intense form of education, like guiding a dissertation, we shouldn’t worry about whether the “A” student “really got it.” If they did what we asked, that’s enough. If we aren’t happy with the result, we should change the rules of the class, not blame the student.

    Finally, remember that students take about 35-40 college classes for the BA degree and people have lives, work, etc. We shouldn’t expect deep mastery from every student who walks in the class. If they do the readings and show some learning, that works for me.

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  3. I tend to use very specific rubrics in an attempt to minimize grading variation, so I agree with Fabio that if a student does everything I ask I cannot fault the student for not doing more. I also have a hard time grading students on things that I cannot teach well, so if they don’t understand the concepts and how to apply them I can work with them but there isn’t much I can say to a student who lacks creativity or pizazz. Although they do not count for more in a student’s GPA at my SLAC, I will give deserving students grades of A+ at the end of the semester.

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  4. This is a very interesting question. I struggled in grad school for many reasons. One of my struggles was that the things I thought were interesting were often not the same things that faculty thought were interesting, and the other students I found interesting in many cases were not the stars (nor was I, for the most part). It’s important as a faculty member to question who you think is smart, and why, because in my experience these things are very tightly linked to race, gender, and class background–and this is where subjective grading (which I understand is sometimes necessary) is highly problematic. I am still floored by the black, first generation college students who were dismissed as uninteresting, unoriginal and unprepared by people (faculty and fellow students) in my graduate program. I recently found out that one of these students, who persevered despite suggestions by faculty that quitting grad school was the best option, was granted tenure. Boo-yah!

    To answer your question in a more constructive way, I’d say it’s an intermediate grade, but try to get to know your students and help them to package and market their ideas appropriately, which is a big part of what knowledge workers do. Be honest with them that subjective appraisals are a big part of life, that they are not quite cutting it in your view, and try to help them pinpoint why. You can’t pretend that you’re not part of an elitist machine, but you can help the students to understand how the machine works and how to navigate through it.

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  5. A very interesting and important question, and as you can probably guess I have an opinion!

    I think an A grade is a sign of generally outstanding work, or as UNC puts it, “Mastery of course content at the highest level of attainment that can reasonably be expected of students at a given stage of development. The A grade states clearly that the students have shown such outstanding promise in the aspect of the discipline under study that he/she may be strongly encouraged to continue.” So I think a workaday assignment that is fully adequate but unexceptional (no spark or pizzazz) is clearly not an A. My syllabi explicitly peg such work as a B-, which is itself a concession since “A totally acceptable performance demonstrating an adequate level of attainment” is the definition of a C, and that sounds like the paper OW describes.

    On statements like “We shouldn’t expect deep mastery from every student who walks in the class. If they do the readings and show some learning, that works for me” and “if a student does everything I ask I cannot fault the student for not doing more”: True, but every student who walks in the class shouldn’t expect an A! Not assigning an A grade is not “faulting” the student! This mentality–that walking in the door starts you at an A, and all you can do is maintain or lose that grade–discourages students from trying to really excel. Adequate work is adequate, not A.

    I largely agree with armchairsoc’s post (@4), but worry that we can compromise intellectual integrity if we seek to “correct” for things we know about students’ backgrounds when assigning grades.

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    1. “True, but every student who walks in the class shouldn’t expect an A! Not assigning an A grade is not “faulting” the student! This mentality–that walking in the door starts you at an A, and all you can do is maintain or lose that grade–discourages students from trying to really excel. Adequate work is adequate, not A.”

      Let me defend and clarify my point. I never said that everyone deserves an A. you are attacking a straw man. The issue is whether we should hold students to undefined standards of creativity in a typical undergrad course.

      If a student does everything we ask, is it fair for someone to say that there is an intangible higher standard? If we are training grad students or evaluating faculty, the answer is clearly yes because scientific progress is the bottom line and it doesn’t always fit the mold. But for an undergraduate course, that’s pretty unfair in most cases. If someone can master regression but not be creative, I can live with an A.

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      1. I suppose that depends on the content of the class – “master” regression, if it’s a regression class, sure, that sounds like an A to me. But I still object to the language of “hold students to.” To hold students to a standard would be to refuse them an adequate grade for work that does not meet that standard. But an A is not an adequate grade; it is a superior grade. So withholding A grades except in the case of superior work is not “holding to” a standard, it is rewarding outstanding work with an outstanding grade.

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  6. To Andrew and the others with that view: you are comfortable giving a B to someone for whom you have no advice about how they can improve? I should probably note that this particular course meets the communication requirements and as such requires that I give students feedback on a draft to tell them how to improve.

    To armchair: this reminds me of reading with did earlier this term on class and childrearing & education. Affluent kids are taught to value their own opinions and to “think big.” Working class kids are disciplined into submission and looking to authority for the right answers. There’s also the cross-class skill of figuring out what is needed and doing the least possible work to get there.

    To both of you, rather than “correcting” for background, I’d rather figure out whether the thing I’m looking for is teachable.

    And to Andrew (back on your other post), the danger of your view of grades is that it makes us lazy. The easiest way to be sure we have a grade distribution that clearly distinguishes between people who did unusually well and others is to go easy on the teaching and let knowledge at the end of the term be mostly a function of knowledge at the beginning of the term and students’ intrinsic motivation. By contrast, the way to maximize the amount people learn is to do extra teaching for the people who need it more and are willing to work harder.

    All of which implies that external evaluators are the way to align the teaching and grading goals, so that an instructor has a motivation to help each student do as well as possible while standards are preserved.

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  7. I totally agree about external evaluations–I really think that if done well, that’s the right way to evaluate students’ success. But doing them right can be very, very expensive, and doing them wrong can be catastrophic.

    I would argue that spark and pizzazz are teachable, if only by example, but if you really don’t think so then I guess you’re right about the grading.

    Finally: I agree with the laziness concern, but think that’s a matter of insuring good pedagogy, not of the grades themselves. It’s very easy to be very lazy with the current standard grading system too, which is what I would argue has been happening.

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  8. The very first paper I wrote in college, about 8 pages maybe, was for an intro African-Afroamerican Studies course taught by Walter Allen at Michigan in 1988. When it came back from the TA it had not a single mark on it except ‘B’ at the end. I was crushed.

    In my big intro-level classes — N=200, which is a different beast from a writing course — I assign a paper and multiple-choice exams. If TAs grade the paper the grades usually cluster around 87, with a few sentences of feedback and marks showing good and bad. No matter how I come up with TA instructions, it always seems like they’re counting down from an ‘A’. So be it. The exams are quite discriminating and fair, so it evens out. I think students are more likely to think the grading is fair when they get better grades on the paper than on the multiple-choice exam. Then it seems like their effort and creativity was recognized (paper) though they should/could have studied harder (exams).

    Those who are really motivated can have all the attention they want. They meet with me, discuss the paper, outlines and drafts, etc.

    For final course grades usually 25% get ‘A’s, which is about how many really tried or were over-trained before hand. So I guess, in answer to your question, an ‘A’ in my course means you attended class to take quizzes, learned the facts I test for, and wrote a better-than average paper. The trifecta!

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  9. Phillip: You can improve this somewhat by insisting that everyone “starts” with, say, a B, and that higher grades require positive statements about what was good, while lower grades require positive statements about what was wrong.

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  10. I find this whole discussion a little foreign to me, I have to say — I think because it reminds me of how weird I initially found the U.S. system and its assumptions, especially this “Start from an A and see what you did wrong” thing, which I could never take seriously. I guess I’m the product of a completely different system.

    In particular, the initial hypo seems off:

    If I can find nothing wrong with a student paper, they did everything I asked them to do, they worked hard, but it lacks creativity, pizazz, intellectual insight — is that an A or not? Some papers are clearly better because they are “smarter” but is it fair to downgrade people just because they are not as smart as other people, when you cannot identify anything they could possibly do to improve except, you know, somehow have more to say?

    Isn’t it odd to set up the discussion like this? You’re saying, in effect, “Imagine I can find nothing wrong with [this] paper — apart from the fact that it’s not actually a very good paper, because it lacks creativity, intellectual insight, etc”. Like most people (surely), I’ve been on the sharp end of decisions like this as a student. Sometimes I could console myself by saying, truthfully, that I really disliked the subject or didn’t care about it at all, so I wasn’t motivated to do well. And sometimes I could say I just hadn’t put the required work in, although there were also cases where “putting the work in” would have meant basically dropping everything else I was doing, so there was a pragmatic problem. But there were also certainly cases where it was clear to me that it wouldn’t matter how the hell hard I worked, or how much time I put in, I just wasn’t good enough to excel at whatever the subject was. Irritatingly, this could happen in things I really cared about doing well at, so it wasn’t a question of motivation. In those cases, I “did everything I was asked to do” by the lecturer — everything, that is, except really understand the material, or have something interesting to say about it. I find it hard to say I should have gotten A or a 1H all the same.

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  11. I agree with Kieran. An “A” to me reflects excellence – excellence of organization, excellence of comprehension, excellence of execution, and yes, excellence of thought. Not everyone is going to be able to earn an “A” in my class, be it because they don’t have the time to cover everything I expect from an excellent paper, or because perhaps they just don’t have that creative spark (or dare I say it, intelligence) to write such a paper. This is completely separate from whether they work hard, or not. I have students who get As, who I’m sure could write papers in their sleep, and students who have put tons of work into B or C papers.

    I always tell students that learning to write well (execute an argument convincingly, in other words) takes practice. Thus, I would never expect everyone to start the “writing race” at the same point, even if all students are at presumably the same grade level to start with.

    My distinction between a “C” (which I term as filling requirements, but not going above and beyond), and an “A” or “B” is typically that A and B papers show deeper levels of analysis and thought. Both of those can be taught – I typically do it through pointing out in short writing assignments when a student has an original thought but could expand or explore that point more.

    Of course, teaching good writing skills requires time and energy on the teacher’s part. I probably have less trouble giving Bs or Cs sometimes because I know that I have given students feedback, and have made myself available to anyone who would like to improve their grades (although students don’t always take me up on this). In the end, I think it comes down to a matter of fairness. Does a second-rate paper lacking creativity, but not doing anything particularly wrong, deserve an A? For me, the answer is usually no.

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  12. “I think because it reminds me of how weird I initially found the U.S. system and its assumptions, especially this “Start from an A and see what you did wrong” thing, which I could never take seriously. ”

    You’re from a British-style education system, eh? One can tell.

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  13. The interesting thing I heard someone say about the British system was a complaint about the US policy that 90% (or 92% or 95%) is the cutoff for an A. In the British system, you get the highest grade with something like 60%, and 40% or so is passing. (I don’t know the exact numbers, someone can supply them.) The critic’s point was that using 90% for the cutoff for the highest grade forced the tests and standards to be too easy, so you couldn’t get variation at the high end.

    As I understand the point, it would seem to be almost opposite to Andy’s complaint, i.e. your cutoff for good enough enough to merit the highest “grade” you give still leaves a lot of room to report that only a few people are truly outstanding.

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  14. Highest marks in the UK do tend to push 70% these days.

    Marks in the sixties is pretty much what all students should be getting in their final year, guaranteeing a 2nd class degree for the majority of students.

    We (students) have been told that UK examiners are now expected to exercise the “full range” of the marking scheme, i.e. award 80s and 90s for exceptionally good papers, and award single figure marks for exceptionally poor papers. The main driver for this is to make British marks comparable under the EU Bologna Process.

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  15. “Highest marks in the UK do tend to push 70% these days.”

    Yep. Last time I looked, in several schools within the University of London system As are almost unheard of.

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  16. Naadir & Guillermo: So what % is an A? Um, I didn’t know the British system used A, B C etc.
    From my Uni’s documents about transcripts from UK Universities like Cambridge, U of London,
    Estimated scale
    70-100% Class I
    60- 69% Class II upper
    50- 59% Class II lower
    40- 49% Class III
    30- 39% Pass
    Our minimum for admission is 55%, considered equivalent to a B average (i.e. midpoint of Class II lower).

    For Oxford, no %s are given, just
    Honours
    Class I
    Class II, division 1
    Class II, division 2
    Class III
    (Our minimum for admission is again Class II, div 2)

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  17. @olderwoman

    Yeah, that’s correct. What schemes lecturers used at UCL when I was there (2000-2005) seemed to be quite arbitrary. Some lecturers used A,B,C etc…, some just gave a mark out of 10. But the exams are all graded in percentages as you’ve stated above and that would be how the final mark for the module is given.

    In my current programme at Birkbeck, everything, including term papers are in percentages, and according to the above scheme. Which is at least easier to follow.

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  18. So those of you considering going to England to study should keep in mind this: your chances of getting 90 marks are equal to those of writing a term paper that will seem genius to people like Watson, Crick, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.

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    1. Unfortunately, everyone who isn’t Watson, Crick, Russell, or Wittgenstein still adopts this mentality, which seems to produce rampant grade deflation and undeserved elitism.

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      1. That’s the other side of the coin. Very true.

        Foreign lecturers are usually a bit easier on the grading, though.

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  19. Sorry to have skipped over olderwoman’s question. Most British unis use the ECTS grading system for As, Bs… etc., which I understand is an attempt to standardize European grades. There is a Wikipedia page about it if you need more info.

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  20. “To Andrew and the others with that view: you are comfortable giving a B to someone for whom you have no advice about how they can improve?”

    I realize this is a dormant thread but I wanted to go on record about this. No, I don’t feel comfortable, but I do feel justified. I don’t feel comfortable because this indicates a limitation on my part as a teacher. But I feel justified because as an evaluator I have no trouble seeing the difference between a B paper and an A paper. They’re two different (albeit in principle related) skillsets. Therefore, giving an A to a B paper because we can’t figure out how to coach the student from one level to the other is a category error.

    (Anecdata: I had a student once who in five semesters of an intensive writing sequence went from C’s to B’s to B+’s, then stuck for awhile; then suddenly started cranking out A papers. I asked him what he had figured out to make the leap and he said “I don’t know – it just clicked.” In 15 years of teaching with many such stories now in my pocket, I’ve never had a student be able to explain what that click was. But it definitely happens, and the work is definitely at a different level. My sense is that there’s a threshold effect where enough of the technical elements of essay-writing as a complex social performance become routinized that the conceptual brain is no longer distracted by them and can turn its full powers to the matter of the essay. Is that teachable?)

    Another category error is to try to use grades to compensate for the usual reproduction of class habitus. Where standards are arbitrary, the thing to do is to change them and then grade accordingly. Where the standards are not arbitrary, that is, there’s real value in them, it’s a shame that some students have a leg up and others don’t. Then the thing to do is to devote extra effort to bringing the students without that habitus up to speed. But compensating for a lifetime of dispositional (under)development is not the matter of a semester, and in the meantime the performance is what it is in relation to the valorized standards. This becomes especially clear in fields where skilling actually matters, like brain surgery or nuclear physics.

    Finally, I’ll say that among the things students need to be taught is how to tell the difference between bad, good and better in fields that are often alien to them. Once they learn this, it gives them great pleasure to do better work. Handing them top grades for merely good work cannot help but be a disappointment to those who know the difference, and is an insult to the potential of those who do not yet.

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  21. Umm… isn’t does everything the assignment says… a C by definition? does it well is a B, and does it excellently an A? so accomplishing the assignment without significant error (nothing wrong) is just a C. If it is surprising, novel, or otherwise good, then it might earn higher grades.

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