Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's that time of year, again.

 
The course is over, the exam has been written, the marking is done, and the grades have been submitted. There's a short lag while the marks are checked and then they're posted so that students can learn how they've done in the course.

At my university we submit grades as percentages. They are converted to grade points (out of 4) in order to calculate a grade point average. The percent score is reported on the transcript and so is the grade point average. A mark of 76% is a 3.0, a mark of 77% is a 3.5 and a mark of 80% is a 3.7. A mark of 76% is a 3.0, a mark of 77%-84% is a 3.7, and a mark of 85% or above is a 4.0. There is no 3.5—shows you how much attention I pay to those sorts of things.

The email messages start as soon as the marks are posted. Every year there are students who want more marks. Usually it's just a few more marks to raise their grade points from 3.3 to 3.7 or something similar. That's by far the most common request. Sometimes the student wants lots more marks because they worked really hard in the course and deserve a much higher grade.

The most common reasons for asking for more marks are ...
  • losing a scholarship
  • not going to get into medical school/graduate school
  • grade doesn't reflect effort
  • parents will be disappointed
  • the final exam was unfair
  • student wasn't feeling well during the test that gave the lowest score
  • this is the lowest grade ever received
Some of the letters just ask me to give them more marks because I feel sorry for them. But many contain the suggestion that they are willing to pay for a higher grade. Fortunately, I can handle all these requests by just referring students to the standard appeal process. Once the grades are submitted to the Faculty I can't change them. It's one of the few times that I like the rules and regulations.

Every Professor in the Department gets these requests at this time of the year.

Here's the important part—it's not fair to put the entire blame on the students. There's something about the way we run the university that makes it seem acceptable to beg for higher marks. What are we doing wrong? How can we fix it?

I have a trivial solution that will deal with many of the problems.

ABOLISH GRADE POINTS AND GRADE POINT AVERAGES



31 comments:

  1. A mark of 76% is a 3.0, a mark of 77% is a 3.5 and a mark of 80% is a 3.7.Well, I'd be annoyed if I got a 3.0 for 76% while my friend got a 3.5 for scoring 1% higher!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm with Pirsig: Abolish grades, period. Either a student can and wants to learn, or she can't or doesn't. At the end of four years (or however many are necessary) you either get a degree or you don't. Naturally, the professors will be giving continuous feedback, including feedback about whether the student should be expecting a degree.

    Make education about learning and education, not precisely gradated competition.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Utterly bizarre. Yes, get rid of grade point averages, by all means.

    Luckily, when I taught at Dalhousie, I only had to give out percentage grades.

    William Hyde

    ReplyDelete
  4. Do you, or the department, try to determine why students lose marks?

    ReplyDelete
  5. If they’re in a science course, then they should at least try a scientific excuse: “It was because of my germ line that this has happened. You can’t believe that I had any power to choose my ancestors. It’s not my fault! In the name of Weismann! Raise my grade!” As Clarence Darrow showed, that’s a very strong argument, even in court.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Not to be a stickler, but a 77% is a 3.3 at U of T.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Did not Denis Rancourt try that in physics at UofO ???

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090206.wprof06/BNStory/National/home

    (from the story)He said:

    "It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned."

    Naturally he was suspended, locked out and terminated.

    ReplyDelete
  8. We have letter grades here, and I would love to get rid of them! (I am especially uncomfortable with the fact that an 80% and an 89% give the same letter grade on our scale!)

    (My undergraduate school actually reported percentage grades on our transcripts. Thus, I didn't realize that I should have been badgering my professors when I got a 79% or an 89% until I entered grad school where letter grades were used ... and those *9s had an impact on scholarship applications. Okay, I don't think I would have badgered my instructors ... but maybe I would have been more diligent about double-checking the calculations and such!)

    Unfortunately, while universities have a mandate to provide measures of certification/accreditation (i.e. for future studies, jobs, etc.), we're going to have pressure from students relating to grades, often without any obvious connection to learning/performance. I wish we could just teach for learning. At this time, our system is not set up for this ...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well, I'd be annoyed if I got a 3.0 for 76% while my friend got a 3.5 for scoring 1% higher!Well, that's how it works in life. In Quebec (Canada), if you earn 48 K a year, you'll pay about 52% of your salary in taxes; if you earn 47 K, you'll only lose about 40 % of your salary.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'd like to feel sorry for you Larry, but I get the exact same list of excuses from my high school students: twice. First time when the interim marks go in, and at the end when they start to realize what happens to grades when they don't hand in their assignments.

    And it *is*, almost word-for-word, the exact same list of reasons.

    Of course, we don't have GPAs in high school, just percentages. I suspect the reason you get the whining in university is because they've already been doing it for years.

    Sigh.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Re Anonymous

    I don;t know how the Canadian system works but here in the USA, if one progresses to a higher tax bracket, one only pays the higher tax on the amount above the threshold. For instance, assume that the 30% bracket starts at, say $40,000. If one earns $45,000, one only pays the 30% tax on $5,000, not on the entire $45,000.

    ReplyDelete
  12. SLC says,

    I don;t know how the Canadian system works ...

    It works the same way that the American system works, which happens to be the same way the system works in all other countries as well.

    "Anonymous" doesn't know what he/she is talking about. The idea that if you earn 48K you'll only be left with 23K in your bank account after taxes is ludicrous. I assume that "anonymous" must be an adolescent who has little real-life experience. if he/she is university educated then we are in much worse shape than I imagined.

    You can actually do the calculation yourself by going to Quebec Tax Calculator. The total tax rate on $48,000 is 21.7%. And on $47,000 it's 21.3%,

    ReplyDelete
  13. ergaster says,

    I'd like to feel sorry for you Larry, but I get the exact same list of excuses from my high school students: ...

    What can we do about it? As teachers, our goal is to educate students and part of that education involves explaining how the system works and why we think it's fair.

    It's obvious that we aren't doing a good job if we see so many students who think they're being treated unfairly.

    In my class, I spend time explaining how grades are assigned and why they are necessary. It's clear that some of my students don't believe me. I think that I should assume part of the blame for this but I'm at a loss to explain how to fix the problem.

    Do you have any ideas?

    At my university, the majority of students think of their teachers as the enemy.

    ReplyDelete
  14. crf asks,

    Do you, or the department, try to determine why students lose marks?

    Yes. They usually fail to get marks for a question because they answer it incorrectly.

    Was this a trick question? :-)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Here's another trivial solution that would deal with many of the problems:

    Highest grades to the highest bidder.

    ReplyDelete
  16. What can we do about it? I wish I knew. They simply seem to think they are entitled.

    Every semester I explain how the system works. In the high school system here 70% of their mark is term work and 30% of it is the final assessment: final exam, or research essay, or some combination as long as it covers the course material and adds up to 30%. They all know this.

    I even make them do the math: "Let's say you want to get a 90% overall but you are getting 78% for your term work. Get out a calculator and figure out if it is possible to get 90% for the course".

    I explain to them that I cannot give them marks for work I do not see. That if they wait until the last minute to do and hand in important assignments that they will hand in crap, and get the appropriate mark. That if they do not show up for class they will miss important information and will likely not do well on the tests. That if, in Grade 12 Biology, they wait until the night before to study for as massive a unit as Molecular Genetics, they will do poorly. They *must* review continually and ask questions if they do not understand.

    It makes not a whit of difference. Most of them crapped out on their molecular genetics test, and they want me to "drop" that mark or adjust it. I told them flat out and I aim to repeat it as often as needed: As long as you owe me work (and some owe me stuff that was due in March*), I will adjust, drop or modify *nothing*. I'm fed up.

    (*We are not permitted to penalize students for late work. We must accept assignments from them right up until the very last possible minute before report cards must go in. It is a stupid idea and I think almost every sane high school teacher in the province thinks so. I'm sorry that we must pass these students on to you, but there's not much we can do about it).

    Deb

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm hearing the same stories here at HMB now from my coworkers. It's so funny that students think it's only the most recent exam in the most course that brought down their entire GPA...

    Everyone thinks "I need X% on this exam to keep this GPA" but never: "I would have needed X% on that course last year to be able to comfortably pass this exam at the level I am at right now and still keep my GPA"

    ReplyDelete
  18. Urgh, flashbacks to my TA-ships. Especially that med-school thing. As a friend and colleague put it: "Great, you've decided to try to become a doctor. I'm glad, I think the world could use more doctors. Why does your decision to try to become a doctor mean I should inflate your marks?"

    Larry said: What can we do about it? As teachers, our goal is to educate students and part of that education involves explaining how the system works and why we think it's fair.Most of the students I've met very quickly grasp the first part (how the system works) but not the second part (we think it's fair). Fairness isn't something often thought about until one thinks one is on the losing end of an unfair situation. And "how the system works" is generally restricted to panic at the dawning realization that reality and one's expectations are not always congruent.

    As for abolishing the 4-point GPA (or 7-point, or 9-point, as I've seen at other institutions), this will not solve the problem of entitlement and whining among students. I was a TA (teaching assistant) for 9 semesters in the department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University, which hands out percentage grades, to 4 digits. I actually had a student beg for 0.03% (not 3%, 3 parts in 10000 of the course grade) because that would keep his overall average among 5 courses above the minimum-grade cutoff for his scholarship. It was several years ago, but I think we just gave him the micro-boost to shut him up.

    Grades in some form are here to stay, I can't imagine the problems of just straight pass/fail when applied to student populations of hundreds per class and tens of thousands per university.

    crf said: Do you, or the department, try to determine why students lose marks?There's an assumption in that question that Larry has not (yet) addressed. Did the student lose marks, or fail to gain marks? I have found that when marking assignments such as lab reports and essays, approaching from either direction changes the way the assignment is evaluated. In my experience, if I start with the assumption that this paper is worthy of 100%, and remove marks as I encounter mistakes, the student will probably get a higher mark than if I start with the assumption that this is an average paper (say, 70%) and only modify based on significant deviations up or down. But perhaps the second method is more reflective of scholarly ability in the student.

    Weirdness: the I'm-not-a-robot password now is "dedulase". Sounds like an enzyme.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Ha! Funny. I hope that was a sarcastic "get rid of grades" comment.

    As long as there are grades of any sort, there will be complaining about grades. GPA, letter mark percentage - it doesn't matter.

    If students didn't really want to get graded, they wouldn't be begging to get higher grades.

    The point of grades is to have a reasonably objective way of ranking students according to their peers, so they can compete with each other and try to get better grades/credentials/jobs than the next guy.

    Students who complain incessantly about grades are just doing everything they can to advance themselves in a society that demands competition. They're the ones who rely most heavily on the grading system. Without it, there would be nothing to compete for.

    Tell them to shut up and reward them for out-studying their colleagues instead of out-whining them.

    ReplyDelete
  20. > The point of grades is to have a reasonably objective way of ranking students according to their peers ...

    I think its proper function is to motivate the students, most people don't like to think! It's work.

    Socrates: There is a certain experience we must be careful to avoid.

    Phaedo: What is that?

    S: That we should not become misologues, as people become misanthropes. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.

    ReplyDelete
  21. While I have only a fraction of the teaching experience you do, I've also ran into this - both with undergrads and grad students (the grad students should *really* know better).

    My reply is always the same - if they can show me a place where I made a mistake, and did not mark them appropriately, I'll be more then happy to fix the mistake. It doesn't keep the whiners from my door, but it usually keeps them from coming back...

    ReplyDelete
  22. From the point of view of an U of T ArtSci student with 4.0 GPA, I agree and I'd like to share something:

    a) The whole grading system is encouraging people to just learn for marks. Throughout my time at U of T I have constantly felt that my intellectual curiosity is constantly being quashed because of the need to learn what is required and will be tested on exams for five full-year courses for the sake of time, instead of exploring and learning topics in-depth according to my own interest. I feel that if I am to take the extra step towards doing these types of "intellectual explorations" I would waste the time that I could have dedicated towards studying for that next multiple-choice exam and consequently lose marks.

    I would say that the main cause of this is a struggle for marks. If there are no marks I could have not cared whether I got a 90 or 99 and took more liberties, but of course grad school will see my 90. I feel that for the whole time here I am just a robot, regurgitating whatever the prof has fed me and no more.

    b) The whole mark-grade conversion scale is meaningless. For example, 84 vs. 85. That is a huge .3 GPA drop, yet it is incredibly absurd to suggest that someone with a 84 is necessarily less capable at that subject matter than someone with 85, enough to warrant a .3 drop.

    c) My suggestion: abolish marks, do not abolish the A/B/C/F grading system. Instead of marking course work and exams out of 100 and then converting those into letter grades, assign letter grades by percentiles and cutoffs. That way people won't be meaninglessly screwed over and they could be encouraged to appreciate the course material in depth as opposed to being pressured to just study for the examinable portion of it.

    ReplyDelete
  23. anonymous,

    Thank-you for your comments. I agree with most of what you say. We need to eliminate *all* grading ... if only we could.

    I'd like to make one small point. When you say ....

    The whole mark-grade conversion scale is meaningless. For example, 84 vs. 85. That is a huge .3 GPA drop, yet it is incredibly absurd to suggest that someone with a 84 is necessarily less capable at that subject matter than someone with 85, enough to warrant a .3 drop.

    Your perspective is typical of many undergraduates. However, keep in mind that it could just as easily be expressed in other ways. For example, it is incredibly absurd to think that someone with an 85 is that much better than someone with an 84.

    Perhaps we should lower all grades of 85 to 84 to deal with this absurdity?

    ReplyDelete
  24. I think a bigger travesty to education is medical schools application process. Why do they not take into consideration people taking harder subject POSTs involve taking harder courses like BCH242. Undergrads that take a bunch of fluff courses in turn get better gpas and go on to be doctors. That is the problem to low enrolment into the harder programs at UofT.

    ReplyDelete
  25. BCH242 isn't "hard", it's just one of those courses that actually tests your analytical thinking and problem solving skills rather than pure regurgitation. I found BCH242 a lot more manageable than BIO250, and consequently did better in 242.

    One of the biggest problems I find with most UofT life science programs is the heavy emphasis on memorization and not enough on critical thinking, during the school year I constantly felt the pressure to memorize every trivial detail thrown at me and regurgitate them back on tests just so I could score a good mark. It was a most unpleasant experience, and by the end of the year I felt like I've learned nothing, and rather than being taught how to think, I felt I was being slowly moulded into an automaton.

    ReplyDelete
  26. anonymous says,

    One of the biggest problems I find with most UofT life science programs is the heavy emphasis on memorization and not enough on critical thinking ...

    I think this is a major problem and its *our* fault—not the students'. We professors are contributing to a climate that we all deplore.

    Problem is, it's hard to fix. We need everyone—students and professors—to switch simultaneously from the old corrupt system to a new and better one.

    Next year we are changing the introductory biochemistry course to a format that will be more like memorization and regurgitation than it was during the past eight years. We are doing this because the course is dying. Students are avoiding it like the plague.

    ReplyDelete
  27. The emphasis on memorization rather than understanding is also a function of the class size being too large. Effective instruction requires sustained and extensive student-teacher interaction: it's just impossible in most undergraduate courses.

    ReplyDelete
  28. U of T med school has just adopted the opposite extreme: now it's pass/fail for all courses...

    ReplyDelete
  29. The problem starts in highschool where they do not teach us concepts but just mindless memorization.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I think its not so much a problem with the format of the grades, as a format of the testing. You can know very little in a course, and still get a decent mark, if you know how to write multiple choice tests. That sets up a sense of entitlement for people who know how to write an MC test and a sense of frustration for people who don't. Neither person is getting an accurate reflection of their knowledge, which is why they both complain.

    How to administer a Con Hall course without relying on MC tests is another, much more difficult question to answer, however.

    ReplyDelete
  31. A. says,

    You can know very little in a course, and still get a decent mark, if you know how to write multiple choice tests. That sets up a sense of entitlement for people who know how to write an MC test and a sense of frustration for people who don't. Neither person is getting an accurate reflection of their knowledge, which is why they both complain.

    We have decades of data showing a strong correlation between the results on multiple choice tests and scores on: (a) short answer test; (b) essays; and (c) lab reports.

    Furthermore, the grades in one course are strongly correlated with the grades in another no matter how the grades are determined and what the subject is.

    These data indicates that all forms of testing are measuring the same thing—probably the intelligence of the student.

    There are exceptions, but the idea that some students are good at multiple choice tests and others are bad seems to be a form of urban myth.

    Do you know of any data that supports your claim?

    ReplyDelete