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Friday, April 28, 2017

Professor, please can I have more marks?

I submitted my grades on Thursday morning and they were approved by the Department of Biochemistry in short order. Once the final grades have been approved and submitted to the Faculty they can't be changed unless the change is approved by the Departmental Chair. Students may appeal their grade by paying a fee to re-read their final exam but, even then, I do not have the authority on my own to change a grade. I have to justify any change in writing. This is a good thing.

A few hours after the grades were posted I received an email message from a student [It's that time of year, again]. Here's part of what the student said,
I just saw my final mark ... which was an 76, and was very surprised. I thought I'd done well on the final exam, and had studied hard. My performance on the Midterm was good, and I had expected this to be just as well. As such, I wanted to humbly inquire whether it'd be possible to move me a 77 (a 1% increase) or even an 80. This small difference could make a very big impact on my GPA as I apply for positions to pursue a master or other professional degrees. With the mark as it is now, I fall below the GPA requirement for a program I wish to enroll in next year and will have to do another few courses or a full year to make up for it.
I have been trying my hardest to teach my students how to think critically. Let's apply some critical thinking to this request.

At the University of Toronto we use the grading scale shown below.

The student received a mark of 76% in my course1 and this corresponds to a grade point value of 3.0. Raising the mark to 77% would equal a grade point value of 3.3.

Students need 20 half-credit courses to graduate although many of them take several full credit courses. Let's do a rough calculation based on 20 courses. The grade in my course makes up 1/20th of the grade point average (GPA). Thus, an increase of 0.3 grade points will make a difference of 0.3/20 = 0.015 to the final grade point average. I don't know the magical GPA requirement for the program the student is applying to ... let's assume it's 3.7 and see what that means.

According to the student, their current GPA is about 3.635 so an additional 0.015 would bring it to 3.650 (= 3.7). I find this difficult to believe but, even if it were true, it means that the score in my course is not very much different from many of the scores the student has received in the other 20 courses, some of which were a hell of a lot easier than my course. The student could have done a little bit better in 19 other courses in order to achieve the desired goal.

I wonder if 19 other professors have received a similar letter?

I am not going to change the grade and my Chair would never approve a change unless I lied about the reason. What this email illustrates is a failure on our part to educate students about how a university works and how students and professors are supposed to behave (ethics). It's also a failure to teach critical thinking. (Also, you don't get marks for effort: "A" for effort.)


More importantly, it illustrates the stupidity of grade points and grade point averages. That system should be abolished at the University of Toronto. There are no logical reasons for perpetuating such a ridiculous and arcane way of measuring achievement. Since we assign percentage grades, why not just give the average as a percentage (e.g. 79% average)? That's how some other schools do it [Abolish the Grade Point Average]. (See Dawkins, R. The Ancestor's Tale p. 258.)

I've been advocating this change for twenty years and it's rare to find a professor or lecturer who disagrees. Everyone recognizes that abolishing grade points is a good thing with no significant downside. Why is the university so slow to change?

1. The class average was 75%.


  1. In engineering at Queens in the late 70s, I got % grades in every course, which were then multiplied by the course units (which seem to represent class/lab hours in some way, though I can't now correlate what's on my transcript with my memories) to yield an average, which then got translated into a letter grade for the whole degree (I got a B, dunno whether that was +/-).

    On this BA, I'm getting letter grades for each course, which then get turned into GPA ranks (Carleton uses a 12-point system, which basically looks like UofT's multiplied by 3), which get averaged into a CGPA. IOW: the system you don't like. I think it makes sense for a humanities degree -- marking an essay isn't like marking a problem set, where the answer is just right or wrong, even allowing part marks for analyzing the problem correctly but screwing up the arithmetic. As some commenters on the old linked posts said: it makes sense to use wider bins to sort the performance into.

    I won't tell you my current CGPA except to say that, apparently I'm a better philosopher than I was an engineer. (I don't think it hurts that I'm 40 years smarter than I was then).

  2. Please, oh please, get rid of it - everywhere. Not only does it lead to stupid rounding issues like the one here, but it complicates things like grad student administrations - especially when dealing with students from other unis. Some uni's use GPA scales that run to 7, and even 9, but that is rarely indicated on the transcript. Some Canadian uni's give a 4.33 for A+ grades, but "score" out of 4.0, which makes interpreting their GPAs difficult.

    All that said, even a percentage doesn't solve the issues that these grades don't often reflect the suitability of the student of grad/med/etc school or employment.

  3. What this says to me, even more than anything about the student's appeal, is the strangeness of one point on a 100-point scale being worth three tenths of a point on a four point scale. That's seven and a half times greater value on the grade point than the average. And of course this isn't the only strange thing. The top 15 points on the average mean absolutely nothing on the grade point.

    I am guessing whoever established these relative scales was not from the math department!

    But yes, it does seem quite silly to try to translate an average into a grade point at all. I suppose this is so graduate and post-graduate programs and prospective employers can evaluate students with a commonly used measure. Is this strange average-to-grade point scale used Canada-wide? Ontario-wide? Often at other Canadian universities?

    It's been nearly four decades since I was in school, so I don't know what the "lay of the land" is these days regarding grading.

  4. When I went to uni in the 70s and 80s, we received both a percent score and a letter score for each course. To continue from one semester to another we were not allowed more than two Cs.

    After I finished my masters I taught the lab portion of the intro zoology course for a year while the full time instructor was on maternity. What I learned from this is that there were only two automatic rules as far as the grading system. If a student received a 51%, they were automatically bumped up to a 52%. When a student obtained a 49%, they were automatically bumped up to a 50%. I never understood the rationale for this other than allowing a marginal student to pass.

  5. A 76 in my course is a solid C. The student should be grateful to be at such a nurturing institution. ;)

    1. The highest mark in my class was 85%. What was the highest grade in your non-nurturing course? :-)

    2. Which was an A. About 7-10% of the students have been awarded an A over the last 15 years. I think we're on the same page regarding student marks.

      FWIW, the best recommendation for grad school I ever wrote was for someone who got a B in the course, but came up with tautomerism as an alternative mechanism for wobble, on the fly.

  6. "Why is the university so slow to change?"

    The university? Did the university prepare the exam? If grades and grade points are a problem, arrange the tests so that everyone gets a feather.

  7. Alverno College in Milwaukee does not use letter grades, and have an interesting method of assessing student performance in classes. (Look at their website for details.)
    Some years ago I was sent, with another faculty member, to an assessment conference at Alverno -- our administration was "interested" in innovative assessment methods.
    After our return and presentation on what we found out, the response was:
    "But, without letter grades, how will anyone know how students performed in class?"
    That was the end of the innovation.

  8. At my University, many colleges students earn ~40% A's in courses. Basically making an A an irrelevant grade and all courses in those colleges Pass/Fail. Any attempt to deal with this problem is struck down by the faculty for reasons I cannot fathom.

  9. When I was a student pretty much all courses were pass/fail and the only grades that really mattered were the 4 oral exams of the Vordiplom (which had to be pass grades to continue to the Diplom) and then the 4 oral exams and 2 theses of the Diplom. Since then a system of credit points with grades for everything was introduced and the courses I've been involved with have suffered from this change. The introductory field trip now comes with a grade. Which is ridiculous. This happens 3-4 weeks into the students first semester. It's the first field trip of many they will take. It's meant to give them an idea of how many notes to take, vs. how many photos (and where a photo is useful vs a sketch). Then they have to write a field report, with an introduction, field observations, a discussion and references. It's the first time they have to take a shot at scientific writing. Of course it's going to be bad. No one expects them to nail these things after 3 weeks at university. The whole point of this field trip is to let them make mistakes, give them notes on what went wrong and have them learn from that. Now, how do you grade something like that (In my day it wasn't even pass/fail, you just got a note that you took part and it was required that you did so)? We got notes on what went wrong with our essays that could be longer than the essay itself. And we pinned them to our PCs at home to make sure not to repeat them on later trips. These days students come in to argue about them: "Is it that bad to cite wikipedia (or in one case to trust your "I feel lucky" hit on google enough to cite answersingenesis on sedimentary rock formation)?". That silly essay now has equal impact on their final grade as courses where they are expected to show what they've learned.
    The other one is a seminar, where they get topics from paleontology and have to give 30 minute presentations followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. I loved that seminar. I took it 3 times (passed it 3 times as well), just as an excuse to hone my speaking skill and read through a big stack of primary literature (my topics in order were hierarchical theory, theoretical morphology and the Cambrian Explosion).
    One of the key things was the Q&A session, where you could get some very left field questions from your fellow students (you generally talked about your presentation with your professor, so they knew what was coming and got some feedback there). Some lessons I learned for life ("You had one slide with a figure that a colorblind person could not understand" I was told. I hadn't thought about that. I've not produced a figure that's inaccessible to a colorblind person since and I hold this up as my prime example for "political correctness done right"). Since the course has become graded the Q&A session is silent. Students don't want to criticize the person giving the presentation because they fear that any criticism might negatively impact the presenters grade.

    In both cases the non-graded versions provided students with useful criticisms, because it was detailed and could be acted upon. It gave you a very clear idea on what to work on. This type of feedback has been diminished or replaced by a grade that at best tells you that you need to do better, but is silent about what precisely you need to be better at.

  10. For once I think I may have something pertinent to contribute.
    At my institution (in France) we are currently trying to improve grade conversion system used to calculate grades for students who have completed a year's mobility in another university (the Erasmus system). Each country seems to have its own norms and grading system (marks out of 20 in France, out of 30 in Italy, 100 points in other countries, and so on). The solution that a European working group has come up with is to base grade conversion on the distribution of grades, so that you need to figure out what grade the top 5% of students get, what grade the top 10% get, and so on. Anyone who is interested in this can check out the Egracons website here :

    On the subject of student gripes - here students have the right to consult their exam answers, and ask the instructor to check that the grade is correct. I have found that there are indeed mistakes sometimes, so I don't object to going over things again after a student request. However, a blatant request to "Please give me a higher grade, because I need it for x, y, or z reason" would not cut much ice.