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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grading sucks

Sorry to put it so bluntly but there is simply nothing fun about grading, on the side of either student or professor. The only exception I can think of is that I have often been amused when grading student papers, though that’s not usually a good thing for the student. But my lament today is sparked by a recent story about a professor who has been denied tenure because he failed too many of his students (we’re talking 80-90 percent got Ds and Fs). I encourage you to read the article here because the story is not straightforward. The school in question serves a significant population of under-prepared students and one interpretation is that the professor simply refused to lower his standards. Another interpretation is that he did not do enough to help his students learn what they should have learned (though there seems to be evidence that he tried). It also sounds like the administration needs to figure out what it’s really asking of its faculty and I have to wonder how any professor gets to their sixth year (when tenure decisions are typically made) without this sort of issue being raised loudly in prior reviews.

But regardless of the specifics of this case (and I’m trying not to take sides because in situations like this, it’s impossible to really judge without knowing more), it certainly raises a ton of salient issues for teachers. How much is learning a shared responsibility, dependent on both good teaching and an engaged student? If teachers are doing everything they can to help students learn, and students still aren’t grasping certain material, whose ‘fault’ is that? In the K-12 community, where accountability and standardized testing have become the norm, this has become a huge issue. How much should teachers be evaluated by what their students learn? I’m a bit more sympathetic when the assessment of learning is done by a third-party (at the college level, some departments have common final exams for exactly this reason), but that raises a whole host of other questions about the assessment tool, clear standards and expectations, teaching to the test, etc.

And when you have students entering your class at varying levels of preparation, what standard should you use? I think many teachers end up aiming for the middle, knowing that if we shoot too high, we will lose many who become discouraged but if we shoot too low, we are doing our students a disservice. But what point is ‘too high’ or ‘too low’? I know that when I first came to San Diego State, I had to adjust my expectations of what my students could do; in practical terms that meant I took out a lot of the math that was in the course as I taught it at the University of Wisconsin and I focused more on the intuition. Personally, I think this is better for students anyway (since I think the way economics is usually taught is too math-oriented and not very useful) so was this ‘dumbing down’ the material or simply better teaching? Some professors don’t change anything but simply set the curve to get the ‘right’ distribution of grades – is that really any different/better?

And even if it is better teaching to tailor our lessons to the level we believe our students are prepared to handle, how can we be sure about what that level is? Russlynn Ali, the Director of EdTrust-West, often talks about the problem of low expectations for students of color in California schools (you should see her contrast of assignments for 4th-graders at two neighboring schools, one mostly white and one mostly non-white – it’s scary). One could make a legitimate argument that at the college level, at least in California, the average student of color walks into the classroom differently prepared than the average white student (I’m talking averages people!). Does that mean we treat them differently, expect less? Or do we expect the same and know that they may end up lower in the class distribution? How much more work are we teachers expected to do to help students overcome their lack of preparation? And to bring us back to my earlier question: How much are we to blame if students don’t want that help? If we know students need extra help, how do we encourage them to get it?

1 comment:

  1. Spot on. I'm at Indiana University Northwest, where student preparation is extraordinarily variable (and often unrelated to high school grades or class rank; I have had National Honor Society students who couldn't handle simple fractions).

    My conclusion is to decide what I think people need to come away from the class with, and hold to it. I try to give students as much help as I can--how to study, what to study, test-taking tips--and I try to structure courses so they have multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know. But there is a limit.


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