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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Standardized grades

I had a troubling conversation with a junior colleague this afternoon. He will be teaching Intro Micro this spring for the first time and he came by to ask me how I usually assign grades; that is, whether I use the traditional cut-offs (95+=A, 90-95=A-, etc.), or if I curve, or use some other system. I said that I start with the traditional cut-offs and then curve up if my average is 'too low', which I deem anything below around 78%. If I do make any adjustments, it's generally to help students at the lower end of the distribution, rather than making sure there are a certain number of As, Bs, etc. But my department likes for us to keep our class averages in the C+ range (2.3-2.5-ish) so if my class average ends up "too high" then I won't curve at all.

I don't know if other departments do this (try to make sure class averages fall in a certain range), but the way it was explained to me was that we don't want students to think that certain professors are 'easier' than others. Personally, I've always had mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, I can understand and appreciate that this policy helps ward off grade inflation or professors "buying" good evaluations with easy classes and higher grades (if you want to debate whether that's a real concern, that's a whole other post). On the other hand, suppose you have someone who is a really good teacher so his students actually learn what he intends for them to learn and therefore, they do well in the class. This is supposedly why we look at more than just teaching evaluations in the RTP (retention, tenure and promotion) process but I've been in more than one meeting where someone's good evaluations have been questioned because the accompanying class GPA was 'too high'. As one colleague has put it: if someone has high evaluations and low grades, or if someone has low evaluations and high grades, then that tells you something, but how can you know what it means when someone has high evals and high grades or low evals and low grades?

But more troubling is that this is not a formal department policy, written down somewhere and given to new faculty; it's just an informal, unstated kind of thing that people are somehow supposed to know. And of course, my young colleague was not aware of it. As we continued talking, he asked if there is a similar expectation about upper-division classes and when I said yes, I could tell he was upset. Turns out that in the fall semester, he curved the grades in his intermediate theory course up to a B+! Now, I really wanted to ask what in the world made him think that B+ should be an "average" grade but I can't remember where he went to undergrad or graduate school and I know there are places where that would be perfectly normal. The bigger problem is that next year during his review, I know there are many in my department who will discount his evaluations for that course. I told him that I will help him figure out a way to address it in his narrative statement but it sucks that he now has to worry about this.

I'm curious if other departments have similar policies. If yours does, how is it communicated to new faculty?


  1. Let's say that over a period of 25-30 years your GPA in principles is C/C+ and your evaluations are about 4.0 out of 5.0 (highest). Almost all of your colleagues' GPA in principles is about C/C+, and their evals range from 3.7 to 4.2. But a new faculty member has a GPA of B-/B and evaluations of about 4.5. What's more likely, that you and most of your colleagues over a 25-30 year period are bad teachers or that the new faculty member is "buying" high evaluations?

  2. Thankfully we don't have such policies, stated or unstated. Students 'think' certain professors may be easier and fill up their classes earlier, but given a small campus and only a couple of sections each quarter most students don't really have a choice. I don't curve any of my grades, philosophical reasons, but do provide up to 5% (some quarters) of extra credit. Unfortunately those who take advantage of that are typically those who don't really need it. So in quite a few of my classes there ends up a bi-modal grade distribution.

  3. @anon: that's one reason we have the policy we have in the 1st place. The problem I'm having is that I know some cynical senior colleagues will want to penalize my junior colleague for giving grades that are 'too high' because they assume some sinister scheme to buy higher evals when the reality is the guy just didn't know he was supposed to set the average so low. It's not so much that I think there isn't a positive correlation between grades and evals but whether it's fair to penalize someone for not knowing about an unstated department policy.
    @Aaron: I think there will always be profs that students perceive as being easy or hard, regardless of what grades are awarded, which is one reason I think my department's current policy is kind of ridiculous. I go back and forth about both curving and extra credit.


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