By Professor Doom
At many schools, faculty face tremendous pressure to pass students, even if those students never demonstrate understanding of the material…even if they ever even show up. I’ve certainly been at places where I felt I needed permission to fail students, both from the student and from admin. Every single time there’s been a problem with grading in my career, it’s been a complaint from a failing student.
Now, obviously I can’t speak for all of higher education, but it’s well known that the standard grade in higher ed is A- (it was 2.55 in the 50’s, but well past 3.2 nowadays). I’m hardly the only faculty to have gotten the memo regarding grading.
I recently covered a professor who stated explicitly on the syllabus that students could just pick their own grade, among other things. He wasn’t being serious, he’d just had enough of admin telling him how to grade “with a wink and a nod,” and simply wanted them to state in writing that they controlled grading. They fell for it, of course.
Other professors are following suit, although not as a ploy to make admin reveal themselves…but simply because they’re so tired of it.
I really feel the need to point out grades are a simple tool, represent essentially nothing in the long run (and not much in the medium or short run, either). I’d love to pass everyone, give everyone an “A,” but bottom line they do such a good job in motivating kids to study harder, to learn more, to strive harder to achieve their goals that, even though I know ultimately they’re a farce, I feel the benefits for using grades far outweigh the moral questions of treating things I know are useless as though they were of value, to manipulate people.
Just for fun, allow me to cite an article from 2010 regarding GPA:
5 Lowest Grade Point Averages
· Chemistry - 2.78 GPA
· Math - 2.90 GPA
· Economics - 2.95 GPA
· Psychology - 2.98 GPA
· Biology - 3.02 GPA
5 Highest Grade Point Averages
· Education - 3.36 GPA
· Language - 3.34 GPA
· English - 3.33 GPA
· Music - 3.30 GPA
· Religion - 3.22 GPA
--Hi Education Department. Again. At the risk of boasting, my undergraduate GPA was 3.54—unimpressive by today’s standards, but pretty good a couple score years ago.
Anyway, some professors are moving away from grades as motivational tools, and instead simply using them as a means of getting permission from students. More accurately, they’re using them as just another form to fill out:
Again, there’s long been a push to take all subjectivity out of grading, and when I took a graduate level Education course as research for my book, to a considerable extent, my ‘A’ grade was simply because I’d checked off all the boxes for my “research” paper (even though doing so made for a far less readable work than anything on my blog).
Thing is, non-subjective grade is a fiction. It doesn’t happen. Even in mathematics, there’s considerable subjectivity in grading. Even a perfectly correct answer can be marked wrong for “not enough work shown,” with “enough” being the key subjective concept there. Obviously, I make effort to be fair, but I’m certain my attempts at fairness with integrity will be more beneficial than any attempt at fairness without integrity, which is what “contract grading” gives.
“Contract grading” refers to the professor telling the student exactly what the student needs to do to get a certain grade. Much like trying to distinguish “democratic socialism” from “socialism,” ultimately there’s no difference between this and grading. The only real difference is now, when a student gets a grade he didn’t like, the professor can say “contract,” and hope for the best.
The article I’m quoting from looks at a particular professor, who explains:
“At the end of the semester, if the student completed the specific work they said they would, at the satisfactory level, they receive the grade they planned to receive,”
Did the gentle reader note the phrase “at the satisfactory level” in the above? That’s the subjective part. I give A’s to students who pass my tests at the satisfactory level, too, and I don’t make any claim of using contract grading.
In her email, Gonzalez urged her former students to sign up for SPA 270, indicating that only two students have enrolled thus far and the class is in danger of being canceled.
“I want to make sure you know about some important innovations I am introducing in the course [contract grading] so that you can decide today or as soon as possible whether you want to take SPA 270
“SPA 270” is a Spanish Literature and Cultures course, and in this case it’s clear the contract grading is being used simply to drive enrollments. I rather wish the professor luck, even if she also teaches the more popular Gender and Sexuality courses on campus as well.
Courses like SPA 270 used to be of more interest to students and had little need of grading gimmicks, but the skyrocketing tuition means students have no time for courses of little job relevance, especially as more ideological courses are becoming ever more mandatory, squeezing out time for students to study courses giving them a less politicized view of other things.
Naturally, contract grading has a study showing it’s a great idea, and from such a study we learn contract grading is
“used frequently, but discussed rarely. A Google search reveals a surprisingly large number of teachers who use some form of learning contract in various disciplines for diverse goals.”
This is because to a large extent all grading is contract grading. A comment from a mathematics students explains ultimately why, even if contract grading really meant much more than just “grading,” it still would be useless:
“It degrades trust in your achievement by outside authorities, including employers, grad schools, scholarships etc.,” he told The College Fix. “Imagine if an employer saw that you got an A not because you were truly one of the best in the class but because you fulfilled some requirement YOU personally set. Would he really trust that A? I think not.”
The article I’m quoting from allows comments, and there are over 600 of them, none in support of this new-fangled idea. If people only knew that this type of grading is indeed increasingly common, where ultimately the degree is a matter of filling out forms rather than actual demonstration of learning, then would there be a mass outcry against our hideous student loan scam paying for it all?
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