Thursday, April 15, 2010

Academic Freedom and Grading

Public high school teachers constantly face interference from the school administration.   They get in serious trouble if they have high standards and hold students to those standards, because students and their parents complain about bad grades.  The administration rewards these whiners, with the result that standards fall and good students get less education.

College professors are usually immune form this.  Usually.  But the high school disease seems to be infecting some universities:

The biology professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge gives brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading. On her tests, she doesn't use a curve, as she believes that students must achieve mastery of the subject matter, not just achieve more mastery than the worst students in the course. For multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4, as she doesn't want students to get very far with guessing.

Students in introductory biology don't need to worry about meeting her standards anymore. LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class.

She said that it was true that most students failed the first of four exams in the course. But she also said that she told the students that -- despite her tough grading policies -- she believes in giving credit to those who improve over the course of the semester.

At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said.

The actions of the school administration were wrong and stupid.  But things like this will probably happen more and more in the future, as students who have grown up being coddled and rewarded for whining enter college and expect it to be like high school.  However, there are things that professors can do to keep their tough grades and avoid complaints.  The key is how you communicate grades, standards, and the syllabus.

This professor would probably be teaching the course if she had used my grading system.  Each assignment in my class is worth a certain number of points. The student's number grade for the semester is simply the sum of the points accumulated.  I never give grades in percentage terms.  I simply give the number of points earned.  In order to get an A in my course, you need to accumulate 85 points.

I give pop quizzes in my class.  On the first few quizzes, the maximum possible number of points that could be earned was 2 points per quiz.  About 90% of the students earned less than 1.4 points on these quizzes.  If I had reported this as a percentage, it would have been less than 70%, or 'failure'.  The students would probably have been upset.

This is because there is emotional baggage associated with percentage scores.  Students have a visceral reaction to them.  Students expect and desire 100% on their grades, and if you give less than that, they feel like something has been taken away.  But more importantly, they have been trained, from kindergarten, to think of anything less than 70% as 'failure'.  If you give them that grade, they see it as you calling them a failure, and they get defensive and angry.  In their experience, the only students who got less than 70% on anything were complete losers, and they consider it an insult if you imply that they are like those students.  

But my method of reporting scores avoids all that.  When a student gets a quiz back and sees a grade of '1.2' it does not have any emotional impact.  If anything, it is positive reinforcement, because it tells them that their final grade in the class is now 1.2 points higher.  A grade of '60%' would have been an insult, but a grade of '1.2' is not, even though they mean exactly the same thing.  I am allowed to grade strictly without insulting anyone.

I still get a little bit of grumbling at the beginning when the first quizzes are handed back.  But all I have to do to end it is to reassure them that they can still get their 85 points on other assignments.  They understand that their work is not perfect and they need to work harder, and they understand that improvement in the future can earn them an A.  They end up working harder and reading more, and performance improves.

This is a good general lesson.  If you want people to look at things logically, you have to avoid using words, phrases, imagery, or content that has emotional salience.  By using a grading system they have never seen before, I am allowed to communicate the information 'you do not know the subject very well' without them interpreting it as 'you are a failure'.


Lou said...

Richard; Excellent post. You've explained your 'points' system better than I ever could mine. This will comes in handy in the future when I need to explain to my administrators/parents, what I'm doing. Nice to know I was doing something 'revolutionary' for years....expecting more from my students w/o them feeling 'bad' about it. I've always had a track record of my 9th grade students being better prepared for their future classes...NO MATTER WHAT THEIR FINAL GRADE IN MY CLASS WAS. Dad

Anonymous said...

You're an easy grader,but your points system is annoying.Grade like the rest of the econ department.