We just completed our finals here at the University of Rochester. It is probably the most frustrating time for me as a Professor. No, it’s not because I do not like grading. It’s probably closer to the opposite — grading finals gives me a terrific chance to see how well our kids write, how well they are absorbing the material and probably most important for me is to observe how they understand things and articulate themselves. Finally, I actually love writing finals each year because how often do you get a group of bright students captive for 3 hours to read what you have written?
My goal in writing a final is not simply evaluative in the strict sense, but also to give students a lesson that they might not have learned had they just come to class, or done the readings, or worked on some practice problems. A good final exam will have some questions that shed light on current issues, introduce students to new insights, and give kids a variety of ways to demonstrate that they can apply the tools of your course to the real world — in other words, to demonstrate that there is a reason aside from mental stimulation to be taking a particular course.
I teach very large classes, which makes it a lot harder to do what I want to do, but I still take the approach that my classes are 20 people in size rather than 200. So what is so frustrating about my final exam period? Here are a couple of examples, and none of these are discussed at the department level, college level, university level, in grad school as we prepare to become professors, etc. I am not sure there are answers to these things, but I thought you’d like to know some folks do try to think about these things.
In each particular class we have the same problem. For example, in my Money and Banking class this semester (about 80 students), my “raw” unadjusted class average was a 74%. That is a low C in my book. According to my “unadjusted” rubric, i.e. the one I articulate in my syllabus, an A is 94% or better, a B is 83% up to but not including 88% and so forth. And I write my paper topics, quizzes and exams so that I expect that someone who gets 85% of the points on them is a “B” student … a B student to me is someone who can give the material right back to me very similar to how I delivered it to them. In order to get an A, I expect the student to be able to synthesize the different course material, to be able to teach it to other people, and perhaps to analyze it in a way that I did not present — apply the material to many different conditions than were presented in class or the readings. How do you do that? We’ll talk about it one day. And a C student is, to me, someone that “kinda gets it” and gives the material back to me with some holes and gaps, and while being able to answer some direct and targeted questions, does not synthesize the course material at all, and does not demonstrate any ability to draw connections out of the context of the class. In my view, my class average was truly a C (it was the median as well).
Under that original grading system, only 3 out of my 80 students genuinely achieved an A in my course. And these students ought to be recognized and commended. However, after a little “pressure” is applied from outside sources to adjust my grading from these levels, I end up “having” to award 8 grades of an A (way too high in my view), and my new class median is just about a B, with a mean of a little above a B-. (In my required core courses I am “allowed” to be a little more rigorous in my adherence to my standards). How would you feel if at the very pinnacle of the teaching year you were “asked” to compromise the very core of what you believe your students should be evaluated on? How do you think that serves my three “real” A students? And how do you think the other 5 “A” students feel? In fact, knowing this, a student in the class probably has no idea whether their grade was seriously earned or is something of a mirage. That must suck. In fact, that’s how I felt when I went to college and basically about any award that I have won in my intellectual career. I really do think I am the world’s tallest academic dwarf in the settings I find myself in.
There’s so much more to say regarding evaluation, pressure, grading inflation and the like, so I’ll stop here for now. But we’ll leave you with some more thoughts that I may address soon. What about the number of students that earn low C grades or below? Are there students passing classes that have not demonstrated an ability to comprehend the material? What is common about these students? How important is class attendance? What about differentials across departments? What about differentials between upper and lower level courses? What about policies of awarding internships a full FOUR credits of academic credit, and now even for a grade? What about allowing Independent Studies? And what about students with learning disabilities? What students are more likely to complain about grades (good ones or bad ones or ones in between and when are they likely to complain?) Should all faculty be asked to work with undergraduates? Should departments have a uniform grading policy or should they allow professors perfect autonomy in how they evaluate students? And controlling for various factors, what sorts of things do students use to make decisions about which courses to take. I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the more rigorous I make my classes, and the more “true” to my grading standards that I adhere, the far fewer students I end up enrolling. There is no question in my mind that if students knew that my median grade was a B+, and if they had to do, at most, a midterm and maybe a final paper, and just sort of be a good sport about the class to not fail, I would be the world leader in class size. And believe me, my life would be a hell of a lot more “pleasurable” if I did that, especially if that midterm was recycled each year and especially if it were a multiple guess test.
Any one of these questions is worthy of a full essay. But I hope you can at least start to understand why this time of year is agonizing. Don’t get me wrong, the professor life is just grand, it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But I am not intending this to be a “whinefest” I am merely trying to help you guys understand that I am both cognizant of the problems of grading, and also party to it, even though I am probably one of the “hardest” graders here on campus.
OK, I am stopping. The quality of this post really is only about a C. When I think I put up a B or an A in the future I will let you know. I would only grade 2 of my last 25 posts with an A (at most).