Thursday, February 19, 2009

- Subjective grading?

FSP has an interesting comment on an article about student's expectations when it comes to grades.

I agree with FSP that it is somewhat ridiculous for a student to expect a high grade (particularly an A) for "effort" that (s)he put into the course without any (or very little) concern about the actual knowledge/understanding gained. Simple presence in the classroom doesn't gain you any points just like showing up to an office and not work doesn't gain you any money. But, these feelings of entitlement are not always misplaced, there are a number of reasons students develop this sense.

The original article mentions some reasons for students to feel entitled, and not surprisingly, not a single University/College professor that was interviewed blame themselves or the university's system. I didn't do high school in the US, but from my experience in the US, K-12 does have something to do with the fact that students have unreasonable expectations (not only about their grades) in college. Family might also play a role, but I am not convinced it is a big one. However, something the article fails to mention and I think it's important is the role of the university/college system and their instructors in the encouragement of the sense of entitlement. In particular, the idea of subjective and extremely discrete grading.

First, the possible grades a student can get are very limited (A-F), some places have +/- but even then, you can only separate them in 11-12 categories. As a student, if my friend has 3/100 more points than I do at the end (say 92 vs. 89), and (s)he gets an A and I get a B (or B and C), I would really feel like something was stolen from me. The problem here is the big difference between an A and a B. This is less pronounced if one gets and A and the other an A-, or A- and B+. As long as the grading scale is so discrete, you will have more unhappy students looking for a grade that to the instructor looks ridiculously high based on the student's performance. I think many more professors would be willing to bump a student up from a C to a C+, or C+ to B- than from a C to a B.

And now that we are talking about extremely discrete grading, to me it seems nuts to give a student who gets a 100-98/100 in the course, the same grade (an A) than to a student who averaged 90/100 at the end. I think there is something really, and I mean REALLY, special about a student who doesn't virtually make any mistake.

The grade issue becomes worse when you consider that in very few courses (in my experience at least) you get at the beginning a translation chart from a number to a letter grade. Only in the courses for pre-meds (I wonder why...) that I've TA'ed they get a table with the equivalence between a number and a letter (for example <90 class="blsp-spelling-corrected" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">throughout the semester whether they are doing good or bad if they do not know ahead of time the curving scheme? Is it surprising that students get confused and possibly expect higher grades if their friend took the same class with Professor X, got an average numeric grade of 85 and ended up with an A, and they took it with Professor Y, got an 82 and ended up with a B? Are 3 points really that different?

I (kind of) understand that as a university or department you intend to standardize your courses, but to me curving that leads to some subjective grading is wrong. If the professor is grading subjectively, why should the student not expect a subjective grade? Even if (s)he bases it on unmeasurable effort?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

-Retention rates

In my department there is a group of "elected" students who form part of a professor-student committee in charge of discussing and providing a student's viewpoint in graduate students issues, ranging from TA/RA salaries, qualifying procedures, coursework and syllabi, etc.

A few days ago I had a conversation about retention rates with 3 students from this committee. I am a second year (at this univ) and they are third or higher year students, so it is possible their "data" is better than mine. Nonetheless, from what I can see, the dropout rate is no more than 10-20% per year (which translates to about 3-6 students in a typical 30 students class). So far, nobody from my class has left but since we are only second year, very few, if any have taken the quals. It is possible that some will not make it, but again, I would guess that the number is 10-20%.

I should mention that from the people I know left the program (only 3), only one of them did so due to low grades/performance. The rest left for one or a combination of personal reasons such as financial issues, realization that being a PhD is not really what they wanted, marriage, the arrival of a baby, etc.

But my perceived dropout rate seems to be low according to the students in the committee who claim it is closer to 50%. I seriously doubt that half of my class will not finish, and I doubt even more that those who do dropout will do it because of academic underperformance.

I am now curious about the actual rate and I will be asking the department for some numbers, but I would like to know how bad/good it is at your university/department.