Fairness?

Unknown Professor pointed out an article from Inside Higher Ed. (It’s offline as I write this so I cannot link. But I will fix it tomorrow.) The comments are fascinating.

The article is about fairness in grading. I am not sure that any system that assigns a numerical score to someone can be fair, or that I even know what fair means. But the system can be transparent, and clearly define what the students are supposed to be do. That seems to be the best you can ask for. And you cannot measure the students’ effort, only what they hand in and how they act in class.

The article did lead me to think about what grading is for.

Certification.
If the student can pass the course, the student should have demonstrated some basic competence in the material. For example, in a basic statistics class, the ability to explain what a confidence interval is, and compute a confidence interval in some specific cases. Certification is probably most binding for the pass/fail decision. But it is also important for other letter grades: a C student can do the minimum requirements and no more, a B student can do more than the minimum but cannot make the extra step, while an A student can make the extra step.

All that is important because one use of the grades is for future courses, future schools (like grad schools, law schools and so on) and employers to figure out information about the student. And perhaps because they will actually use the material. Grades during the course help the students understand how well they are following the material, too.

If we had no grades, would simply being accepted at a good school automatically guarantee better future prospects? That puts a big burden on admissions, no? I probably should think about that more carefully in the future. A bad grade also tells people in the future useful information about the student.

Motivation.
Some students are motivated by grades, so the grading scheme keeps them working. Sad in some ways, but they are people and respond to incentives. (This is why I am not a big fan of grading PhD students too much—they should be motivated anyway.) It also helps students recognize that outcomes at least partially depend on effort. For some small number of them, a useful lesson, even in college. A downside of motivation is the students who argue about everything. But I have found that many of them will work hard at the material if you make it clear that’s what is required.

There always are students who really get the material and so earn A’s. You see it in their test scores, homework, presentations, attendance, questions, concentration in class, and sometimes even eyes in class. Of course there are always marginal cases–A vs. B, B vs C, and so on. I try to err on the side of moving people up. Interestingly, in my courses there pretty much always is a gap in the grade distribution to make the cutoffs. I wonder how common that is?

The students who fail generally don’t show up to class, hand in their homework late (or try to ), and cannot even do the basic calculations in the course.

I am playing around with wordpress. I imported my site to vegreville.wordpress.com; I am going to cross-post for a few days and decide. WordPress is also free, looks nicer than blogger and has tags, but you cannot customize the site as much as blogger.

Any comments?

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