Consolations

I’ve never really had to deal with a grading curve. I’ve always either had students that essentially fit the curve naturally, or else not been required to use it. So during conferences with my students, I showed them what the final grade was for their final project, and then told them a tentative grade. I like grading transparency. Most of the people whom I told, “You’re probably going to get a C in this class,” accepted it without much fuss. But a couple of the people whom I told, “Look, if there were no curve, I’m pretty confident you’d get an A, but it might turn you that you’ll get a B+ instead if too many people land above you in the final grading scheme,” really took it hard.

One actually returned to my office about half an hour after the end of all conferences. I was eating a sandwich and replying to an email, thinking I should get home, when she knocked and I let her in. My first worry — that this might be some kind of weird “bargain” offer like the kind I’ve heard about before — evaporated quickly when I saw who it was, and she asked whether we could discuss her book report again: there was no funny business on her mind, thank goodness, as I would have been dreadfully embarrassed for her. We looked over her writing more carefully, and I explained why she, yes, made a specific number of simple mistaken uses of basic technical devices that we’d explicitly studied before, things like how to use conjunctions and cause-and-effect statements. Finally, she could see that my grading was valid, and, in fact, she got among the top 30% of grades, with an 80% on the final project. However, she hadn’t kept up with her blogging, and so sadly her grade was not quite as high as it could have been. Even when, after a few calculations about reasonable blogging she could complete before the deadline next Monday, it remained not completely certain that she would get an A+ in this class, and she was so horrendously disappointed.

“Look,” I said, “if you get an 88%, that’s still an outstanding grade. You’d still be in the top eight in the class. Do you have to be Supergirl before you’re happy?” She laughed, and told me her mother had said almost the same thing to her many times. “Well, you see? And we’re both older than you, so you have to listen to us.”

“The grading curve isn’t your fault… or mine,” I went on. “It’s just University policy. So you can’t let it get to you too much. Many other people are in a similar position to you! And anyway, to tell you the truth, I don’t put much stock in grades. To be honest, if I didn’t have to give people grades, I wouldn’t. I don’t believe that giving grades actually is good for the learning process. Of course, if I don’t give you grades, I don’t get to keep my job, and I want to keep teaching people, so I have to. But I don’t think grades are as important as you do, even if I try my best to be fair. There are grades, and then there are things you have learned and will remember and use again, in other classes and in life. Five years from now, people won’t care what you got in Elementary English Composition. They won’t ask what your score was, they’ll ask whether you can write in English.” Sadly, I’m not 100% confident about the last part. The way Korean competition works, I cannot be completely sure that some insignificant grade won’t hold her back in some way. But I am certain about one thing: “It’s more important that you learned something in this class, something you can use, something you can do, than it is that you got this or that grade. Only 30% of anyone anywhere is allowed to get A or A+. But real learning is not a competition. It is about developing yourself.”

The above wasn’t all one outpouring from me, the way I wrote it. Much of it was interspersed in conversation. She was still mopey, and I could see stress was bothering her. It came out that a classmate had shown her the grade that she’d received — an uncharacteristically good grade, but one that was earned. It was 2.5% more towards the final grade than the first student — who was unarguably the superior student — received on her final book report… but for good reason: the lesser student had followed my dictum to keep things simple, and made sure to competently use all the techniques we discussed in class. The better student had instead tried to write something to rival the best critics, expressed some wonderful ideas, but completely dropped the ball on many of the fundamentals we’d studied in the past semester. We talked about all of this, and I quipped, at least you’ve got your health! Then she told me some pretty sad stories of things that had happened to her, healthwise — and I honestly believe she told them more to explain why she was pressuring herself so much, not just in order to get my sympathy.

But of course, now, I will be second-guessing myself. I have to wonder, if it comes down to her and someone else, with basically equivalent grades, and I can only give one person the A and the other needs to get the B+, will I choose her — or avoid choosing her — on the basis of this second visit to my office, and the serious concern about her grade?

At least she was reasonable about it. I have another student who’s become much more of what RPGers used to (and may still) call a “Rules Lawyer”, someone who makes a habit of bickering about grades just for the sake of ensuring objectivity. At one point I had to say, “Look, she’s trying to write something characteristically different that you are, and something much harder to do well than you are doing. I gave everyone an easier task and now you’re complaining because someone has gone ahead and performed a much more difficult task, and done it well. I’m not going to punish her for that. Her grade would be bad if she didn’t do it well, especially since she chose not to do it the easy way, like I suggested; but she hasn’t done it badly.”

Left unsaid was the additional: …and I’m not going to tear her down just to elevate you for following the rules exactly and producing mediocre work.

But really, and I don’t know if it is scandalous to say this, but grading has to be the most collossal waste of time and energy that exists in education. I’m not sure that those professors who use the machine-read multiple-choice machines don’t have it right in some way: it reduces the amount of thought and energy that goes into grading, and simply makes it moot; this means one can get on with the actual teaching and spend more energy on that.

However, that seems just wrong to me somehow, and only because certain grades seem to have so much of a ridiculous degree of impact on peoples’ lives here. I wouldn’t doubt that GPA does affect people’s careers, as much as their college entrance exams, as much as their high-school and middle-school entrance exams. I mean, people are still putting their TOEIC scores on their CVs, or were a year or two ago. They were expected to do so. And I suspect that GPA determined which hospitals Lime could secure an internship at, or example. So I couldn’t in all good conscience just kind of automate the grading system, even if there were a comparable shortcut available in a course like “Elementary English Composition” or “Public Speaking”. It just doesn’t seem fair to do so.

What I have made efforts to do is to craft a grading system that reflects both effort and acquired ability fairly. I consider the blogging, attendance, and participation segments of my writing classes as the “effort” portions, and they are indeed worth 50% of the grade (or, in one case, 55%). Homework assignments and the midterm and final make up the rest, and offer opportunities to demonstrate skill.

What I really wish, though, is that I could reward honest effort consistently. Frankly, there’s always going to be some angle on it. If you simply count blog posts, people start posting short single sentences to game the system. If you count words from posts, people complain that some are too lazy about grammar. They want an objective system, and for some things it’s just impossible.

This, you see, is why teaching is a profession. People who teach for a long time learn to figure out when someone is making an honest effort. They aren’t perfect, of course, and students sometimes drop the ball — something you can’t always account for but you always see clearly — but you come to know basically what kind of grade that someone earns for something subjective, like “participation”, over time. You get pretty good at it, actually.

But why does this drudgery have to be part of education? Why do people believe that they need grades, why do grading systems persist? There can only be one person at the top! Are we all so eager to fit ourselves into regimented, clear systems delineating our rank and relative value in comparison to others? It seems sad to me. It seems like such a waste of energy and attention that could be so much better spent on, oh, maybe, reinforcing what has been learned.

But hey, what can I do? The whole modernized world seems to have fallen into this trap, and even back home only a rare few schools offer any alternative — and no universities seem to, yet. When more advanced learning migrates online, as it eventually will, however, I think things will have to change. I would like for things to change, then, if not sooner.

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