Grade Grubbing: An Update

So, something I would have thought impossible happened, and I thought it would be worth noting for posterity: grade grubbing has dropped to almost zero in my classes. 

There are a few reasons why this has happened.  

1. The Kim Young Ran Law got passed.

Hands down, this is the main thing that has helped. A few years ago, the Anti-Graft and -Corruption Law was passed. (It’s also referred to as the Kim Young Ran Law sometimes.) The effect among university administrators was immediate: they stopped being willing to accept even the smallest thank-you present from anyone: one guy helped me with some minor clerical issue, and when I tried to give him a can of orange juice as a thank-you (a common sort of gesture in the past), he turned me down and cited the law. 

It took a little longer, but finally that filtered down to formal rules for when students email asking for a higher grade. This semester, for the first time, we were explicitly told what to do by the university when a student makes a request for a grade change for any reason other than the correction of an error. The short version? We have to do the following:

  1. Tell them we don’t intend to change the grade. 
  2. Warn them that if they repeat the request, it will be reported to the university. 
  3. Immediately report any offer of gifts or bribes in exchange for a grade change. 

Students are, of course, still allowed to inquire about the details of their grades, and they still do. But even this is less frequent. In part, that’s probably because a lot of people were only ever asking about their grades in the hope that they could complain or demand a higher one, on the off-chance that the prof might just change it. (I used to call this “grade phishing,” and it was pretty rampant for years.)

It’s also changed for another reason, though: 

2. Grading on Blackboard is highly transparent. 

Students who submit their work on paper tend not to track results: they can get Bs and Cs on homework and assignments, but still forget about all that when they score A on an exam, and then end up expecting an A in the course. 

With grades tracked and transparently visible in Blackboard—which seems to have become pretty much the norm during the pandemic—this is much less of a problem. They see the results on their past homework assignments anytime they check their grades on anything new. 

Of course, the grade-calculation system on Blackboard is painfully rudimentary: it can’t be used to perform the kinds of calculations I make for students’ Participation/Attendance grades. However, as far as it goes, at the end of the semester, they’re able to see exactly what marks they earned in four of the five graded components in my classes. What that means is that they’re a lot less surprised when they see their final grade: all they really learn is what they scored in Participation/Attendance, after all; and besides, they can see exactly how the grades they earned on each homework assignment relate to the overall grade. 

These two changes have pretty much killed off the grade grubbing among undergrads that used to be endemic at universities in Korea. The end of semester used to always be a barrage of emails from students begging for higher grades, and even sometimes emails from “concerned” or rate parents. However, during the last few semesters,  it’s died out almost completely. This time around, I think I got a total of four emails, half of which were just polite thank-yous and goodbyes. (Oh, and teaching assessments have improved as a result, too. Or, at least, I think that’s part of why they’ve improved.)

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I still think the best way to improve education would be to get rid of grades altogether; I found Adam Ruben’s suggestion of this path apt, though he’s right that grades determine a lot, and unfairness with grades is also a real problem. 

Which I guess reminds me: we’re still forced to use a class-by-class grading curve that inevitably punishes the great classes. (It also seems to convince students in subpar classes that they will automatically enjoy grade inflation, which… well, not in my class.) I am open and honest with my students about how unfair I think the grading curve is, about how we should at least be able to apply it to the full set of sections of the same course when we’re teaching more than one, and how professors—especially foreign professors—have no power to overrule administration’s demands in this area. I keep waiting for the student government to demand a change, but… well, maybe they don’t think it’s possible, or have no idea how it could be done. I’m not sure. 

And so it goes…

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