One of the biggest challenges I face year after year in teaching—and one that seems to affect my teaching evaluations—is that students are convinced that they are doing poorly in my course, no matter how much I reassure them that this isn’t the case.
Part of the problem is that the university provides a standard grading scale, and many of the instructors in my department strictly implement, a grading scale where you need to earn 90% of the available points for an A, 80% for a B, and so on. A fixed, unalterable predetermined scale irks me significantly for a number of reasons:
- Chasing after an arbitrary goal is a bad way to actually learn material. I’d rather students worry about being able to apply what I teach them later than the grade they’re going to get.
- Difficulty must be pre-judged, and gauged accurately, to ensure a fair grade distribution. This means if I screw up the difficulty of a question, I end up “hosing” my students.
- There is little opportunity to recover from one or two mistakes on an exam during the semester, particularly if they are worth a large portion of the grade each. I don’t think one bad day should screw things up for my students.
- I could impose an alternate scale but then I’d be committed to that—same basic result just different checkpoints.
- Because of the nature of the class, it’s easy to make a mistake early on in a problem that means you can’t solve the rest of the problem, and the result must unfortunately be a low score (a student might make an error early and can only get 5 out of 20 points, but a mistake later on might result in a grade of 18 out of 20).
So I use the basic scale, but adjust it in the students’ favor at the end of the semester to adjust for what I think makes a fair and equitable grading distribution, and most students do reasonably well, because that’s an accurate reflection of their performance overall. But no matter how much I tell the students in the class that this will take place, no one really seems to believe it. (A typical distribution will typically be 20% A’s, with most of the rest B’s and C’s.)
Is there a way I can convince my students that even though my grading is strict but fair, even when students don’t get very good scores on individual graded exercises?
There has been some issue about the amount of adjustment going on, so I should probably clarify. Typically, the curve amounts to about two-thirds to a full letter grade: so the borderline for an A would be in the low 80's rather than 90. This curving amount leads to a distribution that is about 20% to 30% of the students receive an A, with about two-thirds B's and C's, and a smattering of D's and F's.
There was also the issue of how much grading is done, and it caused some confusion because I worked in two different positions where the grading is completely different. For the course I'm describing in this question, the students receive grades on every homework assignment, take a series of eight quizzes, and have a project in addition to a final. So students know what the "worst-case scenario" will be if there is no rescaling, so there is plenty of opportunity for feedback and course correction. My issue is absolutely not with grading—it's with grading on a predetermined scale.