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What is or should be the purpose of a "grade"?

I am going to be entering into TAing and grading students and this is a concept that I still can't wrap my head around. It still amazes me that this concept seems to be taken for granted, considering how many questions there are about grades, and yet the purpose is not clearly defined.

There seems to be a huge amount of arbitrariness in how grades are currently evaluated.

Is the purpose:

To evaluate the overall performance of a student in the course?

This seems to be how most teachers grade courses. I don't know that this is necessarily the best way.

Consider a student who completely understands the material, but refuses to or does not value doing homework. Should this student receive a lower "grade" in the course simply because she or he did not desire to put the time/value into your course, even though they already knew all the material?

To evaluate the final performance of the student?

Some teachers will treate courses this way, but it rarely seems to be explicitely stated.

Consider a student who fails every midterm, but she or he gets the highest grade on the final exam. You, the teacher, feel that the final accurately assesses someone's complete understanding of the material. Should this student not receive an "A" even though they seem to be able to complete your final exam better than any of the other students?

To say what the student is dedicated to?

Many teachers seem to put this as a value into grades.

Consider a student who attends every lecture, and office hours, but can't seem to completely grasp the material. He or she continually scores lower than other students (getting B's or B+'s on exams, while other students achieve A's). Should this person be bumped up to an A because he or she seems to care and be dedicated to the material, while someone else might have the same grade? You, the teacher, probably wouldn't have consider bumping up the less dedicated student without having heard from the other less dedicated student, and felt a sense of "fairness".

In reality the way I look at this situation, is that there is no way the more dedicated student should be bumped up. Consider that they spent so much more time and still aren't capable of grasping the material, while someone else was able to spend less time and grasp it to a better extent.

To show what the student will be capable of?

Consider that many students take very difficult conceptual courses and quickly forget the material. They would receive an A, and then quickly forget most of the importance of the course if they don't use it on a regular basis. On the other hand, some math courses are taught such that the student just has to be able to do the material, and they will be expected to understand the material later only if it is needed. This person would not receive an A in the prior, but would receive an A in the latter.

Most people would look at this question and say to just evaluate the course itself and leave the remembering to the student. Then the question is, what's the purpose of the A, if you don't care that the student actually be able to retain the information.


Others have stated that a clear objective leads to better grading.
By giving a rubric of what material will be graded on, you fix the issue of what's expected to be known.
However, this doesn't fix the issues of:

  • Should there be homework? If so, how should it be weighted?
  • Should someone be able to completely change their grade with the final?
  • Should a student's dedication be taken into consideration?
  • Should the students be graded on pragmatic knowledge, or knowledge they may quickly forget?
  • Should the course be difficult so the grade the student receives feels earned, simply to keep the student humble?
  • Should students be allowed to retake exams if they understand the material after reviewing their mistakes on the midterm? These students would understand the material better now and should be able to receive a higher grade.

And many other important questions that don't come to mind at this present point in time.
Please tell my I'm just crazy, and everyone sees something I don't.

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    The answer is subject to university/department policy and personal preference. There's no universally agreed upon standard on what a grade should reflect. – ff524 May 6 '14 at 4:48
  • @ff524 this is probably the real answer, it's just hard for me to look at a student and grade them when so much of it is somewhat arbitrary – Jordan May 6 '14 at 4:50
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    It's not totally arbitrary. You decide on the grading standards for your course based on its educational goals, you communicate them clearly to your students, and then you follow them. – ff524 May 6 '14 at 4:53
  • @ff524 I didn't say it was totally arbitrary. It's just disappointing if a student asks why I grade a certain way and I don't have a very good answer for the question. I think if I had a choice, I would allow the students to choose what they would be graded on. If you wanted to be graded on HW, Quizzes, and the Final, or if you wanted to be graded any of them individually or together, then why not allow that? If it ultimately comes down to personal preference, then why not allow the student to decide what you will grade them on? I feel the answer is because it's easier not to – Jordan May 6 '14 at 7:31
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    One theory that I was introduced to recently as a part of a course required for TAs is the constructive alignment. It seems to be quite widely adopted. See this introduction, as well as an accompanying video. Thinking in terms of the SOLO taxonomy also helps. It might be common-sensical, but I find it useful. – adipro May 6 '14 at 21:28
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Is the purpose:

To evaluate the overall performance of a student in the course?

Yes. This is how people reading a transcript will interpret the grade. When there is a single letter next to the name of a course, clearly it is meant to represent overall performance in this course. However, this doesn't really answer the question, because "overall performance" is not a precise term.

There is no single right answer to the question "what should be the meaning of a grade," but neither does it follow that your grades should incorporate every single feature that anyone has ever proposed. I think you are making the question too hard for yourself. However, I will share my thoughts on some of the points that you raise.

Is the purpose:

To evaluate the final performance of the student?

No, this is what the final exam (or final project) is for. It is possible to make the final exam be worth 100% of the grade, but the problems with this are (1) it makes it harder to motivate the students to do other work earlier in the term, (2) it may be more stressful for the student to have so much riding on a single exam, and (3) the effect of a grading mistake on the final exam would be magnified. Ideas like "let the final exam grade replace a lower midterm exam grade" are similar (to a first-order approximation) to making the final exam grade count for a larger percentage of the course, so they share these disadvantages.

To say what the student is dedicated to?

No. While dedication and hard work are admirable, they should only be reflected indirectly in the course grade (all else being equal, a hard-working student would tend to write a better paper, turn in more of the homework, and be better-prepared for an exam.) Attempting to short-circuit this process by measuring dedication directly is probably a bad idea. One reason is that it is a very difficult thing to measure objectively. Another is that it would be unfair to penalize a student who can do well without working hard; if the course wasn't hard enough, that's not the student's fault. So I agree with your assessment on this point.

To show what the student will be capable of?

No one can predict this. It would be silly even to try. Moreover, how could you defend such grades? You may be able to imagine saying "I gave you a relatively good grade, even though you scored poorly on the coursework, because I know that you will be capable of great things," can you really imagine saying "I gave you a relatively bad grade, even though you scored well on the coursework, because I predict that you will never amount to much of anything"? The ultimate worth of a grade is relative, so you can't say one without the other. (On second thought, maybe I am misunderstanding the meaning of this question; it is unclear to me.)

The answers to some of your other questions will depend on the course. But I think I can answer the following ones:

Should the course be difficult so the grade the student receives feels earned, simply to keep the student humble?

No, the course should be difficult only because the material is difficult to learn. Humility may be a desired side-effect of learning, but it's not what you should aim to produce.

Should students be allowed to retake exams if they understand the material after reviewing their mistakes on the midterm?

No, not the same exam; this would simply reward memorization. Learning from mistakes on the midterm exam will be rewarded on the final exam, assuming that it is cumulative.

  • Thanks for spending the time to work through all of this, I will start with my conclusion/theory. Courses are taught for a small group of students rather than for individuals... There are a couple statements made that I find slightly biased/without evidence... "No, this is what the final exam (or final project) is for." -Why can't you have both? If a student does well in the course but can't deal with the pressure of the final, then it won't count for as much, if the student does get one of the highest grades, then why not give them an A?... I wish stack exchange promoted more discussion >< – Jordan May 6 '14 at 7:20
  • To show what the student will be capable of? -This is more in reference to the course material... Should the course be more difficult such that the students are more likely to cram and forget, or should it be such that the students try and focus on gaining the more general knowledge that will allow them to understand the more difficult things later? This probably has a lot to do with the course, but in a general course, some teachers prefer to try and teach everything and end up with students that cram and lose sight of the purpose of the material. Grades are assigned based on these styles – Jordan May 6 '14 at 7:24
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    Should students be allowed to retake exams if they understand the material after reviewing their mistakes on the midterm? -I should have indicated that I didn't mean retaking the same exam. If a student take a midterm and then realizes many simple mistakes, then why shouldn't they be allowed to have a second chance to show their knowledge of the material? I know the final exam can show this, but generally teachers don't replace the midterm scores for these sections with the final exam sections covering the respective topics. This goes back to total vs. final performance. – Jordan May 6 '14 at 7:27
  • Courses are taught for a small group of students — Small? – JeffE May 6 '14 at 9:40
  • @JeffE Perhaps a large subset, rather than the individual students would have been better worded. – Jordan May 6 '14 at 17:09

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