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I am currently teaching undergraduate level courses in mathematics and engineering in a university in the United States. My university requires us to go through some training on how to make our classroom more welcoming to a broader student body. Whether this is a worthwhile goal is another topic for another day. I want to ask about something more concrete.

From our discussion, we came up with a "tiered grading system" where students decide the level of difficulty they'll be assessed at. In this system, each tier represents a varying depth or complexity of the course content, potentially meaning more in-depth study, harder examination questions, or more complex assignments.

By choosing a higher tier, students may face higher difficulties or workloads, but they also stand the chance to demonstrate a higher level of understanding and mastery of the subject area. Conversely, a lower tier might involve less advanced study but would also offer less opportunity to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the topic. Students could switch tiers at any time.

However, regardless of the tier chosen, the top grade (e.g. an 'A') could be achieved within each tier, according to the individual expectations and assessment criteria of that tier. It's a system that can individualize the learning pathway and assessment, according to the abilities, aspirations, and learning strategies of each student. Outside of the classroom, there will be no indication (e.g., on transcripts) of which tier a particular student chose.

This approach can be beneficial as it allows students to learn at a pace and depth that best suits their abilities and/or career goals.

My question is, ignoring the extra time and effort required from the instructors, is there any ethical (or even legal) issue with this approach?

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  • "From our discussion..." -- What discussion, specifically? Exactly where and who was involved? Does this discussion require specific deliverables? Are you a brand-new instructor (probably)? Are you full or part-time? Do you have other duties (e.g., in administrative staff)? Feb 25 at 2:31
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    – cag51
    Feb 25 at 6:38
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    Can you add whether the university is accredited and if so, has there been any discussion on whether tiered grading would affect accreditation? Feb 25 at 7:55
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    Why is this different from having multiple alternative courses for the same topic? (Most commonly, with 1st/2nd year calculus/analysis and linear algebra.) In many universities, there are probably 4-5 at least variations of courses on the same topic and students are allowed to use more advanced variants to substitute the less advanced ones.
    – Argyll
    Feb 25 at 21:21
  • @ToddWilcox Yes, the university is accredited, which I should have mentioned. But my question is unrelated to accreditation. Our local accreditor SACSCOC is not concerned with classroom grading methods. They focus on the faculty's responsibility for the curriculum (they states this explicitly in their handbook). Different colleges in our region have various grading systems, from traditional exams to "ungrading" (which means no grading).
    – Bilbo
    Feb 26 at 15:24

8 Answers 8

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In this system, each tier represents a varying depth or complexity of the course content, potentially meaning more in-depth study, harder examination questions, or more complex assignments.

It's a system that can individualize the learning pathway and assessment, according to the abilities, aspirations, and learning strategies of each student.

This shouldn't be accomplished by having different grading tiers within the same class. This is what 100, 200, 300, and 400 level courses offerings are for. Students that want less complex course content on a course should be taking the introductory 100/200 level courses. Students that want in-depth, harder questions to get complete mastery over a course should be taking 300/400 level courses. People who are evaluating student transcripts for, e.g., grad school or entry level jobs are not going to look into a your custom grading scheme and see that Alice's "B" is actually worth more than Bob's "A" because she took the harder track in the same course.

This would also be very difficult from an in-class perspective to accomplish this. Which of these tiers are the in-class conversations/lectures/discussions going to tailor to? Are you expecting the "deep" track students to be doing a bunch of extra work outside the classroom, while the "surface level" students are able to get what they need just during the class period? If so, that seems really unfair and potentially unethical that both of these tiers are getting the same course credit.

I think there are a lot of problems with this approach that are, again, already solved by having 100-400 level classes.

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    I think it's really unfair to have a system for a class in which two students can do the exact same quality of work and obtain the exact same level of mastery, but because one of them chose poorly at the beginning of class to be in the "hard tier" they are now penalized for it and get a lower grade than the person who chose the easy tier. It's also potentially unethical because you're messing with understood and established amounts of work for the course credit requirements for this course - depending on which tier of student your in-class lectures are catering to, the other tier is going Feb 23 at 22:39
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    @Bilbo of they can change it at any time, then lean in to that and have them only choose it at the end of the semester.... But, ethics aside, the practicalities around the idea lead to an absurd level of doubt that it will achieve the intended outcomes. I'm surprised you're not seeing that, especially after the tangential feedback gleaned from this Q&A. Feb 24 at 2:52
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    @Bilbo if the students can change at any time, what exactly is the point of this whole exercise? Why don't you just offer supplemental material that students who are interested can check out, without any penalty if they fail? Feb 24 at 14:14
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    @Barmar Cool, I guess? That's not really analogous to this situation. Going to "difficult" schools comes with the added benefit of having "I graduated from an Ivy League school" on the resume. Your MIT 'C' may be worth far more than an average college's 'A' to future employers. The system proposed here doesn't have any such benefit to the student. The students in this class that want mastery of the subject for intrinsic reasons are likely already going to be looking into that topic on their own time. There's no reason for them to risk getting a lower grade in this situation. Feb 26 at 1:28
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    @Barmar This is plain false. Harvard and MIT come inherently with credit due to their status, this is why anyone who went there makes sure to make this fact known when looking for a job. On top, whether the quality of education is actually better at these universities is debatable. Feb 26 at 10:00
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Yes, there are potentially both ethical and legal issues with this proposal. As already mentioned it completely ignores the existing course numbering standard used by practically all other US institutions to indicate level of subject difficulty (and therefore mastery). That unusual decision aside, this creates some serious problems for your students, and therefore the institution as well. Even if this proposed scheme were to work perfectly internally, every single student completely motivated and honest, and the bespoke grading scheme somehow conveyed clearly on transcripts.

Focus just on engineering students as an example, since these are engineering courses. A few high-level examples immediately come to mind:

  • Course credits could be deemed invalid or lower level when students transfer to other academic institutions.
  • The institution's technical degrees may not be recognized by employers or regulatory boards, making your graduates less desirable or even unemployable in their field of study.
  • Your students would not be held to the same level of mastery as their peers at other institutions, resulting in:
    • an unfair advantage over their peers on paper, from inflated GPAs.
    • reduced ability to perform their duties in real-world industry positions.
    • reduced quality and safety of work performed, to the detriment of the public.

I am not overstating these problems - employment (let alone advancement) in many engineering fields legally requires a degree from an program accredited by ABET, which outlines the importance and consequences pretty clearly (emphasis mine):

In the United States, for example, where professional licensure for the engineering and surveying professions is regulated at the state level, graduation from an ABET-accredited program is almost universally required to validate the educational experience of applicants. In states where non-ABET graduates are permitted to be licensed, an additional four to eight years of work experience may be required.

Many jurisdictions require graduation from an ABET-accredited program as a minimum qualification for registration to practice because it signifies preparation for entry into the profession. For example, United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires applicants in computing to have graduated from an ABET-accredited program before they are eligible to sit for the Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases.

To promote the global career mobility of technical professionals, we participate in a number of Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA). Graduates of programs accredited by an agency that is a signatory to these MRAs may be recognized for the purposes of licensure, registration or certification.

That last paragraph, by inductive reasoning, means that non-accredited engineering degrees carry the same legal and professional weight in the US as one printed on the side of a cereal box. If this is a concern, your STEM program directors should at the very least reach out to ABET well in advance of adoption to get an official written opinion on whether this grading scheme meets the ABET program accreditation criteria.

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    Excellent response, with professional-level details and arguments. Feb 24 at 15:36
  • @brichins Thanks for the detailed references! My question has no direct connection to accreditation. Our accreditation agency is being very explicit about it. They have no say in how grading can/should be done.
    – Bilbo
    Feb 26 at 16:02
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    Our accreditation agency [has] no say in how grading can/should be done. Internally no, but surely they will consider it when they are evaluating whether to begin/continue putting their stamp of approval on the programs. I know from experience that as part of their recurring institutional reviews, ABET reps will review individual course syllabi and even attend sessions in person. I would expect reading "choose your own evaluation scale" to be a red flag for any accreditation org, as it's in fundamental opposition to their purpose.
    – brichins
    Feb 26 at 19:01
  • @brichins We are accredited by SACS. For SACS, it's the other way around. The institution has to conduct detailed "Self study". So internally, these kind of practice has to be evaluated. But SACS does not have a say on this level of detail. They explicitly leave this kind of decision to the faculty. Of course, "choose your own evaluation scale" would sound strange to anyone. And I certainly don't mean that. Each instructor still choose the evaluation scales. It's just there may be several.
    – Bilbo
    Feb 26 at 21:48
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    @Bilbo Yes, you do a self-study for SACS, but then SACS evaluators visit to verify the self-study. If you explain the tiered system in the self-study, expect many questions. If you don't explain it and the evaluators find out about it, expect big trouble.
    – Bob Brown
    Feb 26 at 22:54
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If you are grading different students based on different criteria without the students agreeing to this scheme, surely that would be both unethical and illegal.

Here you are giving students the choice of which level of difficulty they want to be assessed at. In that case I don’t see an ethical issue (at least if this weird concept is explained to the students clearly enough), but the only possible outcome of such an experiment is that all students will choose the easiest tier.

I’m not saying some students don’t want to work harder or go more in depth with the material. But grades have significant real-life implications, and no sane student will voluntarily choose to be graded more harshly than other students.

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    Illegal seems a bit strong, no? Prone to investigation by an accrediting body, maybe, but I can't imagine a court of law being involved.
    – user176372
    Feb 23 at 19:01
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    Yeah, basically the "perverse incentives" I mention in my comment. To be honest, there is an element of ethical skewing here, as the course may be advertised as having different tiers does not make it entirely obvious to an external recipient of the transcript that the mark likely reflects the performance in the lowest tier. Vice versa, should a student still choose a difficult tier, a perceptive reader of the transcript might mistakenly consider them a low-achiever because of the incentive structure. Students agreeing to the scheme may not be aware of that. This makes the scheme questionable. Feb 23 at 19:03
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    In short, much depends on the knowledge and insight state of student and external reader, which automatically creates intransparent, and therefore problematic situations. The best Nash move for a student is to pick the lowest tier, the best Nash move for someone reading the transcript is to assume the student has taken the lowest tier and high marks are thus not worth much. Nash misery. If one interprets the grade that a school awards as the "currency" of the school, the school is offering low-value currency when it had the choice to do better. I feel this is ethically problematic. Feb 23 at 19:11
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    @CaptainEmacs let’s not overthink things. I’d say it’s more accurate to say it’s a dumb idea, but the problem with it has little to do with ethics.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 23 at 19:28
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    @DanRomik Dumb can be worse than unethical. See Cipolla's laws. :-) But I agree, the Dumbness is strong with this idea; stronger than the Evil. Feb 23 at 19:51
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No, because you do not understand the basic concept of grading

Grading based on effort is lovely. In an ideal world, that would be all you wanted, with education happening for its own sake, and every student simply measuring themselves against their own potential.

In the real world though, that's not the case. Grades at all levels of education are explicitly required to give direct comparison of achievement with other students - and not even just students in that cohort, but all students who have ever taken that course. And in many countries, that extends to giving direct comparison with all students who have ever taken that course at every institution in that country.

We need this to be the case because education is not an ivory tower operating in beautiful isolation. It is a process for producing people who are more able to do work that requires a certain level of skill. That may sound "industrial" - and it absolutely is! You are not employed to make your students happy little humans now, you're employed to prepare them for work in 3 years time. And the grades you give are how future employers know who to select.

In an ideal world, of course we would merely be pursuing education for the sake of education. That's how it used to work, back when education was restricted to the children of the ultra-wealthy. They could do whatever they wanted, secure in the knowledge that their life of privilege would never require their education to be applied, and looking down on anyone who had to do anything as menial as actually work for a living.

I'm concerned that as an educator you're still stuck in this antique concept of what education should be, because that entire concept is inherently discriminatory and elitist. If you even see this as desirable then I can tell you right now that you are already disadvantaging your students. Please stop and look at what you're employed to do, and what your students are paying large amounts of money for. This really and truly isn't it.

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  • "And in many countries, that extends to giving direct comparison with all students who have ever taken that course at every institution in that country." Is there an example of such a country? I work in the US, this is a rather alien concept to me.
    – Timmy
    Feb 24 at 19:24
  • Grades are required to give comparision with all other students who have ever taken the course? If there are more than 1 grader involved, anyone who really believes that has probably never set a foot into higher education.
    – user111388
    Feb 25 at 18:40
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    "Grades at all levels of education are explicitly required to give direct comparison of achievement with other students" - In the US, public K-8 schools are required to give individualized education plans to students that need it. In contrast to ADA-based accomodations, IEPs may be such that students on an IEP have grades that, unbeknownst to third parties, cannot be compared to other students. In some cases, this distinction cannot be marked on the student's transcript (see "transcripts" section).
    – Brian
    Feb 26 at 14:43
  • @Timmy Ironically enough, the USA could be your example. From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_grading_in_the_United_States, "With the adoption of standards-based education, most states have created examinations in which students are compared to a standard of what educators, employers, parents, and other stakeholders have determined to be what every student should know and be able to do. Students are graded as exceeding, meeting, or falling below the standard. The advantage is that students are not compared against each other, and all have the opportunity to pass the standard."
    – Graham
    Feb 26 at 22:08
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    @Graham Maybe you have misread the question? OP is talking about university level courses. Not middle school and high school. These are very different worlds. In US, the closest thing to what you are talking about are SAT , ACT, GRE tests (and etc). And these have nothing to do with what the OP is talking about. Also, did you notice the last sentence you quoted? "...the advantage is that students are not compared against each other..."
    – Timmy
    Feb 26 at 23:01
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I've seen this in practice -- the same class had both students taking the 600 level version (first-rung graduate level) and the 400 level version (senior undergraduate level.)

Both groups attended the same lectures and took the same exams, but the assignments and grading scales were different.

This neatly solves the "race to the bottom" problem as students who wanted graduate credit had to put in graduate level effort and attain graduate-level understanding.

Another possibility I have seen is a classroom with both letter grade students and pass/fail students; students taking the class pass/fail would not generally put in much more effort than a low level pass.

On a far more ad hoc level, my high school had very few students studying German, so my German I classroom also had German II and IV students in the same room. Lessons were usually separate, but there were a few inclusive exercises and the higher level students were held to a much higher standard.

But again, this wasn't the same as giving students the option to take a class "on easy mode" for the same credit.

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I will note that the OPs proposal is already in effect at every University: when Linear Algebra I is being offered in 5 sections by 5 different professors, everyone will look at Rate My Professor. They will self select into a section according to whether the professor is rated hard or easy. A grade of A in one section could mean "the student is capable of computing columns space, row space, inverses, etc using our one tool: Gaussian Elimination". A grade of A in another section could mean "the student can prove all of the basic theorems in the setting of a general abstract vector space and perform all of the calculations in a variety of ways".

To pretend that grades in courses have an objective meaning when even in a single University the meaning can change so radically from one section to another is intellectually dishonest.

For this reason, I think that OPs proposal is ethical.

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    My experience is that when multiple sections are held for early courses, there is a common final exam, graded uniformly, usually by TAs. A TA grades a question for all sections, not all questions for one section. This assures some uniformity. Moreover, not everyone will fit in the same section.
    – Buffy
    Feb 24 at 16:56
  • @Buffy Certainly OP would not be able to implement their proposal in a course with tight coordination. It presupposes that we are in a course where each instructor has considerable freedom in course design and evaluation (as is typical in mid to upper level courses). In such a situation I cannot see why implementing "levels" in one course is so different from having different instructors produce radically different difficulty levels for different sections. Feb 24 at 17:02
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    My former department also offer two different linear algebra course. One emphasis on proofs, which also serves as the gateway course for higher level math path way and is therefore quite difficult. The other one is MATLAB based and focus on the practical aspect. The two courses have the exact same course number and title. They are usually taught by the same instructor/TA teams. One wouldn't be able to tell the difference just by looking at the transcript.
    – Timmy
    Feb 24 at 19:43
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    In my current department at a smaller university, we also offer two very different linear algebra courses with course numbers that differ by just one digit. It's hard for outsiders to distinguish between them. It's unfortunate that this answer, the only one so far that considers actual reality, got downvotes.
    – Timmy
    Feb 24 at 19:47
  • Just because current institutions can get away with this doesn't make it ethical. But perhaps being explicit about it would make it easier for accrediting agencies to regulate it. If it leads to increased transparency, it might be more ethical.
    – jpaugh
    Feb 25 at 18:50
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Tiered grading systems are not a new concept in universities, but from experience tiers are given separate course numbers and are taught separately. For example, most freshman level classes at my college can be taken with various levels of difficulty. With respect to GPA, an A in the "easy" class had the exact value as in the "hard" class. Similarly at the other end, undergraduates can take some graduate level classes but the grading scale may vary depending on the class and instructor.

Also keep in mind that instructors in non-tiered classes may give optional work for which there is no indication in the GPA or class number or any other record.

I do not see an ethical dilemma for tiered classes, per se, so long as graders do not bring personal biases and try to punish the "easy" tier as a means of rewarding students in the "hard" tier. Clear grading rubrics for each should help, but personal preference would be for different graders for each tier.

Regarding grad school and employers, there is virtually no way to know whether two schools have the same difficulty or same grading scale for the same class. Grades are not some absolute metric. It is best not to concern yourself with what others may do with the grade and just focus on teaching your students. In my opinion, grades are for the student.

Two top universities which each draw students from the same pool WRT grades, SATs, etc post their freshman calc grades. One has almost all As and Bs. The other ranges from F to A. Which school has the better students?

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Other answers have noted the difficulty of clearly communicating the grading scheme to e.g. grad school admission officials or employers. The same applies here, but the grading and class work may be easier to conduct and the ethical concerns about the fairness of grading may be diminished under the following scheme.

At one highschool I attended, some classes could be taken with an optional AC (advanced credit IIRC) qualifier. In doing so, the student agreed to take on a certain number of extra projects, some of which might have to be presented in class for the benefit of all. Non-completion of these projects would result in grade deduction (with the AC qualifier still present on the transcript). All other grading and class work was the same for all students.

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  • Does the optional AC qualifier show up in transcripts? Are you aware of similar practice in colleges?
    – Bilbo
    Feb 26 at 16:09
  • Yes, shown on transcript, presumably with explanatory text. Unaware of practice in college, except at undergraduate admissions, presumably.
    – TAR86
    Feb 26 at 19:00

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