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What is the idea behind giving a student a grade? It might sound like a funny question but I'm serious.

I ask because in my previous question about disputing a mark, it's hard for me to decide how many marks and how much effort I should put into having a mark changed. If the purpose of going to school is to learn (something presumably you don't already know) then how do marks fit into the equation?

Given some of the answers and comments on the question I'm curious, how did this mentality that marks are non-negotiable arise? There seems to be the belief the prof has a totalitarian rule over the students. This doesn't make sense, especially considering how commercialized some schools have become. In any other area of business if a client pays (e.g. a student pays tuition) and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service, then the company would work with them and either explain or change some part of the contract. How is it with teachers they get away with simply saying "that's the right mark"? (I know that's rather a facetious example but hopefully the point is clear). I'm certainly not suggesting one can or should be able to buy grades: rather I meant in business there seems to be a certain level of diplomacy which doesn't exist between students and teachers. For example in the question linked to it was mentioned that even if the wording to a question is vague, if there had been examples in class of a similar question then it should be known what is being asked for. This wouldn't happen in business. If a client said they wanted x, they're not going to pay for y; conversely if they had asked for x and wanted y, they're not going to sue the company.

It may be relevant to note that where I go to school, costs quite a bit of money (and it's a public university).

After reading this several months latter, I hope my tone didn't come across as too harsh.

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    I don't give grades. Students earn them. All I do is set and enforce the standard by which they are judged as objectively and fairly as possible (i.e. the test). – Paul Nov 10 '14 at 5:04
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    In any other area of business if a client pays and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service... — Yes, but the service is not the grade. The service is the opportunity to learn in a structured environment with like-minded peers, proper equipment, and expert feedback and advice. Among other things, you are paying for an honest professional opinion about your mastery of the material. – JeffE Nov 10 '14 at 5:39
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    It may be relevant to note that where I go to school, costs quite a bit of money. — Nope. Not relevant at all. – JeffE Nov 10 '14 at 5:39
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    What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that people apparently believe that being a customer gives you absolute say in how a business should be operated. I am a customer of World of Warcraft, and somehow I still can't make Blizzard send me great loot for free all the time. – xLeitix Nov 10 '14 at 14:47
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    I reserve the right to ask for a second opinion — Of course. And students have the right (and usually the opportunity) to retake any class from a different instructor. – JeffE Nov 10 '14 at 15:17

10 Answers 10

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A professor who I used to work with once gave me an explanation that I found quite useful for understanding the purpose and philosophy of grading. Universities, he said, must always struggle with a tension between two educational goals, illumination and certification.

  • Illumination means the intellectual development of the student, bringing them a deeper understanding of a subject, its relation to the world, and the deeper issues it may touch on. From the perspective of illumination, marks are intended to be feedback to students that helps them realize weaknesses in their understanding so that they can fix them.

  • Certification means evaluating a set of skills acquired by the students against an objective standard, to attempt to measure their fitness for certain tasks or professions. From the perspective of certification, marks are intended to be objective judgement of the fitness of the student for carrying out tasks requiring the skills taught in a class.

These two are often in tension with one another because certification pushes teaching toward rote practice and standardized testing and grading, while illumination pushes toward more open-ended exploration and interactive formats which can deliver much more benefit for apt students but are often very subjective. Most classes try to deliver both, to varying degrees of success, though some classes may almost entirely hew to a single side of the balance.

You need to decide what you're after from the classes that you take. From your "pay for service" tone, it sounds like you want the career value that comes from certification. But certification isn't valuable if the standard can be easily negotiated, and so professors have to set a standard and stick by it. Sometimes they are even forced to by regulations. From the perspective of certification, trying to negotiate for a better grade is trying to cheat the system and reduce the value of everybody's grades.

Moreover, one of the "meta-skills" that is always being certified is the ability to figure out what somebody wants from you. If you're out in industry and you deliver the wrong thing because you misinterpreted your client's needs and didn't ask for clarification, it will be difficult to argue that you should be given more partial credit.

If, on the other hand, you're after illumination, then grades are less important to begin with. In that case, it's more important to understand why you got the grade that you got, so that you can improve your understanding of the material. If you want illumination and you aren't getting it, you need to switch courses, majors, or institutions.

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    I'd mention that negotiating for a better grade is cheating if you expect to get the better grade purely because of the negotiation, but it's not cheating if you actually deserve the better grade (which is rare but possible). – David Z Nov 9 '14 at 8:11
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    @DavidZ Well, things do get overseen in tests. As well, it depends on the type of the test. We have oral exams, I wouldn't change anything because checking that someone understand math proofs in an ABCD test is ridiculous, but we all know that oral exams are "not precise" and "subjective". – yo' Nov 10 '14 at 7:46
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    A university is like some software-companies, which provide seminars with certification (for example Fulffy-Certified Database Admin) you also pay for 2 Services, the education and the certification. They could also be provided by two separate companies - like with many independent language tests - which only provide certification (and you also pay a lot for a TOEFL-Test and can't diskuss the grade they give you, because that is the reason their certification is worth anything!) – Falco Nov 10 '14 at 14:21
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    @DavidZ I feel like negotiation is somewhat inaccurate for certain situations. For example, my professor once subtracted double points for a single question that lowered me a letter grade. Would that be negotiation or pointing out the professor's error, which he corrected? – Compass Nov 10 '14 at 18:16
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    Good answer. Better instructors are capable of "moving the curve" between the tension. The most interesting was one professor who graded from A- to A. As the grader, I know that exactly 2 of the 50 students abused it. Maybe 10 really, really struggled to do well and would have been graded more harshly in a tougher course. But it was still obvious that the "certification" was far more accurate on average than inviting students to abuse trickier grading scales, and the illumination was explosively better. It was a management technique where you stop fighting entirely and it works better. – user18072 Nov 11 '14 at 17:52
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Given some of the answers and comments on the question I'm curious, how did this mentality that marks are non-negotiable arise? There seems to be the belief the prof has a totalitarian rule over the students. This doesn't make sense, especially considering how commercialized some schools have become. In any other area of business if a client pays (e.g. a student pays tuition) and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service, then the company would work with them and either explain or change some part of the contract.

I don't think "non-negotiable" is the right word. Marks can be questioned and even challenged. However such challenges are (outside of the movie Clueless) not negotiations, because that implies a business transaction in which the student is offering something in return.

[Also, professors do not have "totalitarian rule" over the students. We don't have any "rule" over the students. We can only ask them to do certain limited things and they get to decide whether to do them or not. It is of course very common for students to drop or exchange a class because they are not happy with some aspect of how it is being run. This is really the antithesis of totalitarian rule.]

Grading is not a business transaction. You seem to think (or at least be willing to argue) that modern academia is a business transaction in which the student is the client and the instructor is the service provider. Well, there is some truth to that, but it also has severe limitations. (By the way, I have found that most businesses whose services I enlist as a paying client have severe limitations on how they are willing to work with me or (especially) change part of the contract in response to my complaints. The threat of losing my business does something in some cases and very little in others.)

It is worth thinking about what services a university is actually providing, and to whom. If all you wanted from your university was to teach you courses and give you a grade at the end, you could enroll in internet classes at little (or no) cost. Most universities -- especially expensive ones -- are also certifying competence and providing prestige to their graduates. That is why you are paying them the big bucks. This only works if the grades themselves are not negotiable in the sense you mean. At a very elite university there will be considerable resources available for the student and steps taken to try to ensure their success, and the average GPA may be higher than at some other universities. But I taught calculus at Harvard for several years, and every time there were some students who got D's and F's. A B- in calculus at Harvard is a discouraging grade -- literally; it is meant to signal to the student to seriously shape up or not continue studying math -- but it does certify some amount of calculus knowledge. To get an A in calculus at Harvard you must indeed be very good at the subject: Harvard wouldn't be a top American university if it gave top grades to students who had not mastered the material.

Sometimes it helps to make the situation more extreme. If you think that "the student should always be right", perform this thought experiment: I will offer you the opportunity to take the COSATs, a consumer-oriented variant of the SATs. Every student who takes my exam will pass. In fact, every student who gets less than the 50th percentile will have their score reported as "satisfactory". And that's just for basic members. Silver members will be allowed to answer again the questions that they got wrong and will have their exams rescored. Gold members will be offered the same service together with additional instructional materials that will include complete and comprehensive answers to all exam questions. Platinum members get online access to the materials while taking the exam, in a patented "one-click: correct!" format. Of course the COSATs will cost money -- so do the SATs! But actually basic membership is cheaper than the SATs and silver, gold and platinum membership is surprisingly competitively priced. Are you interested?

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    I would think that coSATS are taken by lleges who apply to costudents. I will show myself out now. – Sasho Nikolov Nov 13 '14 at 0:01
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Grades do many things, and there is no general agreement which of those things is the most important. A few things that grades do are:

  • Grades motivate students to learn. Without grades, many students would not learn nearly as much, because the mere presence of grades encourages students to study.

  • Grades tell others whether students have mastered the material of the class (e.g. which students can count a class towards graduation, and which need to re-take the class).

  • Grades tell others how students compare with each other (e.g. to help determine which students are accepted to competitive graduate programs).

Even when they disagree about why grades are assigned, most professors do want to grade fairly, and will listen to student comments and consider them seriously. But, as I described in another post, the situation may be more complex than is apparent from a student perspective. Moreover, many universities have a system for "grade appeals" through which students can formally dispute grades. So, far from being "non-negotiable", grades are usually subject to review by the professor's superiors at the university.

In any other area of business if a client pays (e.g. a student pays tuition) and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service, then the company would work with them and either explain or change some part of the contract.

This is not really the case. Imagine two hypothetical scenarios.

  1. I buy an annual membership in a local warehouse club (e.g. Costco or Sam's Club), and then tell them I don't like their bananas, and I want them to buy some other kind. They are likely to ignore me, unless many other people make a similar request. They may well just tell me to go buy bananas somewhere else if I don't like the ones they offer. There are various opinions about whether universities can afford to take a similar position with their students.

  2. I hire a professional opera singer, but then I tell her that I want her to sing pop songs, and by the way can she also lose a little weight and learn how to dance better? She's just as likely to just tell me "no" as she is to work with me to figure out which pop songs I prefer. She has an uncommon skill that is sufficiently in demand to keep her employed. There are various opinions about whether professors are in a similar situation.

The applicability of #1 and #2 to universities can certainly be questioned. These examples are just meant to show that it is not universally true that a paying customer can negotiate freely with the company or person being paid. This goes against the idea that this sort of negotiation should "also" apply at universities.

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First off, I would say that the primary importance of a grade is to be able to certify that you actually mastered the material. Simply knowing "X attended Y university and studied Z" tells me next to nothing about how much X knows about Z without the additional information provided by grades. This is not to say that GPA is the end-all-be-all of the hiring process, but it does make a significant difference in my ability to determine how successful the candidate was in work similar to what I'm wanting him or her to do if hired. This is especially true for candidates who are recent graduates and don't have an extensive work experience to point to. It can also be helpful in cases where a candidate can't give much in the way of specifics about prior work projects, such as if those projects were classified or otherwise secretive in nature.

Second, Regarding this portion of the question:

In any other area of business if a client pays (e.g. a student pays tuition) and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service, then the company would work with them and either explain or change some part of the contract.

In order to serve their above-stated purpose, it is essential that grades be objective. If you can buy a grade, it is worth absolutely nothing because it does not serve the purpose of a grade. In order for the degrees granted by an institution to be valuable, the grading process must be held to high standards of ethics and objectivity. Having those standards violated is an enormous black mark on the reputation of the institution. Furthermore, when discovered, it will likely result in the termination of those involved. For a recent example, see UNC Chapel Hill academics-athletics scandal.

As far as the 'customer' analogy is concerned, consider that you are not the only customer of the institution. If the institution allows you to get a degree and a good GPA without actually mastering the material, that makes not only your degree worthless, but also the degrees of everyone else in that program. Since it can be reasonably assumed that most of the other students and alumni don't want their degrees to be useless, the institution is, in fact, acting in accordance with what their 'customers' want by maintaining the integrity of the grading process.

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    +1. Part of what you are paying for is an independent assessment of your accomplishments, which others will understand was not influenced by you. – Nate Eldredge Nov 10 '14 at 1:35
  • Hate to say it but you would never, ever hire me if you saw my undergraduate GPA. And yet I've gone on to teach Masters' level computer programming at some pretty prestigious schools WITHOUT an advanced degree or formal education in computer science and now work for a leading technology company in a very senior position. I just found school boring and why should I care about grades that come from teachers who made no effort to challenge me? Doubt this will change your mind about anything, but had to point that out. – Dave Kanter Nov 11 '14 at 18:10
  • @DaveKaye That's why I said it's not the end-all-be-all of the hiring process and is mostly important for recent graduates without much work experience. There are lots of great self-taught professionals, though they're more the exception than the rule these days. Teaching Master's level classes does surprise me, though. That's generally forbidden for someone without a Ph.D. in the field at the universities I've been familiar with (in the U.S.) A Master's degree is required even to teach undergraduate courses at the university I attended. – reirab Nov 11 '14 at 19:39
  • @DaveKaye Grades certainly aren't the only way to know how well someone knows something, but they are an important way to know, again, especially for those without much other relevant experience. – reirab Nov 11 '14 at 19:41
  • Eh, maybe. Having done plenty of admissions and hiring if I see a student has done some other kind of outstanding work I'm not sure I'm even going to be wondering about GPA or test scores at that point. I mean, I don't think that Bill Gates guy has a Ph.D. Think he could get a job teaching at Stanford? Also know many students who coast through college taking "easy A" classes and even dropping classes if they feel they can't get an A. So yes, nice to have a perfect 4.0, but it's but one factor among many, and stops mattering pretty quickly in your career. – Dave Kanter Nov 13 '14 at 13:08
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If the purpose of going to school is to learn [...] then how do marks fit into the equation?

Grades are a "cheap" way of assessing what a student has learned on a specific topic. Imperfect and cheap as they are, grades are nonetheless one of the best tools that we (as humans) were able to conceive for assessing learning without introducing more serious problems (experiments have been made, but with doubtful success).

But let me stress a few facts about grades and grading which sometimes students overlook:

  • Sometimes students are discouraged by bad grades because they feel deflated as persons. Grades, however, do not assess personal or moral qualities: better grades do not make better people. As I said, a grade is just a measure of what a student has learned or understood on a specific topic and, also, of his ability to convey this learning to other people (don't underestimate this part!). But no more than that.
  • Grades are not proportional to the amount of study done. This might seem unfair: I've studied so much, I deserve a better grade! Rather, grades are roughly proportional to the quality of your study. If you study a lot and you don't get good grades, probably you have to change your approach.
  • Grades are the result of a measurement and, as such, are subject to uncertainty. There is no such thing as a right grade as there is no such thing as an exact measurement. The amount of uncertainty depends on many factors, e.g. the type of exam, the grader, the neatness of students' papers etc. A professor should try to keep this uncertainty to a minimum, but it will be never negligible.
  • Grades can't be negotiated in the sense of "hey prof, here I should've got 3 more marks", but you can say "I think that this piece of solution, which was marked as wrong, might be right because of this and that etc.". Then, if the professor recognizes that you're right, he or she will upgrade your marks on the basis of their rubric; if they think you're wrong anyway, they will explain where your argument fails.
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Based on my experiences I realized that most students make more effort if the course is graded rather than its result is just marked by Pass or Fail. Consequently they learn more. Of course there are also exceptions: the situations where they make effort regardless of the grade.

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This is not so much an answer as an extended comment on 'the right mark' from someone who has to allocate marks.

On the whole I would not say with certainty that a mark I have given is 'the right mark' (well, unless it's 0), only that it's close enough. For most questions that are useful for actually teaching students something, it's very difficult to be completely objective. Even if you start with a detailed mark scheme, the way you decide whether something slides across the yes/no divide will change over the course of a large pile of scripts. I also often suspect that some students get the marks more by luck than judgement. For this reason I think it's best to have worked in to the grade system a way of checking borderline cases.

Not discussing marks also acts a defense mechanism, particularly in cultures where students are focused more on marks than learning. I believe it is not unusual for a large section of a class to try and argue for more marks. This is frustrating just in terms of being time-consuming for anyone, and disappointing for people who really care about the students learning. It can also be particularly difficult when students understand so little of the topic that they cannot be shown why they are wrong.

Another thing I've come across, particularly in the context of north American large classes, is 'I'm really close to the grade boundary so it's not fair to give me the lower grade'. When there are hundreds of students, and grade boundaries are 5% apart, being 0.8% below a boundary can mean there are 5 or more students closer to the grade boundary!

In the other direction, if you really feel your grade is substantially wrong, do ask about it. It can be a mistake, particularly if the marker has not noticed part of your work, or added up the marks wrong.

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    My favorite "not even wrong" argument was a student who complained that we had marked his (completely broken) code as incorrect even though it had most of the same words as the sample answer. – jakebeal Nov 9 '14 at 13:50
  • @jakebeal I took a drafting class where a student complained of not getting 100% because he got the teacher to demonstrate the entire solution to him and he copied all of it. – Celeritas Dec 14 '16 at 12:01
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While I generally agree with the answer by @jakebeal, I also wanted to note what is probably the single most important part of the reason we grade (which I don't see mentioned).

The ultimate point of education is to create individuals capable of producing work of sufficient, consistent quality. The ability to self-evaluate and recalibrate towards the desired quality is the essential component of consistency (at least for mere mortals).

While the instructive and gate-keeping functions of grades are important, the feedback grades convey helps us create an internal model of what qualifies as "good" and "bad" and "mediocre" work in our fields. If we don't build models (and learn to apply them to our own work), we'll forever be at the mercy of hand-holders and gate-keepers to tell us what we've done wrong.

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Historically, grades are relatively recent in the university system. The first universities in the modern sense sprouted up in the High Middle Ages (circa 1200 and afterwards). They used disputations (formal, logical, oral debates) as a means of assessment. Grading began in the 1800s when professors wanted a quicker way of assessing progress; those professors using grades were considered lazy.

cf. "History of Grading Systems" by Nicole Lassahn.

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This doesn't make sense, especially considering how commercialized some schools have become.

Commercialization doesn't go in pair with quality. At least in my region, private universities are infamous for very poor quality, and yes, there you can negotiate marks untill you are happy, or at least, you can expect not to fail until you pay.

In any other area of business if a client pays (e.g. a student pays tuition) and is dissatisfied or has a concern about a service, then the company would work with them and either explain or change some part of the contract.

Not at all. You can, for example, be dissatisfied with mobile network quality, but all you can hear is 'we're sorry, but we can't assert 100% coverage neither 100% availability in peak hours'.

But going to the main point:

What is the idea behind giving a student a grade?

You can consider it a service, which prooves the quality and quantity in which you cope with the given tasks. You become a syllabus and a limited time. The marks proof how much of the material you were able to process. It makes them very valuable - a student that has many 5 marks have usually coped (almost) fully with the expectations. A studen with 4 had some issues, a student with 3 has coped in a mediocre way, however good enough not to fail.

It may be relevant to note that where I go to school, costs quite a bit of money.

If it would be relevant, it would mean, you are buying your certification, and it would make it of mediocre quality, because the whole point of the exams and the certification would be lost (which is the case in my country, where the private universities are considered mediocre because of that).

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