1

I'd like to know my academic standing relative to other students. This information would help me with:

  • allocating my time and effort between classes
  • deciding whether to take a follow up course offered by this professor.

How should I proceed? Is this a routine question? Or should I explain why I need it? (The two reasons I cited above don't sound like something I'd like to mention to him.)

Edit:

  • Many professors at my university post detailed histograms of, say, midterm results, so I don't think my request would violate any laws.

  • The only reason I'd like to get this sort of information is because everyone's grade heavily depends on their standing relative to other students, see Grading on a curve.

  • 7
    You can ask, but you shouldn't. You will be more successful if you concern yourself with learning rather than competition. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 13 '16 at 9:43
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: I'm simply somewhat concerned about my grades and it's the system who relates it to competition, not me. For example, I'd like to relocate some of my time to the class where my relative standing is worse. I think it's reasonable and natural. – Leo Feb 13 '16 at 10:09
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    @AnonymousPhysicist It depends how competitive the environment is, or if the student is in danger of failing. To concern oneself only with learning, one must feel confident in one's situation. – Captain Emacs Feb 13 '16 at 11:53
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    Reading this post confused the hell out of me. I thought it was about requesting a family member to come and join in the class. Especially since said family member would help decide with time allocation and choosing to take a follow-up course. – user21268 Feb 13 '16 at 12:58
  • If you came to me with this request I wouldn't answer you. Mostly because I wouldn't have this data compiled already but given your additional specifics I simply would not honor such a cynical request. If you're doing well in my class why would I support your working less? If you're not then why don't you already know this? To put it another way, if I already agreed with you that this is a way to focus your studies I would have provided you with this data before you asked the question. – Dave Kanter Feb 15 '16 at 21:45
18

"How am I doing so far?" is perfectly reasonable and acceptable. "What can I do better?" is fine too. "Based on my performance so far, do you think you'd write me a good recommendation?" is okay; that's a legitimate concern. "What's your impression of me as a student?" is needy and annoying, but not outright wrong -- I've gotten this question before and answered it.

"How am I doing relative to everybody else?" is out-of-bounds. For one thing, in some legal jurisdictions the prof can't say much without risking breakage of student-privacy-related law. (Revealing another student's grade, for example, is a no-no in FERPAland.) For another, law or no law, you are the only student whose progress is your business. For a third, "tell me I'm the bestest ever!" is needy to the point of creepiness.

Sometimes this is unfortunate, e.g. the situation of someone in an intro CS course who is from an underrepresented group in technology, is catching flak from other students, and doesn't have an accomplishment-meter calibrated enough to ignore their nonsense. Still. Look to your own work; leave that of others alone.

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    "FERPAland" makes me think of a whimsical fantasy world filled with not-so-whimsical lawyers and higher ed. administrators. – tonysdg Feb 14 '16 at 20:35
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    Thanks, that's what I was looking for. And how about this phrasing: "If the term would end today, what grade would I get?" – Leo Feb 15 '16 at 7:22
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    "An incomplete." – RoboKaren Feb 16 '16 at 4:37
5

Asking about relative standing is a bad idea unless your grade in the class is derived to some extent from the relative standing. You don't have any business knowing how the other students are doing unless it affects you in some way.

Asking how you are doing in the class is acceptable if the instructor has not provided you with enough information to figure it out for yourself.

4

I'll go in a different direction from the other answers, based on this comment from the poster (which I feared to be the case even prior to the comment):

I'm simply somewhat concerned about my grades and it's the system who relates it to competition, not me.

Instructors should have an obligation to keep students informed about their progress in the class (e.g., it's one of the ten questions on our student evaluation form at my institution). If grades are based on relative standing in the class, and that relative standing is not otherwise communicated, then I think that inquiring about that is fair-game, and the instructor should be able to provide that information. In short: Instructors should be transparent about grading protocols.

Now, to come around to the other answers, I think that this highlights the fact that grading on a curve and relative standing is a disastrous idea, because it leads to exactly these kinds of extraneous concerns and interactions. Or worse: students being incited to actively sabotage other students to inflate their grade. Or my friend who was embarrassed when all his students made a pact to skip the final exam (and hence all get 100%'s by default).

To my ear, this sounds very old-school, because my father went to an Ivy professional school in the 60's, and class ranking was an important consideration to proceed -- but the faculty adviser would have a weekly session with each student, telling them their relative class standing, and threatening them to work harder or someone else would overtake their position. And sabotage did occur: students hiding key articles in the library in unexpected places so no one else could benefit from them, etc. Surely a grading system that reports on an objective scale, whether the student has mastered the necessary skills and knowledge in each course, serves better to focus students on the actual content of the discipline (as this example shows).

2

I, as one, would think very bad of a student who is "trying to optimize time allocated to each class" (presumably just to get a passing grade?) instead of concentrating on what is relevant, getting to master the contents of the course. You don't take classes to "get a grade" and move on to the next (often seen with "class passed, material forgotten"), you take them to learn.

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