I happened to be chatting a couple of days ago with a professor from Harvard about grade inflation.  He is not worried by the fact that the scale’s been reduced so drastically.  For him, A,  A-, B+, and B (the only four viable grades at Harvard, as here) work perfectly well.  They are a code, he says, and we can all decipher it.  These four grades convey as much information as a broader scale would.  The finessing can be done in letters of recommendation.

It took me a while to figure out why he and I differ on the issue.  He teaches in a graduate school.  For him, grades are primarily an admissions tool:  he uses grades to work out whether a student should be allowed to enter his program.  From this perspective, he is right.  There is a code;  we all do understand it;  and the four-grade scale gives us as much information as we need.  But I do not think of grades primarily as conveying information.  I think of them as challenging a student to do her best.  For this, I need sometimes to be able to give a student a lower grade without it destroying her career.

One possible solution is to give two grades, the code-grade that goes on the transcript and the grade you think the work actually deserves.  This system is widely associated with Harvey Mansfield, but I’ve recently learned that Gayatri Spivak uses it too.  The problem, though, as a colleague points out, is that our students aren’t likely to care much about the second grade.  We aren’t Mansfield or Spivak, and work marked A-/B- is more likely to make our students resent us than to spur them to more effort.


9 thoughts on “Grades

  1. I cared about what grade you gave me because I felt like you cared about me, my intellectual evolution. Perhaps this raises a question about how much a grade is also a bridge between a student and a teacher emotionally. I had a pretty hard time opening up to professors who felt quite comfortable giving me terrible grades even though I showed up to all their classes, did all the homework, and went to office hours etc. I assumed they thought I was a lost cause, so I despised them a bit for giving up on me. Thus, the grade
    “didn’t matter.”

    Grades are a black box for students sometimes (perhaps this point of view is exacerbated by my experience in law school). Students don’t get to hear “Well, you got a B, because 4 other students wrote an essay which referenced the reading materials, which made their analysis much richer.” Not even at Pomona, not as much as one would hope. I think a little transparency goes a long way to getting people invested in your point of view as an instructor such that they would care about making you proud.

  2. Yeah. Well, you sometimes wrote papers that were off the beaten track. I like this — it makes me care — and sometimes I reward it with better grades. But everyone is worried about giving too many As, and I’m sure some professors saw your eccentricities as an easy way to lower their curve.

    We can do a better job at explaining our expectations. One thing we can’t do, though, is translate the code. Can’t tell students: oh, by the way, your B will probably signal grad schools that you suck. And god help you if you got a B-, as it’s off the grid.

    I wonder what you think of the idea of passing out some of the best papers to the whole class. Would this be useful? Or just intimidating?

  3. I pretty sure that most undergraduates with an eye toward grad school know the code already. But, perhaps I’m wrong.

    And I love seeing examples of good work. But I always got the impression that whoever had their paper handed out was (supposed to be) mortified at all the quiet attention (and envy?).

  4. Why can’t professors translate the code? I think that there are many students who just don’t understand how drastic grade inflation has become, and as a result, think that a B is a reasonable grade.

    Teaching at a high school where a B- is a cause for panic among many of my students and anything in the C-range is associated with failure, I run into the same challenge, especially teaching Juniors and Seniors. (We get around this problem by offering courses at a variety of levels for our students, so that if they are getting C’s or D’s in the highest level, they can move down a level and, generally, get B’s)

    I mean, as a teacher, I’d rather grade based on a meaningful grade scale that communicates something to my students, and let them worry about the admissions aspect. I think the problem is that a lot of students don’t know when to start worrying about their grades affecting their admissions chances. I certainly didn’t, but then again, I didn’t care much, either.

    As for sample papers, if you go that route, I would suggest contacting the student in advance to warn them and also removing the name from the paper first. Otherwise, keep a folio of sample papers from the same class, previous year, so you have samples on the same assignment, but not from the students that currently have to look at each other twice a week all trimester long.

  5. What do grades mean, especially at schools where grade inflation is so severe, even the dunces graduate with honors?

    I am with you about lower grades as a motivator for students to do more. One of my friends at Berkeley attended an elite eastern prep school. One of her HS friends, then at Harvard, used to call her to chat while we studied in her room. He couldn’t understand why Cal students studied so hard. Why, he only needed to study 2 hours per day for all his classes combined and he got straight As.

    It’s obvious that students whose parents can afford to pay more are smarter and deserve higher grades.

    We had the last laugh when he came to Cal for summer school and got graded on the same curve with us.

  6. For me, as a student, I never attached much importance to what the specific letter of the grade was, especially after my grades were no longer sent to my parents.

    Of course, I didn’t want to fail courses, but without the foresight or maturity to see the consequences of less-than-impeccable grades, I didn’t freak out over a B (or B- for that matter).

    I did, however, pay keen attention to the written feedback on my work. A letter grade is so ambiguous that it loses meaning, but comments citing specific issues with my argument have only one meaning: you can do better.

    I never trusted A’s with no comments just as much as I didn’t care about C’s with no comments. Naturally, I preferred the A’s over C’s but neither were really useful to me.

    I’ve also managed to dodge both rounds of admissions I’ve been through with less than stellar grades, so I don’t give much weight to an argument of sparing students career-suicide grades.

    As for sample papers, I found them only marginally useful or at least only the few I got around to reading through. Undergraduates may not think graduate school is in their future, or know how to crack the inflation grade code, but they *should* know that their professors are flipping busy. Four sentences at the end of my paper with scattered marks throughout is more than enough of an emotional connection/investment in my work to spur me on to review, revise and respect my professor’s opinion.

  7. Interesting.

    In my area the vast majority of students wish to go to medical school.

    They arrive in my office BEFORE the course starts stating (almost demanding) that they want/need an A+ (which I don’t even see on your 4 point scale).

    Then as the course progresses, and they are not getting A+, they arrive mid-course to get the EXACT rubric that would help them to get the A+. The logic being that they NEED this mark, and will do EXACTLY what they need to for it. If it is possible to get, then I am to tell the exactly how.

    At the end of the course they come in with whatever mark they got (even as high as an A) demanding to know where they lost the A+, exactly what they did wrong to fall from where they TOLD ME at the start of the course they would need to be.


  8. Oh, I suppose that’s the upside of my current situation. I may have spent the past week and a half arguing with a parent about the child’s grade, but at least none of these people serve an evaluative role in my career.

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