Saturday, July 12, 2008

Curved grades

I am grateful that my entire degree result depended on the exams I did at the end of my final year when I 'd finally figured out that being a student was a full-time job and I needed to work at it. Had I been an undergraduate in the United States, my all-important grade-point-average (GPA) would have been so far in the toilet by the end of my second year, I probably would have dropped out. Or maybe not.

An average passing grade in a university class at the time in the UK was between 50 and 60%. When I arrived in the United States and started teaching undergraduate classes here, I frightened my first class by awarding what I thought were OK grades for their first assignment. Then I was told by my department head that my class average should be 80%. I was stunned - I thought 70 was an excellent grade! Many of my students asked me when they got less than 80% if I would 'curve' my grades.

I guess that was pretty common in maths and science classes where sometimes the class average was 40%. Rather than berate the students for not having studied, the teacher would assume that the test had been too hard and adjust the average. I'm not entirely sure how they did that - I think some teachers had a rather more complicated approach than "The average is 60, so I'll add 20 to everyone's score." My students sometimes accused me of being unfair because I didn't 'curve'. Some didn't want to accept my concept of "You get what you get." Once I got used to the inflated grading standards, I found I really didn't have to do that anyway. The average in my classes almost always hovered around 80% with no jiggery-pokery on my part. There would be a few A's, a few D's or F's, but the average would almost always be in the range of 79 to 81 - a B minus. I'm not quite sure how I did that, but it just happened.

My last teaching job (before this one) I didn't have to give grades at all. I did for one project and it was amazing how freaked out the students were. They had no idea whether I was a 'tough' or 'easy' grader or what they had to do to please me. Umm - follow the (four pages of step-by-step) directions! They didn't believe me when I said it was perfectly possible, but extremely unlikely, for everyone to get an A.

5 comments:

Janet said...

I had a lecturer in college who stated from the outset that he never gave A's. A's implied perfection - something we weren't capable of. I guess he had a point.

GoneBackSouth said...

Hello! I think it's all relative. A should mean very good for your age/ what's expected of you. You can always give A+++ for outstanding!

Little Britainer said...

I can imagine how stunned those students were - did any of them argue with you over the grades? A friend of mine is a PhD student teaching at a fancy college in NYC and she regularly has students debate the grades she gives them. The most popular reason why she should raise their grade is, "I'm an 'a'-grade student".

Times may have changed, but I'm pretty sure that would not have gone over well with any of my university supervisors.

Mmm said...

Yes, toally understand. I ahve to say though, that whislt workign full tie through college, having a bell curve could certainly help at times!

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