Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Purely hypothetical language grading scenario

Say you were teaching a language course, let's call it Sanskrit 101. Now, say one student in that course was a native speaker of Pali, a language with a close relationship with Sanskrit. Everyone else is a native speaker of Swahili. Now, is it fair to grade the Pali speaker according to the same standards as the Swahili speakers, if the Pali speaker already has a huge advantage in terms of lexicon and an intuitive grasp of how Sanskrit grammar works? I think the Pali speaker should be held to a higher standard, and when I ask colleagues, the answer is about an even split of yeas and nays.

On an unrelated* note, is it fair that as an undergrad, being a native speaker of Dutch I could not take any German language classes because the prof thought I had an unfair advantage, but when I took Vietnamese classes there were plenty of native Vietnamese speakers?

*this is an asterisk.


  1. In a 101 course, no. To hyperbolize, I have no desire to test each of my students skill in basket-weaving at the beginning of class and then tailor the standards applied to each of them according their initial ability.

    At a higher level seminar or grad course, this treatment might be more appropriate.

    Unrelatedly, why on earth would a school/student/advisor/professor think it is a good idea to put a native speaker in a 101 level class in their language. Who does that help? If all they want is an easy A, sign them up for an independent study language course and have them help by tutoring!

    Also unrelatedly, I really want to take gardening 101, so I can learn why all my plants die.

  2. All students should be held to the same standards for grading purposes unless otherwise stated in the syllabus. Evaluating the pre-existing knowledge of a person would require placement testing prior to or at the start of the class. Then, what do you do if the student sandbags?

  3. We have this problem in our language department. Native speakers want to take entry level courses in their native languages both for an easy "A" and to fulfill their Humanities elective requirements (don't ask). The funny thing is, often they fail the class because they don't actually write sentences or use grammar any better than our typical native speakers of English do in our entry level English classes! These students also take snowflakery to new heights, spurred on by their conviction that they know more than their professors for real this time!

    I don't think you should hold the native speaker to a different standard than the rest of the class--that does not seem fair and it would mean we could have wildly varying standards based upon ability rather than output.

    I also don't think it was at all fair that you were not allowed to take a German language but your fellow students were native Vietnamese speakers in an entry level class for that language! Shameful! I hear these kinds of unfair practices run rampant in the academic world!!!!!

  4. Meh.

    Maybe 101 allows the native speaker to get an Easy A* and maybe the mathematical sentence construction gives the same native speaker problems because said speaker has little structural knowledge of Sanskrit and only conversational knowledge. In which case, the A might not be so easy except for vocab and at any rate the student is learning so who cares?

    Second, is it "fair"? Hm. "Fair" and "academia" seem to have nothing to do with each other. I would suggest "random" or "shitty."

    *I'd love to hear CM reactions to that movie

  5. To be pedantic about it, no one is a native speaker of Pali. It's an ancient textual language, not a 'living' one. A few learned Theravada monks might manage to passably communicate in it, but otherwise . . .

    Anyways, to the point. My experience as a language-studying student was that most profs have an informal extra-points-for-effort orientation toward non-native speakers. Also, some assignments can be crafted in ways that allow for less advantage to native speakers (such as grammar-focused questions, rather than simple translation). But, like Bella, I also witnessed some of my native-speaking fellow students do poorly because of a total lack of effort.

  6. No, the students should be judged on the same standards, regardless of the advantages that the native speaker has. There will always be some students with advantages. The lazy high school Mathlete who takes Math 101, the skilled programmer who takes CS 101, the child actor who takes Public Speaking 101... or just the above-average smart kid who can breeze through all the foundational core requirements. The fact that some students have more skill, talent, knowledge, or native intelligence than other students is not fair, but nor would it be fair to develop individualized grading standards for each of these students. Excellent work deserves good grades, even if it's due to the student's inherent ability rather than hard work and studying.

  7. "I think the Pali speaker should be held to a higher standard, and when I ask colleagues, the answer is about an even split of yeas and nays."

    This earns a giant, hearty "WTF?"

    I'm quite appalled you've discovered an even split in opinions, and surprised the reactions in the comments so far haven't been stronger.

  8. I took nine years of Sanskrit before coming to college. I enrolled in Sanskrit 101, not to fill any requirement or dodge a humanities thing, just to firm up my own abilities.

    My nine years of Sanskrit allowed me to breeze through the first *three weeks* of Sanskrit 101. After that, I had no advantage. I think I ended the class with a B+.

    Should I have been allowed to take Sanskrit 101? I don't know. But I sure as hell wouldn't have fit into Sanskrit 102.

  9. as an undergrad, being a native speaker of Dutch I could not take any German language classes because the prof thought I had an unfair advantage

    What the hell? Since when is language learning a contest?

  10. If there is no established test to determine actual fluency level, then all students start the same and earn the grades they earn via the same grading standards.

    In the olden days of 1992, that was called "fairness"

  11. I am with Meany and the others here. I have had students who were brilliant at Math take the lowest possible class and fail miserably due only to the language barrier. Them having learned Math in a language other than English effectively hobbled them when they couldn't understand the English Math words.
    I have seen foreign students with horrific grammar, punctuation, and word choice be given a pass in an English class because the professor felt sorry for them. This does nothing except prove that being foreign is fine but being a native English speaker is bad. I am all for multiculturalism, but don't hold me to a higher standard in a Logic class just because I speak Calculus while you let people who barely speak Basic Math slide by.

    -Mathsquatch Out.

  12. Your university needs to figure out what the purpose of assessment is. Is it a gate-keeping/stamp-of-approval deal? Does an A mean "the student has mastered level X of this subject" and a B mean "the student has mastered level Y but not level X"? This is a reasonable purpose for assessment, and in that case, the native speakers or native speakers of related languages should be treated no differently. However, if that is the sole purpose of assessment, then students should be able to "test out of" 101 and get the same credit as though they had taken the class.

    Does assessment act as a rubber-stamp, but not (merely) to certify mastery, but only or also that a student has done a certain amount of work? In that case, no one should be able to test out of a class while gaining credit for it; but native speakers should still be assessed by the same standards as others.

    Or is assessment a learning tool? If the primary purpose of assessment is an incentive to make students study hard, and therefore learn better, then hell yeah, make it harder on the students that have any sort of advantage, be that brains, background, or a suspected proclivity for cheating. Otherwise it will be too easy, they won't work hard, and they won't improve.

    In my ideal university, assessment would be all about the learning, but that's not always realistic. Your department needs to make that decision and adjust your grading policies accordingly.

  13. "the child actor who takes Public Speaking 101..."
    Being someone who teaches speech and theatre, I can tell you there is no link between abilities in them. Many, many actors I have taught have just as much stage fright and are terrible speakers. Many of my national champions speech team members can't act their way out of a paper bag.

    And if the student was allowed into the class, they should be graded the same as everyone else.

  14. Yepperdee-doo-dah, equal treatment of students regardless of native speaker status.

    But pray tell: what DOES one do with hopeless ESL problems in an English class? I try to give some credit for content when I can dig it out of the mangled prose. But I neither want to fail them for not mastering a second language nor pass them for writing gobbledygook. Mathsquatch says fail 'em, but if there are ideas in there? What to do?

  15. Okay, Mitchell, so that wasn't the best example. I don't know any child actors, aside from the ones I've seen on television, so I figured that ten years of acting classes or whatever they did to get on television would make them into good public speakers. Since I can't go back and edit my post, just pretend I only cited the Mathlete in Math 1010 and the crack programmer in Intro to Programming... or any other prodigies who choose to take intro classes when they ought to have requested a waiver into more advanced courses. At my school, this is rarely a problem but the reverse - students who really should have been placed in remedial classes somehow getting into the advanced seminars without even taking the prereqs - is pretty typical.


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