Wednesday, September 28, 2016

if things are slow [ARE YOU KIDDING?] here's a NYT article about grading on a curve

If you have a dearth of submissions or topics to discuss, here’s a NYT article on grading on a curve and why classmates should support each other:
On my most optimistic days, I wonder whether campus mental health would improve if more classes were designed to encourage participants to support one another… In a marriage you don’t need to know how to fix the air-conditioner if your wife does. In a work team you don’t have to know how to perfect PowerPoint slides if your colleague is an expert.
Good students dread “supporting” poor ones, as anyone in a group project knows very well. As an undergraduate student, I had a professor ask me to help a classmate, a total stranger to me, understand a book about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Beckett.  After class, she left us in the empty room, so I gamely gave it a whirl, but the guy hadn’t read the book, because English was not his native language and he just didn’t have enough comprehension. The book was too dense with historical information for me to give him any sort of verbal condensed version. The only “support” I could offer him was the rather useless advice: “Read the book.”

Then there is the ever-popular group project, where at least one dud student will blackmail the others into doing all the work in order to avoid a bad grade. It works like a charm because there is always at least one student who wants a good or at least decent grade who will be sure to do the work for the group.

I know that study groups can be effective for some people, but only if the entire group is motivated and willing to work hard. Otherwise it’s just an unpaid tutoring gig for the hardworking students who must forsake their own studying to “support” the lazy duds.

I don’t know about the grading on a curve, since the only curve upon which I’ve ever been graded is “top marks get As, everyone else is scaled accordingly” but the article mentions a cap on the As so that if you allot seven students to get As and 10 actually do get As, then three have their As demoted, which seems frightfully unfair to those three.

Perhaps the CM group would like to weigh in on grading on a curve, or students supporting each other, if things are slow around CM.


- Programming Patty


20 comments:

  1. The curve described at the beginning of the article, which allows only a fixed percentage of students to get an A, is certainly a bad idea.

    For most of my classes, clear rubric solves all these problems. You get it all correct, you get an A and the same rules apply to everybody.

    In a graduate class I teach, the quality of students varies greatly year to year and my exams are inconsistently difficult. In that case, I give the best student an A (and anybody with a similar overall grade) then assign grades to the other few students accordingly.

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    1. That is really the best you can do with a small sample and lots of inter-cohort variation. I use a similar strategy. Of course, there are fixed target which guarantee a certain grade, but a weak group just won't hit the ones for high grades. Nor a strong group if I offer an unusually still exam that year.

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    2. I am not in favor of curves. I have fixed targets and rubrics, and you receive the grade you earn by meeting the targets.

      I have had weak groups when the highest grade in the class is a C. I have had strong groups where 30% earned A's. I have no problem with either of those situations - students need to take control and own their grade.

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    3. I always consider it a bit of a freebie when professors grade on a curve. Some courses are a lot harder than others and since I did not attend elite colleges, many students lack the determination to study the extra hours to bring themselves up to par. I recall that only 1 student of 25+ got an A in Computer Security - the rest of us had a hard time memorizing the DES and PGP algorithms though we drilled ourselves like crazy. The most rigorous class I ever took (the "compiler course") was not as hard as the encryption class but it did require countless hours of coding. My partner and I spent every single Sunday coding for nearly four months. We got the only As in the class, but that was more due to simply putting in the necessary hours.

      After the Computer Security course, an outraged classmate wrote to all the rest of us stating that he was going to file a complaint because he got like a C- or whatever was the minimum passing grade.

      I replied "Well the grade was based solely on the midterm, the final, and the 10 homework assignments. Did the professor add up your three scores incorrectly?"

      No response.

      Sometimes you just have to accept that the curriculum is inherently difficult, or you don't happen to have the inclination for it, or just otherwise resign yourself to not excelling in every single class. I've taken a few classes in which I was just happy to pass the class at all!

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  2. In a class I taught that required a group project, I wouldn't let the team members grade each other. I knew the standard, everyone give everyone else a perfect score. I forced them to rank their fellow groups member, giving the best a "1" and the next a "2" and so on. This allowed me to better allocate group grades fairly.

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    1. *goggles in amazement* Why the hell didn't I think of that, and years ago? I'm totally stealing this idea.

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  3. Who dragged Cal off the golf course? Never seen that graphic before. Excellently crappy and fuzzy!

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    1. What a huge surprise. White guy.

      - Colin

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    2. What color guy would you like asking "Wanna see my curve?", Colin?

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  4. I've got news for you, kids. This never goes away, even when we supposedly become grown-ups. You see, there's always more than enough faculty deadwood who abuse their tenure by just not doing at least 1/3 of their jobs by being active in research, leaving the rest of us in the department to mentor the students, bring in the funding, etc. What takes this from annoying to INFURIATING is that these very assholes don't hesitate to make pronouncements knowingly and in public about how everything should be done, always loudly enough so they can't be simply ignored. And when something actually needs to get done, they vanish into thin air, leaving the rest of us to do this work they have volunteered us to do, as well as the work we were doing that they should also have been doing in the first place. This doesn't help their teaching, either: being inactive in research causes what they think they know to get out of date, quickly. I just heard some deadwood knowingly proclaim to a class (who were interested, and who'd asked the question) that Jupiter has 12 moons. (It has at least 63.)

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    1. Frod, I feel like you're holding back some feelings about your co-workers. I'm getting just he barest whiff of some sort of resentment. Don't bottle up your feelings like that.

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    2. It also comes from faculty deadwood who marred my undergraduate education. They hadn't done any research in 20 years, and taught us how to develop photographic plates. The words "electronic imaging" never passed their lips, even though a revolution in it was happening at that very time.

      This does serve a useful purpose, however: it keeps me going, no matter how bad many of my students are. There are always a small number who still do want and need the education I can provide.

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  5. My joint tried to fix the “low-performer” problem with a consultant designed post-tenure process of review.

    Turns out that putting the worst people on the most important committees isn’t that good an idea.

    As Frod notes, the problems they cause need fixing by others.
    I really don’t have a solution here. All I can really say is that admin thinking that a spreadsheet would fix things probably did more damage than leaving these guys alone ever did.

    Scrapping the system too early would look like it was a mistake, so now we’re even less functional than before.

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    1. Don't put the worst people on the most important committees. Put them on the most time-consuming committees. There are a plethora of them, their main function apparently to allow academics to thrill to the sound of their own voices. I'll do committee work if it's important and gets things done: note the paucity of that.

      (Heh, heh, a plethora. It sounds like something the Medusa would pleasure herself with.)

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    2. Well, I'm getting pleasure over the idea of putting the "problem" faculty on the time-consuming/less-important committees. I am taking that idea to my department head and the head of the committee who decides who goes on all the committees.

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  6. I prefer fixed standards and rubrics so I know what to expect. Read the syllabus, yes? Grading on a curve doesn't make sense to me unless the course truly involves students competing with each other, perhaps something like a business course. But, in a humanities course where a student has to demonstrate mastery of the material and concepts, I would like an instructor to recognize when he/she has a larger group of better or worse students during a given semester and grade accurately. In one instance we had a professor offer extra credit for an additional project at the end of the semester. I Worked hard, did an excellent extra paper. When I asked about the lower grade I received he simply said he only gives a fixed number of As. No pun intended but I felt like he threw us a curveball.

    Group work--I always disliked it because there was always a slacker on the team. The impact is worse when the teams are smaller. In the first instance (team of two) I kept my mouth shut, but in the second case (team of three) my other teammate complained to the prof. We earned on A on the group project but it took so much extra time and work to make up for the slacker. In the second case it was an online course where the prof could see the individual contributions of each student toward the paper. So, I think that was a better way for the prof to judge what was going on.

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  7. I was quite surprised by this in the original article - 40% of the grades are As? I finished my BA in 1995 and I'm not even sure if 5% of the grades were As. Getting a A was a noteworthy accomplishment, not nearly half of all your grades. Maybe in your own major courses, you could expect 40% As or more, but for the core classes and all the other requirements, only the Honors College students got that many As.

    >>At Harvard a few years ago, a professor complained that the most common grade was an A-. He was quickly corrected: The most common grade at Harvard was an A.

    Across 200 colleges and universities, over 40 percent of grades were in the A realm. At both four-year and two-year schools, more students receive A’s than any other grade — a percentage that has grown over the past three decades.<<

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  8. >>In a marriage you don’t need to know how to fix the air-conditioner if your wife does. <<

    I think that's utter bullshit. That's exactly why group projects go awry, and while 20% of employees do 80% of the work. Because why bother learning when you can just ask a coworker to do it for you?

    Sure, if you're the boss, you can get away with it. How many times has my boss opened an e-mail attachment, edited it, closed it again, and then freaked out because she can't find it? I explained over and over again that she had to save it somewhere to her computer before editing it, but why should she bother when she can always call me in to find the document in her user profile in Documents and Setting, where she would never know to look?

    That's fine if you're the boss - you get away with a lot. But if that's how you treat your coworkers ("why should I learn to send a fax when Johnny can do it so quickly?"), then you are a jerk.

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