2016: the bottom line

I calculated the final grades almost a week ago and then let them sit on Angel until now. This is to give the students a chance to complain. That generates a bit of e-traffic but very effectively crowd sources the search for errors in my grade book. With 300+ eagle eyes on it, I am now confident there weren’t any. So the grades are officially posted today. They look like this:

grades-2016

The class average is 87.6% (B+), or 89.6% (B+) for those who passed. We started with 358 students; we ended with 317. Among the finishers, 50% got some type of A, 66% got a B+ or better and 80% got a B or better. With extra credit, 11 students got >100%. Altogether rather similar to last year.

I say it every year, so I guess I’ll say it again: what to make of this grade distribution? Is it about right or too high or too low? We had a Biology faculty meeting a while back, that I sadly missed (not often I say that), where the proportion of A’s was being discussed. In biology classes for 2013 with more than 20 students, the numbers looked like this:

% A and A- 100-200 level Bio Courses 400-level Biol Courses
Mean 24% 42%
Median 27% 36%
Range 13-39% 13-99%

Everybody except the person awarding 100% A’s thought 100% was too generous. The minutes from the meeting helpfully say: “Faculty Senate policy allows faculty to grade according to their best judgement. Although programs can provide guidelines, ultimately grades are at the discretion of the individual faculty member. Several faculty shared their experience of figuring out their grading criteria with little to no guidance. It was widely agreed that some departmental guidelines for grading would be helpful.” No such guidance has been forthcoming because I don’t think any such guidance is possible. It’s a fundamentally challenging problem. The problem is even more difficult for Gen Ed courses where there are no professional discipline-specific views on relevant standards (and how can there be?).

Is 24% about right? My grade distribution with its 50% of A’s is clearly out of line with the 100-200 level Bio courses. Does that matter? People get excessively steamed up about grade inflation, but if we worry about that from data on the proportion of A’s, it implies that the only thing that matters is relative success. And if that’s important, our job is to not what I think it is, but instead it is to identify and anoint the top x% of students.  Which is CRAZY.

Actually, thinking about this too hard might drive me crazy. Previous ruminations are here and here. I am making no mental progress on this problem at all. Worse, I don’t see anyone else even engaged with it. In the shower this morning, I had a thought: isn’t the search for an ideal grade distribution fundamentally silly? What I should care about is the impact I am making to the way students think about the world. The grades might say something about that. But probably not much. So, Andrew, think about what’s important, not what is easily measured. Ruminate on that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *