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My Pangs of Conscience

A professor ruminates on the difficulties of grading.

By Michael F. Shaughnessy

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February 05, 2014

It happens at the end of every semester. As final grades are computed and entered, faculty all across the United States hear those inner demons talking. Some expound quite loudly; others merely whisper.

I am referring to reflections about the grading system, which is fraught with peril, not just for the beginning instructor, but also for seasoned veterans.

One problem is that students often let the instructor know about the various problems they face—or claim to face. “I have to work two jobs.” “I’m a single parent with children to support.” “My car needs a new transmission.”

One wonders about the veracity of these stories, and the motivations behind these tales of woe. There seems to be an ever-increasing number of students who want some type of "understanding" or accommodation. That is, a higher grade than was earned.

And every year, the strange number of diseases seems to increase. The student with hay fever or allergies presents an official form that excuses him from some required part of the course. Typically, writing assignments lead to these maladies.

Another set of problems revolves around the student athlete, who has to spend lots of time in practice and on the road, representing the school, rather than attending classes. Should he (or she) get special consideration? What happens if you don’t give it?

The college instructor today is also confronted with foreign students who are often sincerely trying to procure a good education, but whose writing skills leave much to be desired. Their class participation is minimal at best. 

Should the instructor "cut them some slack?” Or should they be graded according to the standards in the syllabus? 

And then there are the deep-seated concerns about student evaluations. Being too demanding or grading too harshly can result in very poor evaluations for the non-tenured instructor. And often if there is one complaint, others follow. Would it be more prudent to nudge up the lowest grades and avoid some potential grief?

When assigning grades, there is also the question of the effect on the student’s motivation. Perhaps that student who gets a low grade may give up the ghost and drop out of school. Will the rest of his/her life be ruined? On the other hand, could a bad grade be the “wake-up call” the student really needs?

Financial aid is another source of concern. "But Professor, if I don't maintain my 3.0 GPA, I am going to lose my financial aid," a student may plaintively say. Yet if I allow this student into upper level courses, without having mastered the art of a grammatically correct sentence, what will my colleagues think of me? And if the student really isn’t capable of doing more advanced work, is it a favor to postpone the day of reckoning?

Now, on to the big picture. It is only one three credit class. What difference will it make whether I give the student a deserved C or a gift of B? Will this student need that grade to get into graduate school? Should I “round up“ a middle C?

And then there is the depressed student. College professors are fairly astute individuals who can recognize emotional problems and students with mental health issues. Some instructors worry that a D will traumatize a student and destroy his or her concept of self-worth. Darker yet, is suicide a possibility? It has happened. 

Yet another concern is the “grade appeal” process. Students do not appeal good grades, but “bad” ones can cause you trouble. You might have to print out half a ream of paper for colleagues to review the very exact, specific, precise syllabus that was posted online—the document that the student somehow “forgot“ to read. It is a lot of time and trouble whether or not your grade is upheld.

While not exactly a “pang of conscience” some faculty members fear the dreaded meeting with the Dean or other VP about the “DFW” scenario. Those in Texas may think that DFW refers to Dallas Fort Worth Airport, but DFW has its own meaning in academic parlance. It refers to faculty members who give too many grades of D, too many grades of F, and who have too many students withdraw from class and therefore show up as a W on some statistical printout sheet.

Meetings where the faculty member has to explain an “unduly” high DFW numbers to administrators can cause heartburn and acid indigestion. One way to avoid such meetings is to minimize the DFW numbers.

Some professors turn to religion and pray for guidance. In the solace of their office they review the old proverbs about "As you sow, so shall ye reap." But how is one to know how much that 18-year-old freshman sweated and labored over a sentence (much as Hemingway did) and how much time was spent instead playing computer games?

Thus, there are many reasons why faculty members are tempted to give students higher grades than they seem to deserve. What cuts the other way?

First of all, there is the reputation of the university, which, by association, the student represents. People out there in the business world do remember the incompetent graduate of the school who had a 4.0 GPA but could not write a grammatically correct report. Hiring officials are concerned about employing graduates who cannot perform simple arithmetical calculations or analyze data or perform routine statistical analysis or even understand the difference between a mean, median and mode.

Besides protecting the reputation of the university, surely we should be upholding academic standards, even when that means unhappy students or decreasing credit-hour production.

Indeed, much more thought and reflection should go into determining what is important in grading. I have many questions that go beyond my concern about giving a low grade. Is writing more important than attendance? Are multiple choice tests more valid and reliable than blue book essays? Should we have a “best practices” approach to grading in objective subject areas as well as subjective areas? Do theatre instructors need rubrics more than math instructors? Is there a best approach to grading fairly and responsibly? 

A strong case can be made that college and university leaders—presidents, deans, department heads—should offer more guidance for faculty members to follow. They should also be willing to support the faculty member when their decisions are challenged. 

Instead, they have mostly ducked their responsibilities in favor of leaving it to our pangs of conscience.

 


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