Dot Physics

What is a grade?

Grades are all over the place, but what are they? Well, I guess there are a few questions. What is a grade? What is the grade supposed to be? Why do we give grades?

I think the grade is supposed to be a measure of a students’ understanding of the material. Probably everyone would agree with that description. But, it is still a bit tricky. Who (or what) determines what a student should understand? Who determines what an “A” means? Fortunately, there is not a governing body (yet at least in physics) that says what an “A” grade means. It is left up to the expert evaluations of faculty. I am not saying this is ideal, but what happens when you try to get everyone to formally agree? Standardized tests. These are inherently evil. It is just extremely difficult to make a test that accurately measures the understanding of many students.

Why do we (faculty) give grades? I know some people would say “because we just do – that is the way the university works”. These are the people that just do what has been done before. Others will say “if you don’t give grades, the students won’t work”. Again, this leads to a problem. If students are just going to school to get grades, why don’t we just give them the grades? If grades are the point – let them have grades.

We are supposed to give grades so that we can share our evaluation of the student with other institutions or jobs or parents or whatever. Of course, there is no universality of grades (and I am not pushing for that because it would be disaster). A grade in intro physics at MIT might mean as well as be interpreted differently than the same grade in the same course (with the same course description) at a 2 year community college. Should they be interpreted differently? They should mean the same thing.

Ok, one last thing. What about giving a grade because a student deserves that grade. You know this student worked hard, should the student get at least a B? With my interpretation of a grade, unfortunately the answer would be “no”. I want to be nice, but grades are not about being nice. Grades are about evaluating what a student knows. At the end of the semester, if a student thinks they deserve a higher grade, I am open to that possibility. However, that student would have to clearly demonstrate they understand the material. If the final exam didn’t accurately evaluate the student, maybe the student working a problem on the board can do the trick. Really, if I had the time, I would prefer to just meet with students at the end of the semester and talk about physics. After half an hour, I am sure we (me and the student) could agree on a grade that would represent the student’s level of understanding.

Comments

  1. #1 Oh, I don't think so
    May 20, 2010

    Love the general idea of meeting and coming to agreement on a grade. As a painfully shy one-time physics student I have a couple of suggestions. Meet early in the term, too, and make it mandatory so the shy ones can’t wiggle out. Talk at the board, focus on the physics and don’t probe *at* the student. Share excitement and fun — I guarantee the shy ones feel it, too, but they might not show it right away. If they’re used to the idea by the time of the “talk that matters”, it will make a huge difference. I missed out on a lot of my education by being afraid to bother professors, so if you are the one they’re not afraid to talk to, you might have a bigger positive impact than you’d think.

    Gonna be hard for you, though — some people really do invest a lot of their self-image into their grades, and it will be tough to damage that face-to-face.

  2. #2 James Davis
    May 20, 2010

    Having gotten a lot of poor grades and ended up with a bad average, I found myself left wondering.

    Was that guy who got magna cum laude and all sorts of honours while pursuing his business degree really “better” than me, who had worked hard at a maths degree but only just barely passed?

    It’s further complicated by the fact that I want to do grad school in linguistics. I want the schools to see that I’m worth the time to let into a Ph.D. program, but I need those “grade” things to do it.

    I think, when I am a professor issuing grades, I’ll do them based on three things with a “pick 2” approach.
    1 – How good are you at the subject.
    2 – How much did you improve at the subject.
    3 – How hard did you try to get 1 & 2.

    There is no “A for Effort”, but there is an “A for Being Good and Making Effort”, an “A for Improving and Making Effort”, an “A for Being Good and Improving (even w/o effort)”

    But I don’t know for sure. Pressures to grade more ‘normally’ might conspire to mess that up.

  3. #3 Luke
    May 20, 2010

    I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work. Seems like you are inclined toward “standards based grading”. I have been reading another blog recently (http://101studiostreet.com/wordpress/)that addresses standards based grading in high school for math and physics students. I think it gets directly to the heart of the point you make about interviewing a student at the end of term to assess their understanding. I’d be curious to know your thoughts if decide to take a look.

    thanks

  4. #4 Rhett Allain
    May 20, 2010

    @Luke,

    yeah – I saw that post on SBG. Really, that seems better than what we have – but ideally, I would be happy with no grades.

  5. #5 Cherish
    May 20, 2010

    I guess I’d be okay if people accepted that grades are rather subjective, but it bothers me that because we assign them numbers, people think about them in terms of absolute accurate measurement. I know someone who was .05 pts shy of the required GPA for grad school. He was accepted on a probationary basis, couldn’t receive an assistantship, and the dean of the college *would not budge* despite the fact that several professors and the chair lobbied on behalf of this person. I know most people are more reasonable than that, but there are enough people who aren’t, which really gets to me.

  6. #6 Rhett Allain
    May 20, 2010

    @Cherish,

    Honestly, I think some people give tests (like multiple-choice) so that they won’t have to be subjective. I, for one, welcome our subjective grade giving overlords.

  7. #7 Snarkyxanf
    May 23, 2010

    Never mind what an A means—read the syllabus and you’ll have some idea. What does a B or a C mean? I can recognize a student who understands, say, derivatives. But how do I quantify partial understanding?