Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Grades

Today seems to have been a major day for people and their grades. Admittedly, grades were posted just a few hours ago, so they are fresh in everyone's mind. Somehow though, I feel as if the intense focus on grades at this point is almost foolish. Your grade in a class should represent the level of mastery you have attained in a class over the course of the last semester. In theory this means that by the end of the semester you should know exactly how well you have done and what grade to expect. If anything, today should be rather boring, as your final grades only serve to reinforce what you already came to know over the last three months.

Nonetheless, there is great anxiety and grief over grades, and from my experience, this has three root causes. First, grades aren't directly tied to your mastery of the subject matter, and students don't know how to accurately assess their skill level in a course, and there are inconsistent grading policies between different professors.

Some courses may fall into the stereotypical "Easy A", whereas others may fall closer to one of my favorite professor quotes "A's are reserved for those students ready to teach this course". Without a common measuring stick, students may not always know how to correlate a certain level of understanding with a certain grade. Add to that the question of how well you know the material, and there is bound to be confusion (and anxiety). Clearly, if I can recall everything from the course perfectly, that should be worth an A, but where do the breaks occur? Does knowledge of 90% of the material lead to a 90% in the class? What if I know 80% really well, and 20% only marginally well. And what if I'm just really good at guessing on multiple choice?

The interesting part about undergraduate education is that some portion of your grade is likely based on homework, projects and quizzes. These gauge your knowledge at key points throughout the course, and factor in to your final grade. Therefore, you not only need to know things well at the end of the semester, but also need to be consistently building this knowledge every week. This is in contrast to the system used in many European colleges where your grade is entirely dependent on one final examination, and maybe one mid-semester exam. There is a trade-off, as this puts more pressure on students to perform on these one or two occasions, but it is a more accurate snapshot of the learning outcome from the course. In many classes I have taken, it is possible to use the homework and projects to squeak out a passable grade despite poor exams. I see this as a detriment to overall learning, as it allows students to pass a course without demonstrating the fundamental knowledge they should have achieved. Perhaps the cost of a lower pressure grading system is that it provides opportunities for poor students to slip through.

I do find it somewhat amusing that I have changed significantly on the topic of grades. I used to be concerned over every point and worked my hardest to ensure that I got an A in every class. At some point in college I realized that the grade isn't what I should be striving for, and I should instead be concerned about how well I know the material. For example, this semester I came away with a great understanding of statistics, and the various applications of statistics to engineering problems. I don't mind the fact that I didn't receive an A in the course, because I came away with a great understanding of the material, and that's what actually matters, not the letter grade attached to that understanding. Students  have to juggle priorities, and it can be a tough choice between finishing the homework for one class or doing a better job on the project for another. That's why I've come to focus more on overall comprehension rather than grades, because the grades definitely don't tell the whole story, for better or for worse.

So with that last though, I'd just like to remind everyone that the grades shouldn't be so much of a concern as your overall education and knowledge. Lets focus on the the things that matter most, save ourselves a little grief and anxiety, and everything else (like grades, a job, etc) will follow from there.

No comments:

Post a Comment