Is this going too far ?

The Winter term has started, but the Fall one, which ended a little over two weeks ago, is still lingering. Issues having to do with course final grades are the subject of much discussion between students and faculty, as well as between faculty and administrators.

Students are usually interested in looking at their final exams [0], mostly in order to see how they were graded, or simply out of curiosity; occasionally, some of them do request that I reconsider their grade, but in my experience this happens fairly seldom — when it does, usually students are right [1]. In almost thirteen years, I have had only two instances of a student seriously taking issue with my grade and formally appealing it, following my unwillingness to change it, as I did not think that they had a case (on both occasions their appeal was denied). For the most part, students are very reasonable, and everything is resolved in a matter of minutes.

Not so with administrators. Things are different between universities, but while the administration at my previous institution was fairly hands off, when it came to grading, where I am now a great deal of micro-managing goes on.
Detailed grading guidelines exist, suggesting how many A’s, B+’s and so on should be given out for a class of a given level, what the average should be, and what the distribution ought to look like. While they are advertised as “recommendations” only, in practice these are directives, enforced quite strictly.
After administering the final exam, a professor will submit his/her grades to a departmental colleague, who is in charge of inspecting them for fairness and even-handedness, approve them, and then forward them to the administration. In turn, the administration (faculty of undergraduate affairs) carries out its own evaluation, and occasionally sends the file back to the department requesting that changes be made. A faculty taking issue with, and resisting a request that his/her grades be changed, is looking at a lengthy and time-consuming argument, fruitless in most cases as grades will eventually be changed anyway.

Like in many cases, the underlying principle is probably justifiable. Student grades ought not be the subject of the unmitigated whim of idiosyncratic professors, and ensuring a degree of consistency between, for example, different sections of the same course, seems a worthwhile proposition. As usual, however, there is such a thing as going too far.
Case in point: in Fall 2008 I taught one of six sections of a large introductory physics course for life science majors; each section has close to 200 students. A few days before the grades were due, the various instructors (some taught multiple sections) received a (not-so-friendly) e-mail from the departmental colleague in charge of grade policing, warning us not to submit grade sheets with a course average deviating from the expected, target number (2.62 out of 4.00) by more than 0.05 — those “would simply have to be sent back to us”, unless we provided “a darn good explanation”.
In a tone which some of us found patronizing, the e-mail went on to explain to us that, given the large number of students in each section, and because students are randomly distributed among them, the distribution of ability would have to be the same in each section — hence the average could not possibly be too different. I usually bite my tongue, but this time I saw it fit to send a respectful but firm reply — not so much because I expect anything to change, but because I just wanted to ask the person to spare me the sermon.

What is my problem with the above reasoning ? That teaching is taken completely out of the picture. In other words, if we accept that the average “cannot possibly be different”, i.e., if students in all sections necessarily must end up learning the same amount of material, become very nearly equally proficient, it means that different teaching styles and talent, spending an ungodly amount of time preparing lectures, helping students after class, in summary trying to be the best lecturer that one can be, makes little or no difference in the end (at the most, 2.67 instead of 2.62). There is, in essence, no such thing as a “good” or “bad” teacher…

Is this an acceptable proposition ? Because, if so, then why is the university even bothering with things like, student evaluation of instruction ? Why is it offering classes for its instructors to improve their teaching effectiveness, if it does not matter a bit in the end ? What is the point of handing out teaching awards if by definition the students who took the course with the other guy must have learned just as much ?
Am I missing something here ?

[0] At my institution, papers are not returned to students. If a student wishes to see his/her final exam, (s)he must request an appointment with the professor. Paper can only be viewed in the professor’s office.
[1] Mistakes are commonly made (OK, by me anyway) when grading a large number of papers (e.g., 181 — just a random number), especially essay type. For example, this term I had a student who asked me by e-mail to see her final exam. She did not mention anything about wanting to have her grade changed. As I was waiting for her to get to my office, I went through her paper once again, and realized I had made a mistake in grading her exam, giving her lower a mark than she deserved. By the time she showed up, I was ready to tell her that I was going to change her grade, without her even needing to ask.

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10 Responses to “Is this going too far ?”

  1. Transient Reporter Says:

    1) Wow. The administration is getting WAY too involved – to the point where it is impinging on the independence of the instructor and the sanctity of the classroom. I think the faculty (collectively) is being rather passive about this.
    As administrators, if you don’t trust your instructor to grade fairly, then hire someone else.

    2) Is it really true that all sections are created equal (even before you factor in the instruction)? I suppose it may be more likely in your case (where the sections are large). But still, do certain students migrate to certain instructors? Do motivated students huddle together in one section? Do stragglers (late registrants) get funneled into the last section? Are there sections taught at night?

    3) You’re grading 181 essays by hand? Are you crazy? ARE YOU CRAZY? Do you realize that life is finite? And why do they need to write essays in a physics class? Incidentally, there are studies out there that show that multiple choice exams can be as good (if not better) measure of assessing student performance as short answers – if you design them properly. It’ll also reduce grading errors, and – if you have scantron – you get to go home in the evenings.

  2. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    The administration is getting WAY too involved
    I have not even given all the details. At the beginning of the term I was told how many midterms I had to give, that I had to give homework, what weight to assign to the various components — the idea is that every section must look identical. To me, that’s nonsense — different teaching styles can reasonably call for different testing as well. Plus, for cryin’ out loud, whatever happened to academic freedom ?

    Are you crazy? ARE YOU CRAZY?

    Well, OK, I am but, for the sake of clarity, when I say “essay” I mean that I assign four problems and students have to write down a solution (as opposed to multiple choice tests).
    As for MCTs: you are preaching to the choir (sorry about the religious analogy) here. They are not as good, they are far better than problems, for a number of reasons into which I shall not get now. However, students hate them, because there is no partial credit and therefore you cannot bulls..t your way to a D. Because of that, they will slaughter you in their evaluations if you use them.

  3. Ian Says:

    I applaud you for your work with the administration, I imagine many would just sit back and take it. As an outgoing student it’s good to know a few profs out there are pulling for us all.

  4. R Says:

    A similar thing happens at the university where I am at. It sucks, but nobody seems to complain.

    How do they come up with these averages? The answer I’ve gotten is that they are historical averages. That they have averaged years of data and it comes down to the number they have.


    Now, I don’t know when the averaging started, but one thing is for sure. If you ask instructors to have an average of X, and then you use those grades to find the average the class should have, well… guess what? You will get X.

    I don’t know how they do it in your university, but here it is not only the average, but also the standard deviation. The STDEV is not so controlled, but they do mention every once in a while that the average should give X because most grades are X, and not because you have around half X-b and another half at X+b.

  5. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    The answer I’ve gotten is that they are historical averages

    Yup, same here. I thought the person was kidding but he was serious. Talk about “self-fulfilling prophecy”… And yes, there are guidelines for the stdev as well, albeit those tend to reflect the idiosyncrasy of the individual enforcer.
    But the thing that strikes me the most is the omnipotence attributed to administrators by many, most tenured faculty. I mean, isn’t this what tenure was for ?

  6. R Says:

    I mean, isn’t this what tenure was for ?

    I am just a student, but I’ve heard that even though tenured faculty can’t get fired, their monthly check can and WILL get a hit if their averages are not acceptable. The place where I got my masters averaged each professors grades for ~5 years, if the average was then outside the norm they got a decrease in salary, or so I was told. The rumor was that you could give a bunch of As one semester, then a bunch of Cs the next one (no stdev requirement in that univ that I know of)

    I am not sure how things work in terms of “punishment” where I am getting my PhD, but I do know professors worry about not meeting the average. Here is where the stdev is somewhat controlled. Basically 60-70% gets B, and the other 30-40% divides almost equally between As and Cs. with maybe 1-2% of Fs and Ds.

    My first TA assignment at my PhD univ was Physics 2 lab for engineers. The first TA meeting we were told to go for a B- average.

  7. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    I am just a student, but I’ve heard that even though tenured faculty can’t get fired, their monthly check can and WILL get a hit if their averages are not acceptable.

    R, next time a faculty tells you that, do me a favor, ask the person: “Can you please tell me in concrete, quantitative terms how much of a loss of income you are looking at in the worst case ?” Then you decide for yourself if the financial concern of a person who has job security for life (not to mention the privilege of being a professor) warrants letting the level of education go down the drain…

  8. ScientistMother Says:

    silly you massimo, you actually think think the administration cares!!

  9. ScientistMother Says:

    Oh and very cool on the ability to subscribe to posts!

  10. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    ScientistMother — I know they don’t care, it’s the ridiculous charade that they put up that infuriates me, the pretense to take this seriously, the patronizing e-mail to faculty (whom they treat like their worst enemies) reminding them of the “importance of teaching”, and “pleasing customers” and all that malarkey…
    Gawd I need a drink 🙂

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