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 , 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 . 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 ?
 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.
 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.