Do we give grades? Or are they earned?

I penned a little article for another teaching blog and it touched off a minor dust up over what to say and what not to say when students contest grading standards.

The premise of the piece was this: we ought not to use that hoary academic catchphrase: "I didn't give you that grade.  You earned it."  To my mind the statement obscures the fact that our standards (and our interpretation of our standards) play a not insignificant role in a student's final grade.

Not all of my readers agreed.  One argued that I focused only on those students who got low grades and were upset.  What about those who received an A?  He would tell them they earned it, because they did. And praising real student effort is a part of good teaching.  Another thought that subjective grading wasn't an issue in science and math courses, especially when answers were straightforwardly right or wrong.

Good points, I guess.

Still I can't help thinking that the "you earned it move" is a bit of a dodge.  It's usually made to deflect the conversation from the fairness of our standards and onto student performance.  Sometimes, too, it's made to emphasize that student effort is the sole determinant of a final grade.  I think it's a bit more complicated than that.  Effort matters.  No one should deny that, but our standards and how we interpret unavoidably shape the grade.

Here's what I mean: imagine what would happen if we raised or lowered grading standards to an extreme (either impossibly rigorous or ridiculously easy).  At the same time, imagine that student effort remained unchanged.  Clearly the distribution of final grades would change even though student effort hadn't.  I mean why do students professor shop?  You have two professors teaching the same course with identical material and assignments (heck, let's make them science or math courses) and yet students still know which prof to take if they want a better grade.

I realize reasonable people can differ on this question.  As for me, I don't think I'll make the "I didn't give it, you earned it" move any longer.  I doubt it ever sits well with a disaffected student and it's probably never made one work harder.


Steve Snyder said…
A friend pointed out to me that students shop for better professors as much as higher grades. That's a good point. The existence of both kinds of shoppers, however, suggests that student effort is only a part of what determines the final grade.

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