Note: this entry is not in response to any conversation or individual. Teacher B is not me, and Teacher A is not one of my colleagues. Seriously, this doesn't refer to any specific event or person. Only a few of my friends read this blog, so I want to make that clear :)
It is that time of year when professors begin discussing among themselves the extent to which they can or should assign high grades. We oversimplify the decision: easier teachers give higher grades, and tougher teachers give lower grades. Teachers who give low grades are resentful of those who give higher grades. The "easy graders" make them look bad, and [supposedly] are not challenging the students.
In this context, grades are thought to stem from one source only: the toughness of the teacher. Grades are not thought to reflect the learning that occurs. We know this because when universities implement assessment programs, grades are completely ignored as indicators of learning.
In this essay I propose that we think about grades in a more realistic framework. I propose that grades should be assigned based on the learning that occurs, and that learning is the result of both the students' and teachers' effort. Below, I describe a few scenarios where Teacher A and Teacher B are equally "tough", but Teacher B has earned the right to assign higher grades.
But first: I fully recognize that there is such things as "easy" and "hard" graders. The purpose of this essay is to encourage us not to see differences in grading as due to the easy/hard grader factor, but are also influenced by teacher efficacy and effort.
Scenario 1 - Teacher B Is Better
Teacher A enjoys teaching and demands that students learn the material if they are to obtain a high grade. However, Teacher A rambles in class, such that the students are unsure what is relevant for tests and what is not. Teacher A does not provide study guides for tests, and instead states that, "Everything covered in class and in the readings is fair-game." Students know that this covers a vast amount of material. The expected return to studying is low, and so they do not study and do not learn. They score badly on the tests.
Teacher B is the oppose. This teacher also requires significant learning for students to achieve a high grade, but he puts forth great effort to make sure they actually learn. He sticks to his objectives, he is clear about what is relevant for tests and what is not. Study guides are provided; they are specific and detailed. Students of Teacher B expected a higher return to studying -- they actually know what is on the test! -- and they study hard. Students indicate a high degree of learning by doing well on the tests. Significant learning occurs, and Teacher B has earned the right to assign higher grades.
Scenario 2 - Teacher B Works Harder
Teacher A does not hold any study sessions outside of class, while Teacher B charges his teaching assistants with the job of holding a study session two nights before the exam, and he holds a second study session the night before the exam. The expected return to studying is higher when you can study with the teacher at your side to answer questions. Students study harder, answer more questions correctly, and thus have learned more. Significant learning occurs, and Teacher B has earned the right to assign higher grades.
Scenario 3 - Let Them Fail, Then Repeat
There are very few billionaires that haven't lost a lot of money at some point. Every business confronts frequent failures -- that is how they learn what consumers wish to buy and learn their efficiency relative to their competitors. Life is full of second chances. Moreover, we learn best when we are allowed to fail. Failure is salient; failure is emotional. Failure is articulate because you know exactly why you failed. Failure is essential to learning.
Teacher B puts forth considerable effort to allow students to redeem their failures. After they perform poorly on a test, he allows them to retake it. However, they must attend 90% or more of classes and attend two study sessions before the first exam. This ensures students do not simply choose to not study for the first exam, get to see the exam, and then study for the retake. The retake is held outside of class, late at night. Students must work hard for the opportunity to retake. The expected return to studying is higher, students study harder, answer more questions correctly, and thus have learned more. Most study twice for the same exam. Significant learning occurs, and Teacher B has earned the right to assign higher grades.
When they do retake, they understand exactly what they did wrong the first time, and they learn to overcome that barrier. The return to studying is higher, students study more, they indicate greater learning on the exams, and Teacher B has earned the right to assign higher grades.
My final question is this: If Teachers A and B existed and were exactly as described above, should Teacher B feel ashamed at giving higher grades?
I have often said my dream is to teach a class where everyone learns more than 90% of the material and I gave all A's in response. If I did this, and the only thing other people saw was a class of students who all received an A, would I become labeled an "easy grade"? The answer is yes. The purpose of this essay is to encourage us to instead answer: I need to know more about the class than just the grades that were given.