13 January 2009

What grades should look like

Another riff emerging from a conversation at SICB...

My students may not like knowing this little fact about my teaching philosophy. I tend to think a grade distribution should look like this.

C, being the middle letter grade, should be average. An A should be fairly unusual... but so should an F. Now, I'm not saying my grade distributions actually look like this. They're often skewed one way or another. And I'm okay with that. Every class is different, and I don't feel there's any reason to have any particular distribution of grades. And, interestingly in the context of this discussion, nobody in my institution has really said I should have any particular sort of grade distribution. I do submit my grade distributions during my annual review.

I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague at a different kind of higher educational institution. Her institution expects grade distribution like this:

I'm not sure of the distribution of Bs and Cs, but I distinctly remember 25% As, and 5% Ds and Fs combined.

And if the grades deviated from that too much, a faculty member could conceivably get in trouble.

I'm tired right now, so don't want to comment about the pros and cons of either scheme. But I had never really encountered someone working under such a significantly different regime.

Being an empiricist, I wonder if there's any evidence of what grading system produces the best outcomes.


Ignatius J. Reilly said...

I too have felt the pinch from administrators to have my distribution look like the latter rather than the former. They are so concerned about "full-time-equivalent student" units that often any thought to the actual quality of education is secondary. It is temptingly easy to just give everyone A's--the admins would be happy, the students would be happy, and the university experience would just be a big joke. I'm the only one who wouldn't be happy. :|

Unknown said...

I cant think of a school or professor that i have had that looked like your distribution, Zen. I always figured a B to be average not a C. I think this comes from students coming in from percentage grades where 50% (C) is not average, its borderline passing and 75% (B) is more to be what is OK