A life of pluses and minuses

It’s only six months since I stopped teaching at the two-year proprietary college formerly known in this blog as 2YC, but it seems longer—probably because so much has changed in my working life since then.  I’d already been hired to teach the one course at New RU, but it didn’t begin until January, and my employment at Starfleet Academy was nothing but an extremely vague idea. 

I remember a lot of things about 2YC, of course, but many details are starting to fade.  One of the things I enjoyed there was getting to know faculty in fields besides my own—this was certainly facilitated by the fact that we didn’t have offices, but shared a couple of lounge/workroom spaces.  (A recurrent lesson at 2YC was that there were often unexpected benefits to the working conditions we grumbled about.  Offices would have been nice, though.)

Twice a year, the entire faculty came together for (paid) training sessions—usually a formal presentation by some outside expert in something, followed by breakout sessions in mixed groups from different disciplines.  At an early one of these on the subject of grading, I remember a particular faculty member from the visual arts lamenting that the 100-point grading scale “only gives us a few points to recognize excellence!”  Six months later, I heard her repeat the same complaint—and six months after that.  But it must be said that she had a point: all the grades that we and our students recognize as “very good” and above are bunched up in one end of the range, and we spend a lot of time making fine distinctions between a high B-plus and a low A-minus, for example.  (At least, I do.)  Going lower down, there’s a lot less fine distinction, at least in my experience in the humanities: a D paper is a D paper, and an F is certainly an F.  There might—say, in freshman comp, which usually has to be passed with a C or C minus—be another fussy little range of fine distinctions between D-plus and C-minus. 

This is why New Sociology Prof’s frustration with plus and minus grades  (via Inside Higher Ed) surprised me.  Yes, in one way plain old A-B-C grades are easier for faculty because they recognize just a few categories of performance: A is excellent, B is proficient, C is adequate, D is inadequate.  Or something like that.  Of course, with grade inflation, it’s more like A is excellent, B is a sign that something’s lacking, C is a disaster, and D means you kept showing up stoned.  There might be less inflationary “creep,” though, with plain old letter grades, because while it’s easy for a softie like me to bump up a B-plus to an A-minus, pushing a B up to an A requires much more conviction, and it’s much clearer whether the numbers support it.

The problem with plain old letter grades is that many students who make significant progress during the term will not see that progress reflected in the final grade.  As a supervising prof of mine used to say, there are a thousand ways to earn a B, so two B-range papers may look quite different, but any way you slice it, there is a qualitative difference between a B-minus paper and a B-plus paper.  And in ten or fourteen or sixteen weeks, a lot of students will make the trek from B-minus to B-plus.  In freshman comp, they may do it by learning to develop a compelling thesis statement and letting it help them achieve a clearer organization.  They may do it by making their evidence more specific or their claims less broad and sweeping.  They may even do a lot of it by learning how to repair comma splices or some other pervasive error.  Whatever way they do it, though, it has to be dampening for them to suspect that their final grade is going to be exactly the same as if they hadn’t put in that effort in the first place.  Why exactly are we giving grades if they don’t help the students track their progress?  (And yes, I know that the students can see that their grades on individual assignments are improving, which may help the most motivated among them, but for the many—most—who mostly just want to get the requirement over with, why not just accept that a sequence of B-minus papers will earn them a comfortable B?)

If I’d stayed at NCC, where there were no plus and minus grades, I suspect I’d have shifted, over time, to giving many more C’s at the start of a semester, so that students would be motivated to reach for the B range.  But I’m not convinced that I would have been happy with that, either.  I like “grading tough” at the beginning—and it’s always easier for me to do it when I know they have time to improve—but I don’t want to distort my standards, which I believe are well within the norms for my discipline.  (And have had this confirmed at norming sessions at multiple institutions.)  As a student, I’d certainly have been annoyed and disoriented if a professor had given a C to a B paper just to try to make me work harder. 

I realize that the system is somewhat crude, and that, as one of NSP’s commenters observed, learning and grading may coexist uncomfortably.  Some of my complaints could, no doubt, be addressed by changing the system—either from the top down or from inside individual courses (and I’ve certainly experimented with different kinds of grading, including narrative evaluation and narrative-based scales of my own invention—about which more another time.  But most of the time, most of us have to work within the traditional scale to which we and our students are accustomed, and I confess I prefer a finer scale to a coarser one.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by FLS on June 26, 2008 at 7:19 am

    Hm. As a non-academe myself, this isn’t something I think about regularly, but what about a system that has only letters and pluses, no minuses? Could you then use the letters in their broad categorical fashion — distinguishing an A paper or an A student from a B must be much clearer than distinguishing an A- from a B+ — and reserve the pluses as a way to reward either the truly exceptional (A+) or the type of improvement over time you describe? A series of papers of B- quality would then earn an overall B, but a notable improvement would earn that B+. Any merit to this notion or should I take my decongestant and go to bed?


  2. Posted by meansomething on June 27, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Hm…you interest me strangely! I don’t know of any institution that actually does this; my sense is that either they use unembellished letter grades, or the whole range of pluses and minuses is available. So if you could convince an A-B-C institution to go for any embellishment, they’d probably go for the whole changeover, as 2YC did a few years back. Reading your rationale, though, I realize that I now have a much finer system at my disposal at Starfleet Academy, because not only do we have pluses and minuses, 1) we give effort grades on every report card, so we can acknowledge strong effort; 2) we can write remarks on any report card and are required to do so for the first marking period; and 3) most courses are full-year classes (‘cos it’s high school!) and so there’s more opportunity for students’ improvement over time to be reflected in their grades.

    So I should actually be happier grading at SA than I have anywhere else? It’ll be interesting to see whether that’s true–the test will be next year, my first full academic year there (since this year I inherited students and their midterm grades from someone else).

    Hope you are less congested today!


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