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Grading policies and equity March 28, 2019

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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1 comment so far

When I was a grad student in electrical engineering, I had to sit in on a couple of undergraduate courses to fill some knowledge gaps.  One of the classes I sat in on was the second semester of circuits.  The prof had a very interesting grading structure: he only graded you on whether your answers were right or wrong, although you had to show your work.  Then he took the grades and renormalized them to fit a bell curve.

The whole “all or nothing” approach was quite intimidating, but I can see why it made sense in classes of 60-100 students and why he would then use renormalization to determine the grade distribution.

When I taught physics for the first time, I thought that renormalization would be a good way to handle the very frustrating bi-modal grade distributions that pop up.  I would move the class average up to where I thought it should be and while Fs were generally still Fs, I found that they were Fs that could be recovered from with a lot of hard work.  For students with low frustration tolerance, this will probably make no difference and they will shut off.  No one wants to fail, but not everyone has the experience to know how to handle it constructively, unfortunately.  However, there are a number of F students who, with some mentoring and pep-talks, step up and get their grades into the passing range.  Those students later become very solid students because they understand that hard work will get you a lot farther than brilliance, although I think we all recognize that brilliance can give you a bit of a boost.

I have discovered, not surprisingly, that this grading method is a problem because even most A-students at that level don’t understand statistics.  Numerous times in student evaluations, I had students complain about how someone would get a 10 point increase in their grade while they managed only to get a 3-point increase.  They failed to realize that the 10-point increase was still an F and their 3-point increase bumped them from a high C to a low B.

As I am not one of those teachers that believes “you have it or you don’t,” I find this frustrating.  Often times the students who do well in the classes had opportunities in high school that others didn’t or were simply more focused on their educational goals.  More than once, I have had students whose parents were not educated and advocated that their children go to trade schools.  The children agreed that was what they would do, foregoing advanced math and physics courses until a school counselor or math or science teacher saw promise in the student and suggested that engineering would be a suitable profession.  Of course, the student then comes to college a couple years behind their peers and is expected to perform similarly.

This is a macrocosm of the equality vs equity argument you often see discussed when talking about efforts to broaden the demographics in STEM fields.  An excellent discussion and the graphic below can be found here.


It’s unintentional, but students complaining about grading policies, in this instance, can be an example of how people unwittingly reinforce the status quo.  The student who received three points (1 box) is only aware of that the other student received 10 points (3 boxes) but is unaware of the fact that this student started from a spot that was lower than their position.  Fairness is too often tied to the notion of equality.

I’m still struggling how to explain grades and point differences in terms of fairness, equity, and equality to my freshman classes.  Any of my students will tell you I’m a hard grader, so it’s not that I’m handing out participation prizes.  However, a little bit of a leg up right in the beginning of someone’s college career can make the difference between their long-term success and failure despite the fact that it seems unfair.

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