Grading is a strange…

Grading is a strange thing. Here's something I'm struggling with a bit. To what standards do I hold my students in a writing class? Clearly, one generally doesn't expect the same level of work from MFA students as from advanced undergraduates. Do we grade them differently?

Similarly but differently, it seems unfair to expect the same level of work from the students I've taught at Salt Lake Community College, Mills College, The University of Utah, Roosevelt University, even when they're taking a course which is nominally the same, i.e., "Intermediate Composition." These schools are working at different levels, and it's disingenuous to pretend that they aren't. Should a student from SLCC be expected to write the same quality of analytical paper as a student at the U of C? With the same fluency of language, ease of argumentation, familiarity with a multiplicity of complexly-argued secondary sources? Generally, we don't seem to expect that.

The writing standards are different for different student populations. If they weren't, if we graded across the universities and colleges and community colleges evenly, then the average grade at the U of C would be an A, and the average grade at Utah might be a B, and the average grade at SLCC would be a C. That is patently not the way it currently works. Nor would grades be much use within the school if it were. Not to mention, the students at Utah and SLCC would revolt, and the students at the U of C would be underserved, since they wouldn't be getting useful evaluations of their progress.

Yet at the same time, I wonder whether I would feel differently if I taught math. Calculus is calculus, isn't it? At the end of the course, either you understand it or you don't. Writing is writing, isn't it? Is it?

To get a B in my course, you need to demonstrate a certain level of competency. To get an A in my course, you need to demonstrate a certain level of fluency. I expect different levels from my freshmen in intro writing, from my seniors in advanced, from my graduate students. That's fine. But different levels across universities -- that worries me. I don't see a way through it, though.

Am I making any sense?

13 thoughts on “Grading is a strange…”

  1. Hmmm. If you were teaching math, the students would still have to get the problems right, but you would cover a lot less in one semester at some places, a lot more at other places. Is there an analogous way of doing it here?

  2. One of the writing classes I took at SLCC (lo, these many years ago) had part of the grade based on our ability to write about issues. And some of the students — not a surprise in the homogenous province of Utah — were first introduced to the issues in this class.

    We spent time on racial issues, and they were even enlightening for me, and I’m not quite a typical Utahn. I would expect people who live in a more sophisticated culture to reflect that sophistication in their writing.

    So, I’d take your C and try to learn more. Expand my horizons as it were. The ones you mention are not cookie cutter schools. I don’t think they should be cookie cutter grades.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Carol, it’s not so much about the ideas. It’s just to be expected that if the top 1% of students go to Ivy League schools, for example, that they’re coming in with a higher average writing skills than people at other schools, yes? (There are many individual exceptions, but on average.)

    There’s no real point in grading students equally across schools; it doesn’t make any sense. It just somehow bothers me anyway.

  4. I suspect people evaluating diplomas take this into account. If a U of C degree is “worth” more than one from elsewhere, perhaps it’s fair that a higher GPA there is tougher to attain?

  5. I’m not a teacher. Nor am I a writer. It seems to me that one approach to this problem is to try to figure out where each student is at the start of the class in terms of the skill set you plan on teaching; in other words, establish a baseline of skills against which the individual’s growth can be measured. On average, this approach should help compensate for the differences between students at different schools. If an A at SLCC is measured based on progress from baseline, and an A at UC Berkeley is measured based on progress from baseline, they would be more equivalent. Of course, SLCC is still SLCC, and UC is still UC…

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Jim, that’s a lot of what we do, yes. But we can’t just grade based on improvement, because there’s also a ‘level’ assumption to the course. I.e., if you’re teaching basic chemistry, for example, and a student comes in who from day one can do everything you were planning on teaching in the class, they deserve an A, right? Even though they’re not actually improving over the course.

    Schools do try to address this by offering basic writing and math courses to try to bring everyone up to a ‘standard college level’ in those skills. At the U of C, they might have one or two sections of such a course, because they assume almost all the admitted students are working at a higher level already. At Roosevelt, we have many many sections of those courses, because a lot of our students are transferring in from junior colleges and aren’t quite up to speed yet. So in theory, ‘intermediate composition’ or ‘calculus’ really is supposed to be vaguely correlated across colleges, testing the same skills.

    In practice, there’s a lot of variance, though. And that does pretty much show up in the reputation of the school and the weight of your diploma in the workforce or in graduate admissions.

    It all makes for muddy grading; there are too many factors at play. I think it’ll be a matter of getting a sense of what my colleagues at Roosevelt expect out of an intermediate composition class, and using that as a barometer for my students. Then correlating that with ‘mastery of the material’ and ‘improvement over the semester.’

  7. Well, here’s my thinking. Our goal as basic writing teachers should be, primarily, to get the students able to write at a basic, competent university level. If they start out being able to do that, then they’re in good shape. Of course, a shocking number of students (at any university) are subpar writers. If your population as a whole starts at a higher competency, then we need to start reinventing the bars that we want them to get to. We might have more ambitious goals. But ultimately, the grade isn’t the thing. The grade simply marks whether they are achieving the basic competence they should have in order to go through college. A student, here at the U or at Yale, who can’t write to basic competency, should fail. A student who works really hard and manages to exceed your expectations, and her own, should receive an A. Competent writers who don’t put in effort should get in the B range, as should less competent writers who bust ass.

    There will be different entry levels at the different universities. The ultimate yardstick, however, should be the level of writing we would hope students will achieve. I don’t think the difference will be that severe. True, certain demographics will, as a whole, perform to a higher level and should get better grades. However, I don’t think there would be more A’s, just more B’s. A’s are always a matter of [u]excelling[/u], which is relative. Certain demographics (& certain people in every school) will have much further to go and will fail more often. If they don’t achieve basic competency, either because of ability or lack of effort, they should have to do it again until they do.

    I guess I see it as a gateway. In my mind there’s failing (F-easy enough to do), there’s fabulous (A-very hard), and there’s everything in between.

    I think I just managed to confuse myself.

  8. Mary Anne,

    Just to further confuse matters – I remember as a first year at the U. of C. I took honors Cal. I ran into a friend from high school who was attending a state school somewhere (not a top-tier one). He described how he did his whole calc homework problem set in an hour (10 problems or so).

    I then related how the homework we were getting, also 10 problems, would take about 1 hour PER PROBLEM. Similar, on the face of it, classes – but very different levels of difficulty and assumptions about how much work the students would and could do.

    I personally think it is important to stretch people – to show people how much they can actually do – I think holding people to a high standard is a part of that but the issue of at what level they are when the start the course is a major one indeed.


  9. I agree. I think we should hold students to a high standard. They will rise to the level we expect of them; if they don’t, then that’s their problem. I think the same thing is true at in our early years. We should read books to our children that are somewhat above their level … they’ll rise up to the level of the text.

    Of course, the caveat is that if we expect high levels from our students then we have to hold up our side of the deal and be exceptional teachers. We need to provide them with all the tools to succeed. That’s where my teaching guilt comes in … when I grade tough, but question whether I’ve been a good enough teacher to justify such expectations.


  10. I don’t have anything coherent to add to most aspects of this discussion, but the point about high standards raises a question I’ve never been sure what to do with:

    What happens if you hold people to high expectations and they don’t meet them?

    I know that in a lot of contexts, many or most people will rise to the occasion if you make clear that you have high expectations (and if, as Jeff C. noted, you provide an environment conducive to their meeting those expectations). But some people, in some contexts, will fall far short of those high expectations—even though they might be able to meet less-high expectations. So what do you do with/about those people? To me, “if they don’t [meet our high standard], then that’s their problem” isn’t a good enough answer, but maybe I’m overly pessimistic about the ability of most people to rise to challenges.

    I guess a related question is: it seems to me that often if you set a high bar, some people will fall just short of that bar, and that will be an acceptable result. (Set your goal higher than you think you can achieve, and you may do better than you originally thought you could, even if you don’t quite achieve your stated goal.) Except when that happens over and over, it means an environment where you never quite measure up, no matter how well you do, which seems like it can be bad for morale. Is that better or worse than having lower standards that people can meet more reliably, and giving them the glow of achievement even if it’s a lesser achievement?

    None of these questions are sarcastic or rhetorical; I’m honestly uncertain about the answers.

  11. Interesting discussion. I know teachers who also tried to factor in their own teaching abilities into the grades they gave students.

    In my experience in a number of different classes, teaching people with a much higher bar than they are used to – and saying to them repeatedly “I know that we are capable of bringing you up to this level, have faith in yourself and in me” is extremely powerful. It helps, too, if you understand your subject matter well enough to make this true.

  12. I agree with Mr. A, although I have once or twice set standards too high that way. It is important to remember that you cannot bring students in a semester to a level that took you decades to reach, yourself. Surprisingly, this is not usually a problem, though. The greater danger is expectations which are too low and give students a false sense of achievement.

  13. “The greater danger is expectations which are too low and give students a false sense of achievement.”

    I think that’s a beautiful point, David. Our job as teachers is to shoot high. Otherwise, why teach?


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