Should better teachers give higher grades?

THIS POST IS BY DOUG PORTMORE, NOT DAVID SOBEL.

We haven’t had a post on professional issues lately, but I hope that readers won’t mind a bit of light reading. In any case, here it goes:

Suppose that I’ve become a better teacher. Suppose, for instance, that I’ve used the same bank of test questions over the years and that, due to implementing certain non-substantive changes in my PHI X course, students taking that course from me this year are doing a better job answering those questions than students who took the same course from me in previous years. So the material that I’m trying to get the students to learn and the technique that I’ve been using for assessing whether they’ve learned it hasn’t change, but I’ve become more effective in that my current students are, on average, leaving the course with a better understanding of the material than students who took the same course from me in previous years.

The question, then, is: Should I (A) adopt higher standards with respect to what level of understanding I expect from them so as to earn certain grades or (B) keep the same standards and give higher grades on average than I had been giving in previous years?


I worry about grade inflation, so I don’t want to opt for B if it’s unjustified. But here’s my initial thinking. I should opt for A if the changes are such that I make it easier for my students to understand the material. But I should opt for B if the changes are such that I now do a better job of motivating my students to work harder and, as a result, my current students spend more time studying than students did in previous years. But what do others think? Should we all shoot for giving out roughly the same distribution of grades, or should those of us who are more effective teachers (or, at least, more effective motivators) be giving out better grades than our less effective colleagues?

 

21 Replies to “Should better teachers give higher grades?

  1. I wish your students the best but I would adopt Option A.
    I give grades in the context of the current classroom group. An “A” student distinguishes themselves from their classmates (or, in an impressive classroom group, shows that they rise to the level of several of their current peers.)
    If a student named Bill wrote a set of responses that only contained 80% of the content of a classmate named Jill’s, Bill is doing B-grade work and Jill is doing A-grade work. It doesn’t matter to me if Bill writes just as effectively as “A students” from previous courses.
    For whatever reason, the bar has been raised in the current course, and Jill is doing more effective work than Bill. She deserves a higher grade. They both were presented with the same set of material and Jill mastered more of it than Bill did.
    I also believe that any instructor thoughtful and careful enough to place this much attention to their grading should get the benefit of the doubt. You clearly pay great attention to your students and their progress and can make a more informed decision about the cause of their progress than I probably have in venturing this guess. Very thoughtful post!

  2. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
    You write: “If a student named Bill wrote a set of responses that only contained 80% of the content of a classmate named Jill’s, [then]…Jill is doing more effective work than Bill. [Thus?] she deserves a higher grade.”
    I agree that if one student is doing substantially better than another student, then she should receive a higher grade than that other student. But that’s one of my reasons for thinking that I should go with option B. For Bill may be doing substantially better than students in the same course last year, and that leads me to think that he should get a better grade than those previous students.
    You also write: “I give grades in the context of the current classroom group.” I have tended to do this myself. But I wonder if it’s always justified. The reason for my doing this in the past is because it helps me calibrate what it’s reasonable for me to expect from my students. If, for instance, no one (not even my best students) understood my explanation of argument X, then it seems unreasonable for me to require such understanding for top marks.
    But if I re-design a course in a way that motivates my current students to study harder, on average, than my past students did and they do better as a result, shouldn’t they get better grades than those students who didn’t work as hard?

  3. I vote for option (B), but with the following caveat: consistently keeping very high standards. First, I think it’s unfair to treat past and present students according to different standards. It’s not right for a student to get a B this term for work a student last term got an A for. Second, I think as long as your standards are very high, it’s *not* grade inflation. I had a class this term where students were doing uniformly good to great work. My grades in that course were high, but I felt no guilt awarding them those grades because they earned them. The real problem is when genuine grade inflation occurs — when students are awarded higher grades due to lower standards. And notice: I think this is what is going on with your option A. If you’re using higher standards now, that means you
    were awarding higher grades with *lower* standards before — and that, I think, is a real problem. In my experience, most people choose option A (changing standards) because they are afraid of what consistently high standards will do (I have heard quite a few people say their students would “mutiny” if they gave out uniformly bad grades to poor students or a poor class). I have refused to teach out of fear of this, and while I have had
    some students complain about my standards, I have slowly gained a reputation at
    my school as a very hard but fair grader. Anyway, I think that option B is the clearly correct option on the basis of fairness and integrity. If your grades get higher over time but you are a *brutal* grader (as am I), you can justify them.

  4. I would also add that consistently very high standards undermine Brian’s argument for option A. If getting an A is consistently *very* hard in your course, it will be hard if not impossible for one student to do much better work than another and for them both to get
    As. If your standards for an A are very high, just about any two students who meet those standards will be doing similar quality work — so Brian’s argument doesn’t apply.

  5. Thanks, Marcus, that’s a nice way of making a case for option B (at least, assuming that my earlier standards hadn’t been unreasonably low and, thus, inflated).
    But I wonder what we should say if someone’s standards used to be unreasonably low? That is, assume that they were a fairly ineffective teacher and that rather than face possible mutiny by giving the majority of his or her students some grade lower than a C for the poor work that they had been doing, s/he inflated his or her grades and gave above average marks for poor work. This certainly describes my past self. Perhaps, it even describes my present self.
    But now what does this person do as he or she becomes a more and more effective teacher. On the one hand, it’s, as you put it, “unfair to treat past and present students according to different standards,” but, on the other hand, now that s/he is a better teacher s/he can apply more rigorous (and less inflated) standards without facing mutiny.
    So this person is in a bit of a moral dilemma: they either treat past and present students unfairly by applying different standards or they continue on with giving inflated grades even though they can now apply less inflated standards.

  6. As a student, I’m partial to option A. Often times I think that my motivation to study hard, go to office hours, etc etc stems directly from what is demanded of me in the course. The higher the standards the more motivated I am in the class. Additionally, the professors that I have the most respect for and that I have learned the most from are, almost always, my hardest/most demanding professors. I think this is because of a 4 main reasons. 1.) No one is doing me any favors by setting low standards. That is not how the world works and it certainly will not help me in graduate school or — hopefully — as a professor later. 2.) High standards give me something to aim at and shoot for. If I don’t have to work hard and really try to get that A then its worthless to me when I get it. Certainly it looks good, but the ‘looks good A’ will hurt me later when I haven’t learned everything from the class that I could have. 3.) Hard classes force students to engage in class discussions, get together for study groups, etc etc. and this makes the class fun and everyone learns more this way. 4.) High standards set the impression that this is a competition. If you want to get an A in this class your going to have to compete with other students and set yourself apart somehow. For whatever reason I enjoy the competition aspect, but even more than that, in classes (graded on a bell curve, all essay format– just an example) I engage with the material much more deeply; mind mapping the arguments, creating a general outline, reading the essays listed as sources trying to get a better understanding of the what the author was thinking and where he was coming from. This is the type of engagement that, at least for me, is required for me to really see the inner workings of an essay. where the flaws are, where it can be improved, etc. (to see them for myself and not just be told about them) and its fun!!! That’s why I love philosophy! I hate easy classes, I don’t learn anything and frankly I feel that its a waste of my time. I think that for me I’m constantly trying to get better at doing philosophy because I enjoy it. So, my time is going to be spent doing research, but if the class is too easy I often find myself reading other essays and books that may be closer to my predominant interests and getting the easy A. However, I’ve never been in a class that forced me to really work that I did not find rewarding, interesting and fun.
    As a last note, The thing that I look forward to most in a class is learning something that I can’t learn on my own and participating in discussions with people who share my interests! I can learn the arguments by reading them, but in class I want to discuss the arguments, learn how other people have interpreted something and most of all I want someone to say something that blows my mind like, “Damn, I didn’t think of it that way” or “Wow, so if this is true that is true” type stuff.

  7. Hi Doug,
    Actually it seems to me that your initial proposal is exactly right, and now I wonder why. Here are two (compatible) proto-arguments for it. How do they accord with the thinking behind your proposal?
    1. The understanding a student gains from a course is a function of the teacher’s contribution (in virtue of things like text selections, presentation, paper assignments, and testing) and the student’s contribution (in virtue of things like effort, talent, and other personal characteristics). Now, let Diotima be a teacher who enhances understanding by contributing more herself, and let Socrates be a teacher who does so by motivating his students to contribute more. But, a student’s grade should reflect the magnitude of that student’s contribution, not the student’s total understanding. Hence, Diotima should adopt higher standards, but Socrates should not.
    2. That a grading policy will effectively motivate students to work harder is a prima facie reason in favor of adopting it. Now, Diotima’s adopting higher standards would effectively motivate her students to work harder (her excellent teaching makes it easier for them), but Socrates’s doing so would not (they are doing more than enough already). Hence, Diotima has a prima facie reason to adopt higher standards, but Socrates doesn’t.
    Of course, there’s an interesting epistemic wrinkle in all this: plausibly, many teachers may be unable to reliably determine whether they are Diotimas or Socrateses. Should teachers in such positions presume they are of one of those types (e.g. maybe it is worse for Socrateses to suppose they are Diotimas than vice versa, or the other way around, and this should be taken into account), or should they just guess?

  8. Hi Derek,
    It seems that there are two ways of demanding a lot from students. Consider these two different courses:
    Course 1: The only grades that students receive are for one term paper and for each of two exams. There are no pop quizzes, reading summaries, or rough drafts due. There is no grade for attendance. And there are no other pedagogical tricks implemented for keeping student on tract with their studying habits. Nevertheless, students are expected to attend class faithfully, to turn in drafts of their papers (which is optional and not graded), to read each assigned reading twice, etc. And let’s assume that the professor’s grading standards reflect these high expectations.
    Course 2: The grading standards and substance of the course is the same as course 1, but the logistics are different. Here, students are not given so much freedom and responsibility for their own study habits. There are pop quizzes on readings, attendance counts for part of the student’s grade, students are required to turn in a rough draft and that draft receives a grade, etc.
    So, in terms of grading standards and expectations for how hard the student will work, no less is demanded of students in course 1 than in course 2. It’s just that in course 2 the professor is more effective in getting his or her students to work as much as he or she expects.
    So suppose that I move from course 1 to course 2. Do you still favor option A? Do you think that your motivation will be less in course 2 than it would be in course 1 and, if not, why would you still favor option A?

  9. Hi Ben,
    That’s interesting. I think that a student’s grade should reflect BOTH the magnitude of that student’s contribution AND the student’s total understanding. Presumably, insofar as the student’s contribution is a genuine contribution it affects the student’s total understanding. But, as you’re suggesting, a student’s total understanding is also affected in large part by the instructor’s contribution. And I guess that I want to say that students can’t be held accountable for the quality of their instructor’s contribution but can be held accountable for only the quality of their own contribution. So I think that someone who becomes more Socrates-like should not necessarily see the improvement in the quality of their students’ work as a reason to adopt higher grading standards.
    However, someone who doesn’t become a better Socrates but become only a better Diotima should adopt higher standards corresponding to how much their greater contribution improves the students total understanding.
    Regarding your 2, I don’t think that adopting higher grading standards does motivate students in and of itself. After all, you can adopt higher standards without even telling your students that you have. And you can adopt higher standards without this motivating them to work harder, because you implement them in a way that doesn’t motivate them but only discourages them.

  10. Doug,
    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Here are my thoughts. I think we owe it to students to have consistently high standards(for reasons Derek gives). If one has made a mistake in the past by having standards that are too low, one is in a bit of a dilemma. If one raises one’s standards, one has arguably been unfair. On the other hand, if one keeps one’s standards the same, one perpetuates a serious mistake (overly low standards).
    I think, however, that the dilemma is easily resolved by the following question: what is best for students moving forward? Whenever one has made a mistake, it is usually best to rectify it immediately — even if there will be some unfairness involved. If, as I suspect (and Derek seems to think), students benefit from uniformly high standards, then the thing to do is to move permanently to higher standards and then follow option B in perpetuity.
    To Derek: I don’t think your remarks justify option A one bit. Your remarks suggest that *high* standards are what we owe students — but we also owe them fairness. The way to accomplish both it to adopt option B with consistently very high standards.

  11. Hi Doug,
    You make a good point, I’m running out the door for work so this will be a brief answer, but I will definitely mull it over and if I think of anything else I will post it tonight.
    Anyways, I have had classes both ways and their are certainly pros and cons for each method. I think your right that I would probably prefer option 1, but my motivation would not go down in a class of the second option. In fact, many times I found that the classes run in the style of option 2 more people participate overall. As opposed to five people talking every class, which is usually what happens in option 1. However, I do have a few worries. 1.) that quizzes do not take up too much time. Say in a 45 minute class with a ten minute quiz that really takes away from the class. However, at my school most of the upper level classes are once a week for three hours so this would not be a problem. Also, I’ve seen this happen to others and to me, if the quiz is at the beginning of class and someone is two minutes late they get a zero. Now this can be countered by making a rule that you can drop your bottom two or something like that. Overall, I don’t favor the quiz strategy its also easy to fake it if their easy or they can get a bit nit picky if they are multiple choice or take too long if they are short answer (again not a problem in a long class)
    On the other hand, I have found the summary method very helpful and really gets everyone involved. If part of your grade is to write a summary then you have to read the text and this really gets the discussion going and makes it fun. So, I like the brief summary every class method.
    On the rough draft point. I do not favor having everyone turn in drafts if they don’t want too. If someone wants to risk not getting comments on a draft I think that is their risk and I think that by leaving it open it allows the professor to spend more time (and not get bogged down) on the students who really want comments.
    Also, option 2 is a good way to put in extra points that give someone a way to make up for very high standards on tests and papers. not enough to get an A, but maybe to get a b or c or at least pass. I think their may be a bottoming out effect where good students will do fairly well no matter the standards, but the farther you go down the grade latter I think that the grades will start to exponentially drop. So a C student on low standards will mostly fail on high standards, but an A student will be an A B student either way. So, the extra grades can counter act this effect? Don’t know if this makes sense.
    In short, it would not make me less motivated and could make the class, overall, more engaged, but their may be some other difficulties with problem two.
    Again sorry for the rushed answer! I will clear it up tonight if something didnt make sense lol. Thank you for the reply!!!!

  12. Hi Marcus,
    I think your right, as long as consistently high standards are adopted option B is the better choice. Although, to clarify, I take option B to be something like: Immediately adopt consistently high standards and then grade fairly and evenly by those standards — regardless of the strength of a respective student or class or improvement in teaching ability — from year to year. As opposed to A which I take to be something along the lines of: Adopt higher standards as teaching ability improves, strength of class improves?, in order to keep the same distribution of grades from year to year.
    Consequently, it seems that the main reason for adopting strategy A would be to combat grade inflation, but at the cost of possibly being unfair to past or current students (due to fluctuating standards.) However, if strategy B is adopted then their is no risk of grade inflation because of the consistently high standards and there is no risk of unfairness because of even and consistent grading from year to year. Therefore, it seems that strategy B is the best reason.
    To answer Doug’s question, under strategy B, it is certainly conceivable that as teaching ability improves the overall grades will improve, but again because of high standards these would be earned grades and grade inflation would not be a problem.
    Is this a fair assessment of what you have in mind?

  13. I would go for option B. I treat grades as a measurement of students’ mastery of the course content. If something I do enables them to learn more, then they get a higher grade. Grade inflation occurs not when average scores go up, but when average scores go up more than content mastery goes up. Option A strikes me as essentially grade deflation, which would be as problematic for the usefulness of grades as grade inflation. I would be thrilled if I discovered a teaching technique that got all my students to earn A’s.

  14. Very good question. My first reaction is that if I put something very clearly and simply, then it is worse if they don’t recall that on an exam.

  15. As you explain the argument… the students are leaving your class with a better understanding of the course. Option B is fair. Why shouldn’t a student receive an A this year just because there were too many B’s last year and in prior years. Understanding is understanding. How could you justify lowering someone’s grade who has met or exceeded your expectations?

  16. I think that a couple of general principles might influence my handling of this kind of case. One is that I think there ought to be some rough consistency in grades between instructors who teach the same course. So if one of my colleagues teaches the course, and my grades had been typically running lower than hers, that would incline me more toward option B. If my grades had been running higher, that would incline me more toward option A. Another principle is that the more time that has passed between semesters, the weaker the obligation on me to treat students in those semesters consistently. So whichever option I decided to adopt, I’d probably start off by splitting the difference between the two (option B+/A-), and then evolve toward where I eventually wanted to end up over the course of a few terms.

  17. Most of the discussion here seems to be assuming that the purpose of grading is to make sure that students get their just deserts, and that desert is determined by the student’s autonomous contribution to the outcome. If that’s true, it does seem, on one level, unfair if you give a student a B+ for effort that in previous years–due to your inferior teaching–produced only B- work. It might seem fairer to lower the first grade to a B- or a B.
    But this is only part of the picture. Your students and their peers are getting grades not only from you, but from lots of other profs as well. Suppose that your colleagues are also giving B+s to papers with this degree of effort. Now, that may make your grade to the earlier student even more unfair. But if you insist on marking your present student down, likes aren’t being treated alike either. Your students will get worse grades simply because they took your class and not others. The point is that whether a grade is fair has a lot to do with how *other* people are grading. For that reason, deciding to be a ‘tough grader’ involves more of an ethical decision–to my mind, a bad one–than people often assume.
    But this is only part of the story. Much of the function of grading is a winnowing tool–to decide who gets to go on to grad school where, who gets which job, and so forth. Now, of course that’s a crucial reason why it matters that students are treated fairly. But it’s not the only reason. Universities are better off if they get more able graduate students, philosophy is better off if it gets more able philosophers, employers are better off if they get better cogs in the machine, etc. This may not affect fairness, but it does affect utility, and should thus be of concern to anybody (surely most of us?) who thinks consequences matter.
    Now, the people making these decisions read lots and lots of transcripts. Whether they choose the right employee or graduate student depends much less on whether your grades are comparable from year to year than on whether your grades are comparable to those of your peers. Even if you think that those grades are inflated, you’ll do more harm than good by trying to change this on your own. So this is another reason to try to align your standards with those of your colleagues. In the UK we institutionalize this through second-marking, and while it’s a big pain in the ass, it does make outcomes more fair.

  18. If you’re going to adopt option A, then it’s only practical and fair that you adjust your methods as well. Your students will know from friends who have taken your class before that the grading was once easier, and they’ll feel cheated. They won’t understand that your teaching has improved because the improvement was probably gradual. And some of the students, out of spite, might be inclined to try less. Some might even resort to plagiarism or cheating, and be very crafty about it so it’s hard to catch them (like this student who wrote into an advice column: http://www.constructionlitmag.com/additions/those-pushy-neurotic-girls. She felt bad about cheating but it didn’t really stop her). So instead of going from your normal policy to a harsh policy, you might adopt a gradual change where grading standards slowly raise. And you might want to devise some new tactics/policies so the changes your making are reflected in the curriculum and students can somewhat understand why your grading policies have changed.

  19. What is the purpose of the grades? If this is college level, the purpose of grades is to show how much material an individual absorbed and this ranking should be consistent between years. Regardless of whether the class is somehow easier, then the final evaluation is “how much did you get?”. There are always going to be up and down years for every class, and every individual in that class. How well a particular class does could be based on no more than the time of day it’s held. It could be that you’ve gotten awesome, but those are just the luck breaks of life… and hopefully your students will take advantage of these circumstances to go even further. Grades on a college level are evaluations of a body of knowledge used for professional advancement. Now lower level grades can have purposes like motivation, personal best, minimum standards, etc.; but here again I think you start with identifying the purpose of the grade.

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