Grading discrepancies a point of contention

Students debate whether standardized grading policies should be implemented across departments at Queen’s

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The “Journal vs ...” is a new section within Dialogue. Two writers — one a member of the Journal Editoral Board and the other a member of the wider Queen’s community — face off on a selected topic. The views expressed by the Editorial Board member don’t represent the collective views of the Journal, but only those of that particular individual.

Standardization isn't the answer

Sebastian Leck, Features Editor

While certain departments may give higher grades, higher grades aren’t always better.

I prefer to focus on whether departments are teaching their students effectively — their primary responsibility — before looking at grade averages, which don’t necessarily indicate a higher quality of education.

This isn’t to say grade distributions aren’t important. They can be indicators of underlying problems, including declining standards in evaluation or a learning curve that’s too steep for most students.

However, standardization across departments isn’t the answer. It even disguises the greater flaws in our grading system.

If a course gives out easy grades, students aren’t being challenged, which raises questions about the quality of the education.

On the other hand, if a course’s grades are extremely low or have to be consistently bell curved, the instructor is failing his or her students. If even the best students struggle to master the material, the majority won’t be able to apply their knowledge at all.

Grading in both situations fails to fulfill its primary purpose: measuring students’ learning. For this reason, it’s important for departments to monitor grade averages to ensure students aren’t gliding through effortlessly or having their spirits crushed under unrealistically high standards.

But not all courses can be measured by the same standard because they’re not all equal in difficulty. More students fail chemistry courses than history courses, according to the grades report, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In subjects like chemistry, it’s harder to learn the basic concepts, while in history, the basic details are easier to grasp, but getting an A grade can be challenging.

Passing a chemistry course should signify that a student understands what he or she was taught. Passing a history course should mean the same thing.

Unless either course falls into the aforementioned scenarios where no one is learning, neither professor needs to change their grading practices. They’re teaching their students.

However, when grading functions as a sorting mechanism to compare and rank students, fairness in grading across faculties becomes important.

Some people must be at the end of the bell curve for the system to function. Figuring out who’s competitive and who isn’t is vital for selecting candidates for professional or graduate programs.

Yet when we call for the equalization of grade distributions across faculties, we’re assuming that we can compare a politics student to a classics student, or a computing student with a commerce student.

Suppose each program had the same grade distribution and two students from different faculties received an A grade. Does that make the students equal?

It depends. Is Canadian foreign policy measurably more difficult to learn than ancient Greek? Is computer programming harder than accounting?

At its root, it’s an absurd question. If I needed a programmer, I wouldn’t care if you had good grades in an accounting course. But I would care if your previous work showed you were a highly competent programmer.

For this reason, I’d rather have a system of evaluation that measures competency and quality of work than one that makes a contrived game seemingly fairer by standardizing.

A reasonable short-term solution, as ASUS President Adam Grotsky suggested in May, would be to add class averages on transcripts to provide context.

In the long term, I want to examine the ways we evaluate students more closely. I’d like grades to reflect how we’re learning, not how well we’re competing.

It’s of the utmost importance to focus on the role of universities as places of learning, and move away from standardization for the sake of comparison. Imagining new ways to evaluate our students would be a start.

Sebastian is the Journal's Features Editor. He’s a fourth-year history major.

Grading needs consistency

Colin Zarzour, ArtSci ’15

In a recent survey undertaken by the AMS Academic Affairs Commission, students singled out inconsistency in evaluation as a key problem. I believe a student’s grades should be reflective of their achievement of learning outcomes — not what field they choose to study.

If a student achieves all of a course’s outcomes successfully, then an A-plus grade should be within reach. If you have unachievable outcomes, that’s poor course design.

Going into the numbers, it’s clear that there’s a large discrepancy within faculties and departments at Queen’s, including the largest faculty — Arts and Science.

Within Arts and Science is the fine arts department, where over half of fine arts students received an A-minus grade or higher in 2012-13. 21.6 per cent of classics students received A-plus grades.

At the same time, we have areas like the political studies department, in which only 1.4 per cent of students got an A-plus grade. However, it has the highest percentage of B-grade students in the entirety of Arts and Science.

Essentially, a politics student must accept that they likely won’t be an A grade student. I don’t believe students should have to resign themselves to being shuffled into a certain grade range, nor should they choose a specific faculty or department for its beneficial grade distribution.

This is a serious concern. Students, particularly those interested in post-graduate studies, may tailor their degrees towards areas with larger numbers of high marks, instead of where their passions lie.

Additionally, if a student who does excellent work in a department is denied an A-plus grade because there’s a belief that “we don’t give A-plus grades” or “an A-plus grade means your work is perfect and nobody’s work is perfect,” then the student is being jeopardized by a misunderstanding of how grading should happen.

Grades should be given based on whether the work meets a previously set standard of criteria, not whether the work meets a goal of absolute perfection. Courses in which the distribution is high in the A or A-minus grade range, but low in the A-plus or overall A grade range suggest that such misunderstandings are occurring. An A-plus grade doesn’t have to mean the work is immaculate.

There’s also a concern with small departments and faculties giving higher grades in order to attract students, as funding is largely tied to how many students choose to take a department’s courses.

That being said, higher grades might correlate with smaller class sizes. The same Academic Affairs Commission survey mentioned earlier said students overwhelmingly prefer smaller class sizes to learn — but that’s another discussion.

Lastly, there’s one deep concern I believe is at the heart of students’ and faculty’s qualms with the evaluation process as a whole: the lack of a strong forum for informal, critical and collaborative discussion between professors and students.

I frequently hear professors and students comment that they wish they could tell each other a particular criticism or idea. I believe both parties want to create a rich learning environment here, and only frequent and honest conversation will change that.

We need to work towards more consistent evaluation of courses and a more reasonable grade distribution. We need students and faculty to work together on strong learning outcomes, course expectations and more. We need visible space to solve problems together, beyond faculty boards and the classroom.

The university environment is meant to foster a will to learn and an interest in the subject pursued. An uneven grading scheme instead disconnects students and their respective faculties, and causes disillusionment with the university learning experience altogether.

Colin is the AMS’ Academic Affairs Commissioner. He’s a fourth-year political studies major.

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