Grade Pressures

Do you feel the pressure of grades?

I feel immense pressure to give grades that students can tolerate without crying or having anxiety attacks. I’m going to use this blog post to talk a little about this pressure. These are my own feelings and ramblings. It may take me more than one blog post to really get this out. Please comment with your own ideas and thoughts.

Talking about grades and grading seems tantamount to talking about one’s salary or pre-existing health conditions. I know. It’s hard to do. But I’m going to try anyway.

College students used to getting all A’s in high school are shocked if they get a grade lower than an A. Many of them feel enormous pressure to get A’s in college in order to be ultra-competitive for those precious spots in medical or law school post-College.

Lots of my student advisees talk with me about their worries because of A- grades or, heaven forbid, a B+. B is no longer a good grade. And forget about C. That’s failing, plain and simple.

A= Acceptable

B= Bad

C= Crisis

D and F= Well, they often drop the course before that happens.

I’ve had students in my office after getting a B on a quiz or assignment, wondering “what I expect” of them and how they can possibly “be successful” in my course. I’ve had students get a B on an assignment and immediately wash their hands of the course, either dropping it or taking it pass/fail because they “can’t afford a bad grade on their transcript.” I’ve had students become despondent after getting a B. I’ve had students decide that they “hate” my course (and maybe even me) when they fail to earn A’s.

What are grades all about? Are they credentials to display on a transcript in order to gain entry to graduate school or a job? Or are they ways to provide feedback to students about their progress in your course? Or are they measures of quality of mind, of degree of mastery of a subject or assignment?

The enormous pressure the students feel about getting A’s affects me as I sit with a stack of papers or tests, grading. I know how upset students will get if they get B’s (or lower). Does that affect how I grade? It seems possible, maybe even likely, no matter how often I refer to my answer key or list of criteria for the assignment as I grade.

Papers are the worst to grade. What’s the difference between a B and a C paper? These days a C paper is not very common. Today the “B” means “average,” “okay,” “pretty good.” To earn a C on a paper means there’s probably a lot wrong with it. So….for most papers, the grade range is A, A-, B+ or B. An occasional B-. A student sitting in your office, lamenting and crying, “How could I have done so badly when I worked so hard on this paper?”, when earning a B makes for a lot of pressure on the faculty grading the work. The next time we sit down with a set of papers, do we unconsciously look really hard for improvement and give a mediocre paper that’s not much different a B+ or A- this time? Just to encourage our students to hang in there and keep trying? Just to keep them from having an all-out stress attack?

Some disciplines have dispensed with giving letter grades on papers, resorting instead to just comments. This is so the students focus on the learning, on the development of the writing. Or, is this because it’s just too much pressure to give a letter grade as an evaluation of quality, of mastery?

If we don’t give grades on papers, but are required to render a letter grade at the end of the term, how do those comments translate? And, if we have a way to translate those comments, should we not share that translation with our students? Then, of course, they translate the comments into the grade and we’re back where we started, with the grade and the pressure.

It’s almost a relief to grade tests and exams. Those “feel” more objective, but, unless the test is multiple-choice, those short essays and answers can easily be interpreted through different grading lenses. Partial credit can make the difference. Do we unconsciously or consciously give more partial credit for lousy answers as the semester wears on and our student pressure wears us down?

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How can we help our students focus on learning rather than on grades?

How can we evaluate our students fairly and objectively?