[Grades]: BS and photocopies

About a month ago, I wrote this and this, detailing my experiences with grades and the events that brought me to teach at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed.

Well these damned grades are still around, and they continue to drive me crazy.  Here’s a few more stories about how silly, misguided, misleading, harmful, and uninformative grades often are.

* * *

How many points is a photocopy worth?  I mean, if you assign a homework problem, and someone photocopies the proof from the book, how many points is that worth?  I only ask, because this just happened.

A couple friends are working on their Masters at NYU, and this term they are in the same Complex Analysis class.  They’d like to discuss homework together, but Justin tends to put things off to the last minute, while Liz is a more meticulous student.  When Liz wants to chat, Justin usually hasnt started, which drives her a bit crazy, especially when he gets better homework scores.  This week it came to a bit of a head.

Put off and put off again, Justin’s homework was overdue.  The last problem said something like, “feel free to use your text and the following property.”  Looking through the text, he found a solution to the exact problem, property and all.  “I could copy this down by hand, verbatim, or I could just photocopy the proof,” Justin thought, before heading to the copy machine.

So how much is a photocopy worth?  FULL CREDIT!

Justin got full credit for photocopying a proof from the book and citing the reference.  Despite Liz having worked this problem out and thought her way through, she earned a 4.9/5 on the homework to Justin’s 5.

Liz in a half-dejected tone – “I’m just not as smart as you.”

* * *

I’m wrapping up my own Masters program, though the luster and appeal of academic training are certainly fading.  For whatever reason, I have little motivation for the two classes I’m taking this Fall.  Note taking has been minimal, homework pushed off, and I spend most classes on my phone, texting, tweeting, and playing Whale Trail.

In keeping with mathematical tradition, most exams ask for replicated proofs from lecture.  I’m usually very good at this kind of thing, because I listen to the lecture and make sense of it in real time.  When the exam comes, I simply retell myself the story of the lecture and write it down, but having paid little attention this term I sensed impending doom.

As I walked in to my Field Theory exam, I was confident it would go terribly, and looking over the questions, I was certain.  Unlike the good students who had memorized the notes, I knew none of them.

I just wrote down whatever I thought could resemble proof and put down any shred of detail I could recall.  For one I simply included all of the premises and said things like “this contradicts the maximality of n, hence we see that f is irreducible over F,” without much attention to the absurd lack of mathematical rigor or value.  About an hour later, I was the first to leave.

The professor must not have read the thing, because I got an 80, while friends I know to have strong command earned 60’s.  Worse yet, I have an A at midterm, despite knowing for certain that I only sort of know the field theory.

* * *

How much do I need to say about how ridiculous these two stories are?  Obviously Justin’s points were not earned for clear knowledge or mastery, not even for hard work.  The very same is true of my exam score.

The first thing people ask about schools without grading is “if you don’t give grades how can colleges tell how good the kids are?”  (The answer is obvious, you just tell them by writing about each child.)  My question is this – If schools are going to continue giving grades as meaningless as these, then how can we tell anything?

We can easily blame these professors and say they’re “grading poorly.” Perhaps Justin deserved a zero.  Perhaps I should have failed.  If there’s any case to be made for grading, I’m certain these teachers have got it wrong, but these two stories point to a fact that is true across the spectrum of graded environments.

The central lesson: It’s about doing the work and not about the learning.

When we ask students to memorize and replicate for tests, this is surely the message.  Even worse, we equate the work with learning, when they are plainly distinct.


13 responses to “[Grades]: BS and photocopies

  1. Those are indeed horror stories showing some of the worst-case situations in grading, but I’m not sure they are really about grading. A faculty member who gives any credit for copying answers is not helping someone learn, grades or no grades. A math professor who asks students to regurgitate proofs they have been shown, rather than coming up with proofs or solutions for new problems is teaching memorization, not math. The failures here are at a much deeper and more fundamental level then whether they were giving grades or not.

    Note: I teach at a university which went from giving no grades to requiring most courses to be graded. The change was less dramatic than you might think—cheating went up, but so did diligence, so the overall learning did not change much. The motivated students continued to learn a lot, and the unmotivated ones continued not learning much. Grades or no grades really makes very little difference. (At the time of the change, I was passionately in favor of keeping the no-grades option, but now I don’t see it as making much difference one way or the other.)

    • I agree, these are examples of the worst side of grades, and I also agree that strong learning communities are possible in graded environments as well. I also think you’re right that these problems are more fundamental than the simple choice to give grades, but the prevailing grades and testing education/school culture en masse has given it to us.

      When schools place themselves inside of a national structure that simply transmits academic content, evaluates on the basis of points, and boils entire years into single grades, they are erring on fundamental levels for sure. Without breaking the spell of grading culture, it is all too easy to slide this way, focus on the accumulation of points, and ignore the the creation and solution of new problems.

      That’s a pretty interesting story about your university. What school is it? I’d love to learn a bit more. It’s certainly not all about whether or not grades are present. It’s perhaps more a question of responsible feedback. I think what your story reveals more than anything is that you work at an institution that is very thoughtful about the way it treats and communicates with students. That’s getting it right on a fundamental level.

      Thanks for your comment, as always. I love hearing from you.

      • I’m at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In the 24 years I’ve been here, we’ve gone from narrative evaluation system with student-optional grades to a grade-based system with instructor-optional narratives. A big part of the push for this was efficiency—class sizes have mushroomed as the state has stopped supporting education (and UCSC has for a long time gotten much less per student than other UC campuses, for purely political reasons). Meaningful narrative evaluations are a crushing workload in a huge class, and once the narratives stop being meaningful, then they are a large expense with little value. Narratives are still commonly given in the small courses for which they are valuable, but those small courses are beginning to disappear, except at the graduate level (UCSC has a smaller than usual ratio of grads to undergrads for a research university—only about 10% of the campus are grad students, so our grad courses are small mainly because of how few grad students there are in each cohort).

        Grade-grubbing and cheating did increase somewhat with the switch to grades, but the effect was much smaller than I expected. It is hard to disentangle the grading changes from demographic changes at the university over the same time—the campus has seen a drop in incoming SAT scores over 25 years and a huge increase in the number of students whose parents did not go to college. Changes in academic behavior may be due more to changes in the student population than to anything the university has done.

      • That’s a very interesting story. Thanks for sharing. Narrative feedback is extremely time consuming as compared to simple grading, and under some conditions it might be impossible, I imagine.

        Your story also brings to mind the huge surge in college attendance. “College for all” has been a really rallying cry it seems to me, and I suspect it helped push your numbers beyond the point of feasibility in terms of personalized narrative feedback.

        Sometimes “college for all” seems like a very large mistake. I can recall times in my own life when the idea of skipping college seemed ludicrous to me, but now heading straight onto college seems to be another way in which students move through the motions of education without much thought, doing whatever they’re supposed to do next.

        Anyhow, thanks again.

  2. To be fair to myself, the work that I did on the other four problems on the assignment was my own and I suppose they “deserved” the four points that I received for them. I could have copied out that last proof verbatim from the book, but I wouldn’t have learned anything from doing so and would have only tired my hand. I mean, I read it, and it didn’t make much sense to me, and I had to turn the assignment in. Also, I submitted the photocopy feeling a bit cheeky, and I did it at least as much to see what would happen as to have the assignment “complete.” If I had been docked points for it, I probably would have argued about it, and I’m not sure what leg the grader would have had to stand on.
    I feel ambivalent about the whole situation; I’m still trying to process it.

    • I hope I didn’t misrepresent you. I certainly understand how “cheeky” felt, pushing back at the system a bit. In fact, I can recall all sorts of events very much like this one in my own life. I’ve often thought that when they’re placed in built-up and systematic school environments, students spend much of their time thinking of ways to beat the game and looking for loopholes. I know I have.

      You know the grader more than I do, of course; Is there any explanation or justification for this as legitimate grading?

  3. This reminds me of grading standardized chapter tests when teaching for BCPS. We were required to give students points for simply putting ANY “NEW” PIECE OF “INFORMATION” in the answer box. Johnny drew a picture of a triangle for a parallel lines problem ? Give him a point ! Ginger paraphrased the problem using symbols instead of words ? Giver her a point ! Ridiculous. Essentially it was grade inflation to account for a bogus curriculum that was not accessible to these kids, and boring as shit to teach.

    By the way, I miss your cheekiness, Justin. :-)

    • I always used to laugh at the scoring breakdown for AP Calc free response questions – as if you could carefully design a point distribution so that it would work out perfectly and everyone would simply get “the grade they deserve.” HA!

  4. A question: Do you have a music library where you rate your music? I do and I find it to be very helpful for sorting music. I am wondering if grades could have a similar ‘useful’ purpose. Maybe to highlight student work — having a ‘library’ of student projects with ratings and/or comments.

    • Ironically, I tried to rate my music and totally lost my patience with the process. I really never felt good about it! hah! That’s telling.

      I really can’t get behind the idea of grading a term of work, but I can see using ratings as meaningful feedback on particular work, as part of a process. If I’m looking at a finished product, however, my rating has little importance at all.

      That having been said, I encourage students to place value judgement on their work all the time. They don’t have to actually “rate” the work, but creating valuable work is HUGELY important.

  5. Hmm… I have a foot in both worlds. Progress (mid-quarter) reports are narrative and end-of-quarter are letter grades at my school. I enjoy writing and bragging and discussing my students whereas the grading section feels very arbitrary. Perhaps that’s because I understand the nebulous nature of what I’m teaching in woodshop – why does a grade matter? did the project work? – or in the math/science portion of my job. Either way, I’m usually crunching numbers for two to three (or writing reports) days before grades are due.

  6. Grad school is a mixed bag about grading. The ultimate test will be writing a master’s thesis or dissertation that will be approved. On the other hand, at many schools TAships and fellowships are tied to grades so it is a little harsh to not just pass everyone with a high grade since at this point (if at anytime) you should be able to appraise whether you’re learning or not. You obviously know that you aren’t really learning it so before your qualifying/comprehensive algebra or field theory exam you’ll need to actually learn it.

    • No doubt there are all sorts of grading policies and graduate programs. My program, for instance, had no dissertation requirement. In fact, a dissertation was only part of of the program for applied math students.

      “You obviously know that you aren’t really learning it so before your qualifying/comprehensive algebra or field theory exam you’ll need to actually learn it.”

      That’s just it. You don’t have to really understand the math to pass the classes or the exams at all. You may have to study pretty hard, but when proof reproduction is the primary component, I wouldn’t say you have to learn much at all. It’s possible (and often done) to memorize, perform, and move on.

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