Professor’s Pen Point

Fickle, High, or Strict: all three = rageI think I was in high school when I learned about the engineer’s/freelancer’s triangle. It’s the old joke about good, fast, and cheap–you can have two of the three but you give up control of the third. It has the distinction of being both funny and true. However, I think there’s an overlooked version of this for professors and their grading: to keep it thematic, I suppose you could call it the professor’s pen point.

You have three options: your grading can be strict, your grading scale can be high, or you can be capricious with what your questions mean. You can be two of the three, but if you pull all three your students will hate you. I know this because a professor who I normally love just managed to move from his typical pairing (strict decisions about what he’ll take and a high grading scale) into the dreaded all-three zone. In a class in which an A is a 94 or above, an A- is a 92-94, and a B+ is an 89-92, he just gave a test where the highest grade in the entire class was a 91. Literally no one got an A. No one got an A-. All of us are annoyed.

The reason we all got the grade drop, despite the fact that several of the students took a course covering the same material last semester, was that he way upped his capriciousness scale. He changed a single phrase in a multiple choice question which we had gone over in class so that the answer he had given us in lecture was now subtly different (the answer moved from being “b and c” to “b”). No one in the class got the question right. He will not be awarding credit for it, despite the fact that that is a fairly typical policy among professors if everyone in a class misses a question.

In addition, many of the students lost five points on a question in which he provided us three spaces to fill in a list related to adaptation. The students in the class have been provided with two related lists: one is three items long, and one has nine. Most students filled in the question (which seemed to imply that it wanted a complete list) with the three-item list; he wanted three items from the nine-item list. The lists cover related material, and had the question been phrased differently students would no doubt have supplied items from the correct list.

None of this would be nearly as irritating if it wasn’t for the fact that the grading standard in the class is insane. It is difficult to be reassured about our grades being fine in the end when a substantial portion of our final grade now rests on a mid-level B or worse.

I have another professor which handles the trifecta beautifully. He is exacting in the answers that he will accept from students and his questions are more persnickity than any I have ever seen. It’s annoying. However, it is not distressing because in his class, an 85 is an A. It makes the classroom a much lower-stress environment even in the face of frequent quizzes and frequent failure on quizzes.

This sort of thing convinces me that professors need more training in how to be professors, rather than just knowledgeable people. There needs to be some discussion of what is and is not appropriate in a classroom with a high grade cutoff. To a professor, a B grade may not seem important. To students trying to get into grad school, it’s important. We can’t really afford to fail because of the slightly insane standards of the institutions to which we will be applying. We do not have control over this situation. Professors do.

Grade inflation is not something to be encouraged. But a campus in which individual professor standards are impossible to meet needs to be evaluated. At least some student needs to be moving into the A threshold on a test. If not, something is wrong. That isn’t a challenging course; it’s just frustrating.

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