Grading papers, facing a dilemma: what if everybody gets an A or a B? Don’t give me that curve shit, I never understood it, anyway, except when…

Grading papers, facing a dilemma: what if everybody gets an A or a B? Don’t give me that curve shit, I never understood it, anyway, except when certifiable morons (e.g., Charles Murray) deployed it to explain why racism is rational.
And don’t give me that shit about T-Ball, or the bad effects on individualism and initiative of everybody getting a trophy, win or lose. This ain’t the jungle, not just yet. Winning, or succeeding, doesn’t mean conquering–it means getting over, for now. Unless of course you work for the Orange One.
Nobody in my capitalism class deserves less than a B. So that’s what they get. The dilemma resides not in some moral quandary I face, but in what my superiors will think of my teaching habits. They already believe that these are untidy at best. They have asked me, for example, how I assess class participation (which is 40% of the grades I’m now assigning).
I have said, to them: "Well, it’s not just attendance, and it’s not just talking. It’s informed participation in the conversation. By the end of the semester, I know everybody’s name, and I know who’s been talking, who’s been participating–who’s been leading. I can honestly say that in a class like this, the students take over. We got topics, I got books, but they have questions, and they determine our itinerary."
I am not a convincing witness.

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43 thoughts on “Grading papers, facing a dilemma: what if everybody gets an A or a B? Don’t give me that curve shit, I never understood it, anyway, except when…

  1. I stopped teaching when the dean started reading the instructor evaluations, and at the same time I got students telling me they knew the subject already, so they should just get an A and not attend.

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  2. I do a bunch of complicated math on a spreadsheet to get almost all A’s and B’s (two C+’s). 20% for this, 40% for that, 25% here, 15% there, with the 40% divided into three components that can be added up two different ways. Just let them question my grades and I’ll point to the spreadsheet.

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  3. Took a physics seminar taught by Mitchell Feigenbaum years ago. At the end he submitted grades — all As. They said, “You can’t give everyone an A!” He said, ”OK. I’ll give ’em all Bs.”

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  4. My lecture grades are all over the place, but pretty bimodal (which is normal for my school, or so my colleagues say), with lots of As, lots of Fs, and very few in-betweens. In the lab, though, it often happens I end up giving all As (in adult classes only, the kids are bimodal as well).

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  5. I give out Bs like candy, but not As. But I agree with Brian Connolly about the pressures students are feeling and that grades do not and cannot always reflect what actually happens in a classroom. Even a student who might not feel compelled or strong enough to participate, even a glance at a moment can tell me that they suddenly got something, perhaps they learned something. My students have to earn Cs and Ds.

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  6. Raymond Michalowski Jr · Edit

    Good on you. You ain’t no patsy, so if they deserve B grades, you done right by them. Your superiors? Fuck ’em. When did you ever give a shit what they thought anyway?

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    1. Marc Stern What kind of institution are/were you at? I’m at a flagship state research university, with a wide gamut of students and, in general, a wide gamut of grades. We’re in a consortium with four elite liberal arts colleges, and I’ve heard from co…

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    2. As a department chair for 16 years, I heard a lot from the dean if a colleague gave all A grades (not to grad but to undergrad) and were known primarily as easy graders.

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  7. Grading is so non standard that I don’t think there is a way to do it “wrong” as long as the order of student rank is not clearly wrong. At least where I taught a C is a failing grade for a grad student and I gave all As on more than one occasion.

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  8. It occurs to me that if Mom and Dad pay enough, students, no matter how dumb, may never see a grade lower than B. Which makes me think why should rich kids get away with this while working kids don’t? Or, are rich kids being cheated? And, if they ar…

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  9. I hate grading. It is the worst part of the job. Do you feel this way about students who have mailed it in, done virtually no reading, produced totally perfunctory and sometimes semi-literate work? Not necessarily because they can’t write, but beca…

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  10. And, one more thing, at a time when most students are taking on unmanageable amounts of debt and being told that a college degree is nothing more than a place on a vocational path, I find it quite difficult to give really low grades.

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  11. I hate giving grades. And not just for the usual reasons (reading 50 papers in a week, repetition, etc.) but because they never reflect what happened in the classroom. I had a class this semester with 45 students, mostly non majors. It was US Intellec…

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  12. Grading is the absolute bane of my teaching existence. Last class I taught I told the students to grade themselves. The young men all tended to give themselves higher grades than the young women. I raised the girls’ grades a but to adjust for this. Pre…

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  13. Academia always questions actual dialogue, intellectual conversation, and exploring ideas. As you state, how do you quantify who is doing it best? How can a student interpret a text in a meaningful intelligent way that is superior to another student’s interpretation? If one is right and the other is original, which is better? I see you refusing to play their game and I say Bravo Professor!

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  14. If everyone earned an A or B that’s terrific, and you should be proud of both them and yourself. It’s what all teaching should be striving for.

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    1. James Livingston I forgot how petty some of these people can be. The power to impose schedules is a pole ax that I’ve seen wielded in higher ed. “Professor ——, we would like you to teach a few night classes.” In K-8 education, coercive power is often wielded by means of assigning students to classes, i.e. loading up a class with the violent, the dim, and the lazy.

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  15. I don’t think grades have anything to do with standards. It is my job to help the students. If they are behind, I work with them to make sure they understand and can ultimately synthesize the material. I think that heading in general is detrimental to learning. It is merely a form of currency. Students want grades, not knowledge.

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  16. Sounds to me as if you are working on a variety of a “contract grading” paradigm and that’s been around for a good long while. So if folks ask about how you grade what you do, it seems as if you have pretty straightforward ways to say what “counts” as …

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  17. In my institution it’s only if you have a class that has all As that the administrators (I am, currently, that administrator in my college) even notice. Particularly in non-quantitative fields, grades have at best a tenuous relationship to assessment,…

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  18. I was called into the Dean’s office and given a talking to once for giving too many F’s in a freshman level class (only four or five out of probably 35 students). The little troglodytes deserved it. A well-deserved F builds character.

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    1. Yeah that’s one thing I just can’t tolerate. I really will bend over backwards to help a student, but plagiarism renders the whole enterprise useless.

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    2. As a TA I wanted to give an F for a plagiarized assignment and was vetoed by the prof. The student was a senior in an introductory course.

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  19. I read for AP World History for several years, which is norm referenced (curved), until they promoted me to the experimental questions and I got to see how the sausage is made. They’d just tweak the assessment rubric until they got the distribution to …

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  20. I agree that those grades are in order in your class as you’ve described it, and, by the way (fuck btw, by the way) the class seems to be exemplary. This does not change my opinion that the now-standard B as the lowest mark is a disturbing reality but the offset is, of course, good teachers.

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  21. Dude, I am not grading them, I. Am grading me. If they all got what I was giving, they all get A’s. So what! I am good. 25 A’s is Jake by me. Usually a person ducks up

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  22. My wife had the same issue with grading. At least with computer programming and databases it’s seemingly more objective but administrators will look harder at you if you don’t have tidy grade curves.

    But hey, if everyone does the work and learns the material, they deserve the grades.

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  23. My college history professor, who won some national teaching award, announced on the first day of class that he never gave a grade lower than a “C”. His rationale? Hitler flunked out of art school. He didn’t want risk flunking out the next Hitler.

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  24. When I was working, the geniuses in HR imposed a forced distribution – approx bell shaped – on performance reviews. I always said if the staff performance was normally distributed, then hiring and trainng processes were both failures and management was inept.

    Nobody wanted to hear that, either.

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  25. You may want to reconsider whether you need to readjust your standards for next semester, but if the students all did above-average work then give them the grades they earned.

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  26. I think it cuts both ways, too, so I don’t see the problem. I’ve had one class where the majority of students got Cs, Ds, and Fs. I taught the same content in the same way as in classes where most students get As & Bs, so unless I’m inconsistent (alway…

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  27. Steven James Lawrence · Edit

    This is a great thread. I’m having similar quandaries in my grading. Same philosophy here. My job is to push them to get those A’s and B’s.

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  28. I have many semesters when everyone gets an A and B. To me, if I have students getting a c d or F I am not doing my job. My job is to make sure they interact with the content and change their way of thinking

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  29. You have tenure, right? You’re a full prof? Who gives a flying fuck what your superiors think of your teaching habits? If I get a class that’s performed outstandingly well as a class, they all get As, barring someone who hasn’t made an appearance. If I…

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  30. No dilemma at all, as your “superiors” sound like morons, to put it bluntly. Alas, yours is not an uncommon problem (I happen to be fortunate regarding whom I presently report to and their views on this matters…)

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