Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Grading in Binary

Which bring us to today's word--binary.

At Yale there are really only two grades available to all students (undergrad/grad alike): A and B. That's it. If you did well--A. If you did not well--B. That's it, done and done. (All the dorks reading this were expecting something about 0s and 1s, sorry to disappoint.)

This pissed me off before, especially when i first got here after attending a school that lives and dies by a curve...not to mention doesn't have "modifiers" (plus/minus...until recently...sellouts).

One of the first classes i taught here was freshman chem lab. First of all, it was weird to start teaching at a liberal arts school because i had a whole bunch of random (read: useless) majors in my class: American Studies, African Studies, African-American Studies, Classics, etc. Pretty much if your major has the word "studies" in it or deals exclusively with languages no one speaks any more, you are more of a burden on society than an active contributor. Although i am interested in teaching, being a professor isn't my only option for a "career" (that thing after school is done...i've heard). Humanities departments exist solely for their own sake--people become humanities majors to go work at a school to teach other future humanities professors. It's a disgusting, vicious circle of self-importance. I realize i sound like all of the kids in these videos, but no one cares about the effect of mayoral elections on race in post-WWII Detroit (actually based off a thesis i heard at my masters graduation...something to do w/ race, 1945-1960, detroit, blah, blah, blah).

Anyway....Chem lab. I would mark the writing in their lab reports if it was wrong or awkward, etc. Students would come up to me and ask why i did it, and i would tell them. They weren't so much interested in the "learning" aspect of the exercise than the "Why are you grading my English in a science class?" To which i would reply, "You wrote it in English, right?" Dee dee dee. God i hate people. At the end of the semester, the guy in charge of the lab had to bump all of my grades up because my sections did worse than everyone else's. Prolly because i actually read what they wrote.

Speaking of actually having to read them all, a common freshman chem lab is 'qualitative analysis' or 'there's some shit in this beaker, figure out what it is'. So, you follow a flow chart, mix some chemicals, and see what you get and use process of elimination. On the report, they had to 'describe' the reaction--did something happen, if so, what color was it, etc. I had one student who CONSTANTLY described things like, "The reaction produced a nice strawberry red precipitate, but i didn't eat it!" Every week i'd mark it along with 'write in complete sentences' (which the prof said to grade them on...that whole 'english' thing rears its head again), and without fail every week she'd make the same mistake, thus proving that kids don't care what they get wrong unless their total score sucks.

The reason all of this came flooding back is i read an article in the yale daily news this morning about grading on curves. In all of the classes i've taught here (total of 4), i believe there were a total of 0 Cs or lower....zero. At rpi, C means average...as in, the middle grade. Not here. This quote embodies the essence of empty GPAs from Ivy League institutions:

But some science professors, including chemistry professor J. Michael McBride, who currently teaches the notoriously difficult "Freshman Organic Chemistry," said they do not seek to maintain a normal or bell-shaped distribution of grades. Most of the students in his class receive an A or a B at the end of the semester because they elect to study such advanced-level material so early, he said.

"For the most part, it's not a typical set of students, because they're ones that have taken a lot of chemistry and physics in high school and worked hard at it," McBride said. "It doesn't seem reasonable that they should get bad grades in their chemistry classes."

Good for you for taking hard stuff early, but if everyone's going to get an A/B for it at the end of the semester, why even bother putting up with the farce of 'lectures', and 'homework', and 'learning'. If your grade is completely independent of your classwork, then colleges across the country can turn into internet-based degree mills. Also, a student "has definitely noticed that the majority of grades tend to fall on the upper end of the scale, but does not think this necessarily suggests grade inflation." Awwwwhhhhhaaaaaaaaa? *turns and shakes head while rubbing eyes a la Jon Stewart* The fact that everyone gets a high grade doesn't mean grade inflation.....yeah. The history professor they interview outright SAYS that he's never given a C (and i doubt semantic arguments of giving Ds or Fs, but not Cs are included in that umbrella statement), partially because none of their work is deficient in information. Never. Never is a long time. "Deficient in information"? Does it have to be right or not or even applicable? I guess that would explain the actions of one alum.....

You're either with Merca or with the trrrsts...and that's the Word.

See what i did there? You get 2 choices at the end...oooooooh, sneeeeeeaky. I think i might adopt the Colbert Report Word segment for some of my ranting posts...which i guess would be all of them.

Gabe/Chris and I are going down to westchester/manhattan tomorrow night to meet up with Celia and Tiner (pronounced "TEE-ner" and not "TYNE-er") at the Patriot Saloon. (That inadvertently segued rather nicely....) It's a honky-tonk dive bar with pitchers of PBR. Ahh, the hipster credo of being trendy by not being trendy....oh, the irony! The whole thursday night thing puts a cramp in my flava, but all those working people get friday off 'cause some guy died.

I also found this website: www.overheardinnewyork.com. Fantastic. I think this is my favorite so far:

This One's Eau de Toilette

Girl #1: I know it smells kind of cheap, but I like it because it's the perfume I was wearing when I lost my virginity.
Girl #2: I thought you were wearing Ralph when you lost it.
Girl #1: No, that was my other virginity.

--60th & Columbus

I can't be any funnier than that....seems like the perfect way to end this.
Later

PS: Oh, and screw you Cathcart, Lorraine earned all 4 of those points.

3 Comments:

Blogger Daniel said...

Who would even joke about eating their product? Undergrad chem below 400 level is pretty much pre-med students, so they aren't exactly the cream of the crop (makes me feel good about the medical system). The grade inflation is rampant - but it isn't just a problem here, a lof of other schools do it (and some are worse!). We just need a new curving (how about # of standard devs away from mean? sound familiar?) system that everyone uses combined with a tiered school ranking system. Thus you have your grade relative to your peers and your grade as a school. Any person trying to figure out how you've performed then has two good measures. Of course this is an intelligent system, and there is a corollary to Murphy's Law that it is impossible for an intelligent system to be set up in a social setting.

1:08 PM

 
Blogger Daniel said...

Sorry to double comment, but on a related note, do you you think the system is actually inefficient? I think it would be difficult to show that there are inefficiencies in the labor market due to grade inflation. In other words, I don't think anyone is being "fooled" by the system. It seems to be more of the 1980+ trend of feeling good about ourselves no matter what (self-esteem). Yes, that is ethically wrong (to me), but is it changing any reality, no?

1:13 PM

 
Blogger Tim said...

I guess i'll go through these in order...

(A) Morons. Morons would joke about eating their product.

(B) 99% of premeds at Yale are gradegrubbers, compared with 95% of premeds at other schools.

(B2) 76% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

(C) That crazy 'standard deviation' method is how my classes at RPI were graded. If there was a clump near a cutoff, then you fiddled so as to be fair (like a 91.0 being an A and a 90.4 being a B), but the average was set to a high C (since we didn't have C+) and you look for cutoff points. These usually are pretty obvious, since a decent-sized population of students' grades will usually come out in a normal distribution.

(D) Interesting idea with the tiered school system. Playing devil's advocate (since, to zeroth order, it seems like it could work), what would be the categories on which the schools would be tiered? Most people will probably agree Yale is better than Podunk U in some square state, but is Yale better than MIT? What is more important: average incoming SAT score or high school GPA? Student teacher ratio or acceptance rate?

One way to split the tiers up could be by major or department, something like what USNews does for grad programs. Rather than comparing apples to oranges, you'd be comparing granny smiths to mcintoshes.

(E) I agree that the grade inflation is due partially to the self-esteem wave of the 90s, which i would say came about from the War on Drugs, but.... I also think that some of the grade inflation is professors not wanting to deal with the teaching portion of their responsibilities. Many (i can't blame 'em) don't want to deal with students coming about grades, so they just give everyone a good one. Or they leave it to some TA, fresh out of college himself, who either has the mindset that i have (live/die by the curve) or some touchy-feely school-is-hard-but-at-least-you-tried mentality. Teaching, in many institutions, is seen as a chore, as something that gets in the way of research or that book you're writing, and/or a hoop you have to jump through for tenure.

Do i think the inflated system is inefficient? No...but i don't think that's the correct word. I would say that the inflated system is inaccurate. A reliable grade would act as a measure of what you learned in college about what you chose to do for the rest of your life (barring mid-life crises) against the rest of your age cohort applying for jobs/gradschool/etc. during that same time period. I don't think the majority of places are 'fooled', per se. It's just that businesses are looking for a difference skill set--communication, working with others, multitasking, etc. They figure you're going to have to learn what they deem important for your position, rather than your course schedule.

Also, many recruiters 'know' about a school. Eg, people who recruit at rpi know that a 3.0 at rpi in aeronautical engineering is equivalent to a 3.8 or something at some other school. So in that respect, the whole grade inflation thing is moot. Pretty much all it does is pads resumes and makes people feel better about themselves.

(F) The reality is that there will always be smart people and there will always be stupid people, and you don't need a letter or number to determine who's who.

(G) I'm good at school things--math, quantum mechanics--but my common sense isn't exactly up to snuff. In fact, i'm the dumbest smart person you'll ever meet. I went to a science/math school for specific reasons: i hate english class and i knew i wanted to do 'science' things. Why waste my time learning about greek civilization if i'm never going to use it?

That being said, everyone's gotta be good at something....right? Probably? The bottom line should be that if you're good at what you do, congrats, and in a perfect world, the most qualified person (by whatever rubric you choose) would get the specific position. But, in a world full nepotism, cronyism, racism, favoritism, and ________ism (enter favorite one here) that isn't what happens. Just look at the degree mill story i linked...or any news story about Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown....

2:01 PM

 

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