Friday, September 26, 2008

Grading Classes

The other day I was thinking about the best ways to grade a class. I know that many of my fellow grad students plan to teach someday. How should we grade our classes?

As engineers, we benefit from the fact that we deal with a generally definitive subject. There are solutions to math problems, so we typically don't have to deal with wondering how to grade a specific problem. It is right or it is wrong. Partial credit can be given based on taking correct steps to get to the answer, but failing to get the right answer. In the end, this is all going to be much more straight forward than grading a literature class for instance.

I don't think they are as popular now, but curving a class is an option. I don't know if I have ever had an engineering class that was curved though. There seems to be some pros and cons. It does make it easier on the professor. Schools typically do not like professors to give all high grades, so the curve reduces this problem. It can help students if a classes or test is really hard, by at least benefit those who did well. Similarly it can hurt students if a class or test was easy, since it punishes the students who may have done well, and understood the material, but were slightly lower than the best students.

This seems to be the heart of the problem. What should a grade represent? In my mind it should be a qualifier of how well the student understands the material presented. Requirements for courses should be laid out prior to a class and students will be expected to meet them. If this is the case there should be no problem will all students getting an A, or all of them getting a F.

In the end it seems as if the best solution is to give appropriate tests. The test needs to be fair and represent the class requirements. If the test is sufficiently difficult it will limit the high scores, creating a sort of natural curve.

Homework and Projects play an important role as well. One system I like is having a few options for how your homework/test combination will lead to a grade. This gives options for students who may find tests nerve racking and difficult. Some people just have a hard time with tests. They can then focus on getting good homework grades to make up for the poor test grades. Additionally, students who demonstrate that they understand the material well by scoring well on tests would not be punished for scoring lower on homework. I always personally had this problem when I found a class easy since I did not feel the motivation to do the homework when I already understood it and my test scores demonstrated that fact.

The one problem I see with this setup is how to deal with giving a fairly graded classes on your first shot. It will be difficult to create a balanced test. I think the only option is to make it fairly hard. Afterwards you can at least curve the scores up. If you make the test too easy, I think there would be a riot if you curved the scores down.

So, what does everyone else think? How can we grade fair without making it a time consuming mess? What is the simple solution? What grading systems promote learning?

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