The Question on Higher Grades

In a recent open comment, Anonymous made some pretty serious accusations (sorry, sorry, “questions”!) about grades and evaluations. I’d like to address those questions--not just in another comment, but in full postings. This post addresses the first of several claims/questions/concerns.

Claim: “ also give relatively higher grades.”

So, relative to other instructors, I’m taking it? The University, specifically GFC, has approved grade distributions for different undergraduate courses. The fine print says this: “These distributions are provided for guidance in your grading. It is not necessary for the grades in a particular class to follow any of the distributions exactly.” (Unless an instructor is grading on the curve with the help of a spreadsheet, it’s impossible to get these exactly anyway. And I don’t grade on a curve.)

Instead, I focus on the expected medians for each course level:

1st year = B-
2nd year = B
3rd year = B
4th year = B+
If my classes don’t match these, well, I don’t know what happens. So far, nothing yet.

Anyway, here are the actual medians for the last 12 courses I’ve taught:
1st year: B, B
2nd year: B+, B+, B, B, B-, B+, B+
3rd year: B
4th year: A-, B
Any patterns? Am I consistently giving higher grades? It looks like the 100-level courses are a bit higher than expected. Why? Major components of that course (20% of the overall mark) consist of easy marks (Information Literacy, Research Participation) that boost students’ grades. These components are out of my hands; I don’t do any marking, I just accept the results as they are. So should I make my exams harder to compensate for these “free” marks? Of course not. Class means on my exams in that course are around 65%, and I don’t want them any lower than that.

Let’s skip to my 400-level course. Yup, I recently had a class earn a median of A-. They all deserved it. It was the best bunch of students I’ve ever had in that course, and I was really happy to give the marks I did. Their term papers were great, and their exams were outstanding. Didn’t even know the median was so high until it popped out of my spreadsheet when I was filling in the final grade forms. (And look, another 400-level class only got a median of B.)

It looks like there’s something funny going on in my 200-level courses. Yup, the grades are a bit high, tending to a median of B+, whereas GFC expects a B. That’s not a huge difference--in terms of the percent cutoffs I use, 72% is right in the middle of my “B”, whereas 76.5% is the middle of my “B+”. That’s a difference of 4.5%. Still, for a class of over 200 to have a grade that’s almost 5% “too high” is significant.

So, why the high marks? In my 200-level perception course, the textbook I used was extensively revised a few years ago, and the testbank of multiple choice questions that comes with it was really--how should I put it?--simplified. Because these questions make up about half of the exam, the marks went up by a few points. In my 200-level cognition course, the textbook I use is written by the same person who wrote my perception textbook. This textbook was also recently revised. Guess what the testbank is like?

It’s tough to rewrite dozens of exam questions, but I’m slowly working on it. Realizing that the marks have been increasing, I’ve also been slowly changing the percentage cutoffs for each letter grade. I don’t want to make huge changes all in one term--that’s not fair to those students. But it’s also not fair to give them inflated grades compared to other terms.

I’d like to think that my teaching improves over time--but is this reflected in students’ grades? If that were universally the case, wouldn’t instructors near retirement have sky-high marks in their classes, and wouldn’t graduate students teaching their first class have rock-bottom marks? Hmm, unless those sneaky novice instructors are inflating their students’ marks.

But that’s the topic of my next post.

Why aren’t you studying?


Anonymous said...

I think someone is bitter because they didn't receive the "higher grades" that you apparently give. I'd say your grades are just fine, and your teaching is superb!

Anonymous said...

Hello Anonymous,

Not that this is relevant at all, but I received an A+ in all of the courses I took with him. Not being bitter, just wanted to throw somethin onto the table for a discussion. It came off as "presumptuous" according to another poster, my bad. I still think Dr. Loepelmann is a fantastic instructor.

Dr. Loepelmann, I see your median marks are not too far off the suggested GFC distribution. And it does make sense if your mean marks are inflated because, in my opinion, students are naturally more interested in psychology and perform well in it overall. And with a "cutoff" marking scheme rather than a bell curve, it makes sense that your mean mark would be higher if the "left end" of the class still perform moderately well.

Thanks for your response.

-A studious student

Karsten Loepelmann said...

@A studious student: I once took an optics course in physics (because I was interested in optics). Big mistake. The class was filled with electrical engineering students. They not only liked what they were doing, they were good at it--really good. (And they saw it as a relatively easy/fun course. Arrgh!) I passed that course, but with a disappointing grade.

I don't know if psychology students liking psychology is enough to create a bump in grades.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Loepelmann,

Optics ... brutal. Your anecdotal evidence could definitely ring true. However, I was just hypothesizing a reason to explain the higher median marks. I do think the level of interest has some role in explaining why some courses are "easier" than others.

From my experience, I know that many science students take psychology courses as "easy options", aka bird courses. The reason? Partly because they find these psychology courses interesting, making studying not as much of a chore. Also, we tend to remember things we are interested in much better than things that do not interest us. Our reading comprehension is poorer for passages we are not interested in. In fact, I think I learned that from a psychology course...

-A studious student

Karsten Loepelmann said...

@A studious student: Hey, stop applying what you've learned in psychology courses to, like, real world things! What happens in class, stays in class.

After taking honours physics courses, intermediate calculus, and comp sci courses, yeah, science psych courses were easier. I could have a swelled head and just say how good I am at psychology, but...

I think students may have the potential to do better in psychology courses partly because of interest, but also because of the personal relevance. You can relate what you learn about in the classroom to your own life. (Well, maybe not the sociopathic personality disorder stuff.) That's harder to do for sine waves and differential equations. This is called the self-reference effect.

Oh, snap! Now I violated my rule about things staying in class ;-)

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