To Grade or Not to Grade

My musings when a friend asked about my thoughts on whether we ought to switch to credit/no-credit for this semester.

At the law school here we are having an advisory faculty vote on this – as I understand it, some law students petitioned for change to credit/nocredit. They tend to be a very anxious bunch. At the Faculty of Information, my home faculty, a few discussions about doing this in particular classes but otherwise current plan is business as usual.

When I think about it, much lands on the side of switching to pass/fail. There’s the fairness of changing horses midstream when students had been marshalling their resources and work habits in light of what they know as their strengths and weakness and such. Maybe I’m banking on acing the final after mediocre midterm, but now I might be thrown for a loop. Or maybe I was struggling to participate, but now I find participation by chat suddenly frees my voice. In short, there is so much unintended, and out of people’s control, movement in factors that can affect the thing we think we are measuring with grades, and so much measurement error introduced by the untested methods we are about to use that the error bars on the grades we come up with will be so large that A might overlap with C and so on.

Counter to this, especially in the case of first year law students is that no small number of external things are keyed to first year grades. It could be argued that credit/no-credit would be a real disservice to the students who were destined to get higher marks. ON THE OTHER HAND, if this crisis forced employers and scholarship providers to look beyond the GPA, that might represent a sizable social good.

And then there is the mindset we are all in which is “adapt and be pro-social.” It’d be nice not to be contradicting that with incentives to maximize one’s own grades in the midst of turmoil.

Selfishly, perhaps, I find myself thinking how much of a nightmare headache it is going to be as I try to be fair at semester’s end. I will be adjudicating a whole bunch of personal situation information that’s below the threshold of official requests for accommodation. There’s always a bit of this, but I expect a lot this round. Is that really what the school wants me to be spending my energy and time on next month?

The employer issue raised above relates to the question of the external utility of grades: are any employers or graduate schools going to apply strict scrutiny for grades earned this semester? Or are they going to know full well that extraordinary circumstances render those grades perhaps a less reliable signal than they are usually taken to be? In a sense, both students and professors would be investing a whole bunch of time to come up with fine grained measurements that nobody is ever going to pay attention to. (WE certainly shouldn’t when it comes to cumulative GPAs if we are honest – course to course variations are wide in the best of times).

Maybe I can get a handle on this with some analogies: sometimes in a restaurant when they mess up your order or have to substitute things they just comp you the meal or part of it.

In the tour-de-france if there’s an accident in the last 3km of the race they just give everyone involved the finishing time of those in the group who make it to the finish line. The point is to avoid dangerous behaviour at the finish AND to not give people time bonuses simply because they avoided getting wiped out by the falling cyclist on the last turn.

Then there is a part of me that thinks we should always be “pass/fail” with a bar that’s a lot higher than D. I’m inherently skeptical that there are meaningful small differences that we can well characterize with things like B+ vs A-. My current grading practice is something like 85-87 (the lower boundary on an A – this is Canada) means competently completed as assigned and then the numbers over that signal impressive extras and numbers below deficiencies and things missing, but I don’t manage much more fine grainedness than that. Since I’ve been grading assignments like that all semester, I’ve done all the “this is great, do more of it!” and “this is short of expectations” formative assessing along the way. A summative “done well enough, let’s wrap this up and move forward” would probably be a smart and responsible move for my professional students in the current circumstances.

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