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Testing out some verbiage on quarter grades

October 15, 2011

Earlier this week I wrote about my dissatisfaction with having to give numeric quarter grades to students when I don’t feel they accurately reflect the ultimate grade students will earn in this class if they continue to focus on using feedback to improve their understanding.

It’s entirely possible given where we are that a student who is still struggling to figure out a free body diagram in my class at this moment (something we’ve been doing for a few weeks, but there are still enough subtleties that hold a few students back from complete mastery) could end up with a very low “grade” according to the grading scale we’ve established. In fact, mastering Free Body Diagrams is considered an essential skill, so a student who doesn’t demonstrate mastery of this ultimately cannot pass the class (and I think that would seem pretty fair if this were week 18 and we’d been doing this for months). But I also think it’s very premature to say that student is failing right now.

I’ve tried to put together an explanation of this to go along with grades in order to help students and parents understand how they are different from other grades they are used to seeing, which tend to be averages, and thus, earning an 85 at the mid term makes it all but impossible to wind up with an A. Whereas in my class, such shifts are entirely possible.

Here’s what I’ve put together so far, and I would appreciate any feedback or suggestions on how to make it more concise and helpful. I’m envisioning that this will go somewhere in the comment for the student.

Remember that your grade is not an average—rather it is a snapshot of your most recent understanding of the 8 concepts we’ve studied thus far. Because we are still very early in our study of physics, this snapshot probably is not as useful as the detailed feedback you’ve been getting in class, nor does it provide as good of a summary of your progress as you will find by checking the complete history of your understanding on Also, because of the limited number of concepts we have covered thus far, not mastering a concept has a much more significant impact on your overall grade than it will in at the end of the semester.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that you should not at all be deterred by a lower grade than you are used to seeing in this course. Because of the nature of our grading, often a small amount of work to master a few concepts will lead to dramatic improvements in your final grade, since only your very latest score counts, and you are not penalized for any previous mistakes you may have made.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2011 4:38 pm

    I also dislike quarter grades the way they stand. Of course, I understand the argument that there must be some cut off eventually if we have a semester/year based educational system.

    I dream of a system where students could continue to work and study until they achieve a good understanding of each standard, and where that hard work and studying for success is celebrated without arbitrarily designated time limits.

    • October 20, 2011 8:25 pm

      Isn’t this system the real world? After all, you can study as long as you want to pass the bar, and sign up to take it at whatever administration you like. Same with most licensing exams, I think. It seems to me there are many more experiences in the real world that allow for continual growth and care only about your final level of proficiency than there are that set up regular grading checkpoints and handicap you based on your previous lack of understanding.

      • October 21, 2011 8:02 am

        >Isn’t this system the real world?

        Yes and no.

        Let’s take a simple thing like a driving test. In the UK for example, the driving test is a 45 minute road test, plus a written exam. Compared to the tests in the USA it is a very comprehensive and tricky thing. One tiny error can result in failure and as a result there have been literally millions and millions of failed driving tests. However, the vast majority of people eventually ‘pass’ the driving test because, as you say, over time they become more competent, learn more and ‘get better’. HOWEVER, the idea that we cannot (or should not) judge them (and assign a grade) to their CURRENT competence does NOT preclude them ultimately passing the test. In addition, I REALLY need to know NOW who can and who cannot, drive!

        It’s the same in high school. If a kid continually fails to pass my chemistry tests, that, in and of itself, does not say they will *never* learn this, it simply says that you have failed to learn this **at this point in time**. I think that adding the ‘at this point in time’ element is CRUCIAL. I want to know who can do this NOW and who cannot do this NOW.My point being that if somebody is hopelessly incompetent at this moment, we need to know! Regular reporting of grades helps that process.

        The reluctance to assign grades often looks to me like some kind of soft, political correctness, where the kids are being cocooned and their self-esteem is being held in higher regard than some good old-fashioned home-truths. I think it’s a recipe for disaster.

        • October 21, 2011 8:14 am

          Actually, your driving test sounds very much like standards based grading. I’m assuming the fact that you failed the test the first time doesn’t get averaged in to your later tests to increase the likelihood that you will fail the second time. Nor do they print how many times you failed your driving test on the license, I imagine. Would British roads be safer somehow we posted an “honor roll” of people who passed the exam on their first try? Or shamed those who failed it? I doubt it.

          Second, I think you are conflating grades and feedback. My students get feedback every week on what concepts they do and do not understand. They also know if they do not master some concepts deemed essential, they will not pass. They get this information and feedback continually through an online gradebook, and when circumstances warrant it, I even contact their parents to ask them to help me engage their child. I do not see this as soft in any way. My students know exactly what things they can and cannot do at every moment. And it may just be a difference in terminology, but I never encounter students who are hopelessly incompetent. I think standards based grading may play a small role in this, since it gives students very specific feedback on what they can do to improve, and they never need to think that it is hopeless that they will be able to learn physics, or earn a grade that reflects their eventual understanding.

  2. October 16, 2011 7:49 am

    Do you have Honor Roll or Dean’s List? Curious what effect your “lower grade than you are used to” has on those kids. (As you know, I completely agree with you, just curious if you’ve had any fallout. We have Honor Roll and my juniors and seniors are also seeking admission to National Honor Society.)

    • October 16, 2011 8:40 am

      We have both of these things, but as far as I know, Quarter grades are not used to determine them, only semester grades.

  3. October 21, 2011 10:07 am

    Well, John, I STILL feel as thought we should judge, evaluate, rank & record who can do stuff ‘quickly and first’ and I think timing absolutely matters.

    I know that judging and ranking make teachers with your philosophy uncomfortable, but for me it represents a fundamental part of my job. It’s how the real world works, too. The sooner kids learn to live with that, the more resilient they will become and important life lessons follow.

    • October 23, 2011 1:03 pm

      As a fast learner myself, I valued speed of learning as a student and felt superior to those who took longer to get the point of an argument or had trouble with math proofs.

      After being a professor for 29 years, I have more patience with the slower thinkers than I used to, as I value the correctness and quality of output more than the speed with which it is produced. Some of my best students (in terms of what they produced) were not the fastest thinkers in the intro grad courses. Still, there is some positive correlation between fast learning and good outcomes.

      When I have to decide who to admit to a grad program that can only take 10-20% of the applicants, I want to know that the resources we will pour into educating that person will be used as effectively as possible. A grading system in which everyone eventually gets an A tells me nothing useful—I do want to know how fast a student learns, as we have only limited time. But even more, I want to know that a student can *think* and not just keep plugging away until a teacher says “OK”.

      I want to know some about what they have learned (so we don’t need to re-teach), but I want to know more about how they think about non-routine problems, and none of the grading systems (SBG or traditional) help much with that.

      After using test scores and grades as a crude filter to eliminate those who do not thrive in academic settings, we have to rely mostly on letters of recommendation from people who have supervised the students doing non-routine work. This does not always work well (some students haven’t ever done non-routine work and some supervisors write uninformative letters), and so we undoubtedly reject some students who would have done better than the students we admitted.

      So I agree in part with adchempages that evaluating the students in part on how fast they learn is useful.

      But I disagree with the philosophy that “It’s how the real world works, too. The sooner kids learn to live with that, the more resilient they will become and important life lessons follow.” Schools should be supporting students to learn as much as they can learn, and sooner is not always better for maximizing learning. There should be a gradual transition from highly supportive environments (in kindergarten) to highly independent environments (in grad school). Finding the right balance between support and independence and between competition and cooperation is always tricky, and needs more careful thought than “the sooner the better”.


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