Spreadin’ Love 581

Derek Thompson’s essay about his mom’s recent passing is beautiful.

The evolution of the college library. We LOVES book porn.

An interactive map looking at property taxes across the country.

The stats on newspaper columnists. 

Grade inflation at Harvard.

11 Thoughts on “Spreadin’ Love 581

  1. As someone who’s been on the grading side at an elite college, I agree with Joyce Carol Oates. Unless you’re grading students directly against each other on some sort of normal distribution curve, most of the kids are producing work that is of objectively high quality, which isn’t surprising given acceptance rates below 10 or 20%. If everyone in your class is doing above B+ quality work, are you supposed to do? Arbitrarily give kids lower grades? I rarely give out As, but there’s a huge compression in the B+/A- range. The overwhelming majority of the kids do the all reading, come to class and pay attention and participate, and can write coherent, logical, on topic papers. It’s hard to say that any particular student doesn’t deserve their A or A- simply because their classmates were equally as hardworking and enthusiastic. There are students who fail, students who get caught plagiarizing, and students who write C papers. It’s just not very common. At my school, there is much less grade grubbing than students who really care about doing well and take the time to figure out how to do so. A C on a paper gets the student in my office wanting to spend 2 hours figuring out what they did wrong and how they can do better next time.

  2. Also, at this level, the sorts of flaws very different students have can all average out in the wash to a B+/A-, masking the thought process and effort put into grading. There’s the student who consistently makes brilliant points in classroom discussion but writes lackluster papers. There’s the student who doesn’t say a word, but then writes brilliant papers indicating they’ve absorbed and thought deeply about everything said in class. There’s the struggling hard worker who goes from C work to A or A- work through persistence and desire to improve. There’s the brilliant slacker who you know could do A+ work, but doesn’t put in the effort. There’s the kid who does a great job doing exactly what you asked for, but isn’t able or willing to do any extra.* There’s the kid with great, novel, interesting ideas who doesn’t develop them well, and relatedly, the kid whose thinking is brilliant but uneven.

    *This is often the hardest, because generally there’s nothing to point to that they haven’t done well, but you just don’t quite feel they deserve an A. They often want to know why they got an A- instead of an A, and there’s no tangible flaw. You’re very good in all you do but not quite excellent is kind of hollow feedback to give a student.

  3. “You’re very good in all you do but not quite excellent…”

    Any way that you can show a student examples of excellent, so maybe the light bulb will go off?

  4. I don’t have strong views about college grading, but I note that most top 10 law schools, which generally contain an even more carefully selected and more driven crowd of students, enforce a fairly strict grading curve. So it can be done.

    • But, for all the reasons BI describes above, it might result in arbitrary distinctions among students who are effectively the same.

      There are studies on ranking that show that you can rank (the studies I know of were done with grant applications) the top 25% or the top 12% or so (it varies), but that within the top 10%, ranking is fairly arbitrary (in the studies, that means that independent assessors have poor correlation with one another in their ranking of the top group, while inter-assessor validity is pretty good for separating the top group from the others).

      Although others clearly would like to know who the “best” Harvard student was, rather than that the top 10% they’ve chosen from the world population are roughly equivalent and you are going to have to make your own assessment of the individual based on the qualities you are looking for, that may not be a desire professors can fulfill.

      On a side note — the “Tiger cub” (i.e. Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, Amy Chua’s daughter) wrote a blog post the other day saying that Harvard students spend most of their time obsessing about extracurriculars. That’s a behavior I might expect if academic ranking is providing insufficient discrimination among the students — that they have to find other arenas in which they can be ranked against each other.

  5. Louisa on December 6, 2013 at 8:14 am said:

    The move toward standardization and objectivity and the production of measurable result at universities means that we use a lot more templates and rubrics these days. There is no way to tell a student that they got all the points on the rubric but that you are giving them a b because you gave out too many a’s. There is also no way to take them through a template A answer on a final which matches theirs and then give them a b.the problem with being forced to say – this is the minimum standard for a b, a c, etc. is that lots of people will achieve that minimum.

    And both TAs and adjuncts tend to give more higher grades. That is why we have rubrics, etc.

  6. cranberry on December 6, 2013 at 10:23 am said:

    Harry Lewis has written about grading at Harvard:



    Over the years I have been teaching here (this is #40), I have turned several courses that used to be graduate level into undergraduate courses, because too many undergraduates were taking the graduate level courses and doing extremely well.

  7. Mostly Lurking on December 6, 2013 at 10:55 am said:

    I had a law school professor tell me that it was the students who wanted the grades, not the teachers. He’d rather teach and not grade at all. That was a real eye-opening statement. At my law school, the students demanded a curve, because nobody would have gotten good jobs if everyone had the same grade. But the grading created a contest environment. Harvard probably does not suffer from that problem, which makes it easier for the school to give everyone the same grade.

    And, most law school curves are only for first-year courses. But the commenter’s point is valid: at top 10 law schools, most students will be seeing a wave of Bs for the first time in their lives during the first year.

  8. I teach writing, and I hate grading. I don’t mind commenting, but I hate assigning a grade. I have come to love working with honors students working on a thesis because I’m not expected to give grades, just help them write the best damn thesis they can.

  9. Macaroni on December 6, 2013 at 11:20 am said:

    I taught at an ivy for two years. The work was so damn impressive. I have to agree with B.I.’s impressions. This is a far cry from the grade inflation I see at the state school in which I’m tenured. Most students earn Bs or even A- for work that really (in my opinion) doesn’t merit that type of grade. I tend to be a tougher grader which has had negative ramifications for me, and possibly students who take courses with me. That said, I feel as though I’m not completely caving the grade inflation (to get tenure, promotion, etc.) and students who earn A/B feel incredibly accomplished.

  10. “within the top 10%, ranking is fairly arbitrary”

    But doesn’t that even out over the course of an educational career? No one asks, “Who is the top student in English 204?” (Or Income Tax I if it’s law school). But the student who received the most top ten percent rankings from 20 or 30 professors can arguably be said to rank at the top of the graduating class.

    I actually think curves are fairer than leaving it up to the professors, which encourages students to look for easy courses, and encourages a bidding war where departments offer easy courses to boost enrollment and budgets. At Yale, the most notorious was Stats 123 (as in, “easy as . . .”), which was full of jocks and where we spent the semester drawing histograms. (I got an A, but so did pretty much everyone else.)

    “most law school curves are only for first-year courses”

    At least when I was at Berkeley Law (aka Boalt), the curve was somewhat relaxed for second and third years, but was certainly not abandoned.

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