Friday, December 10, 2004

Can We Fairly Teach and Grade?

Academic bloggers (like Jeff and Suresh) are up in arms about a column by Ailee Slater in the University of Oregon student paper.
We are currently paying a large amount of money to attend this University and receive an education. If I have paid to be taught something, shouldn't there be a repercussion for the teacher rather than, or at least as well as, the student when knowledge has not been taught?

Although teachers cannot be responsible for the self-failings of their students, it still seems unfair that they are allowed to judge how much a particular student is learning. I pay the teacher to teach me, and then I get slapped with the label of failure if the teacher deems that I haven't learned the correct information?

If students only paid for education they why would my grade matter? Whether I give you an A or a D won't affect how much you actually learned over the quarter. Students also want a certificate of quality of that education (a diploma and a transcript) to further their future careers. No legitimate university would give such certification just for tuition money. They need to verify that the students have indeed learned. That's why we have a grading system.

But Ailee does have a good point: I do have a conflict grading the students based on what I tried to teach them. Most of us try our best to grade fairly but deep down we know if a hard-working student hasn't mastered the material perhaps we should have taught differently. We often tend to overcompensate for this bias leading to grade inflation.

Unfortunately, other than standardized exams, I see no other reasonable alternatives of evaluating students. So professors need to grade students as fairly as they can and students need to acknowledge that education is not just a right but also a responsibility even when they are paying for it.


  1. What about portfolios and letter writing instead? A grade doesn't even contain 4-bits of information, but a letter talking about the student can provide great insight. (However, such individual attention is very, very expensive.)

    I am not a fan of grades, but they certainly are better than standardized tests. I guess I'd like to see more project-based courses, where a project can span over several quarters/semesters. Grades might still be good for the standard courses (calculus, linear algebra, algorithms, theory of computation); but the more open-ended (or advanced) courses, like software engineering and AI projects might be better.

    As for grade inflation, that's not an important issue. Looking at someone's overall transcript and letters and resume gives you all that you need to know.

  2. There are inherent conflict(s) of interest
    when teachers evaluate their own students,
    and this practice poisons the system in
    many ways.

    The solution, of course, is to separate
    teaching and evaluation.


    This is a somewhat factual account of my recent experience in dealing with teachers who don't give a rat's ass what their students are paying.