Professor Forced to Drop Automatic Grade Change Policy
Why would a professor allow students to grade themselves?
A business professor at the University of Georgia (UGA) has been forced to revise two of his syllabi. Dr. Richard Watson holds a doctorate in management information systems and has been at UGA since 1989. He had planned to implement a “stress reduction policy.” Free massages? No, automatic grade changes.
Here’s how it was worded on his now-updated syllabus (the archived version is available):
If you feel unduly stressed by a grade for any assessable material or the overall course, you can email the instructor indicating what grade you think is appropriate, and it will be so changed. No explanation is required, but it is requested that you consider waiting 24 hours before emailing the instructor.
In other words, “Please sleep on it first. But after that, I’ll give you whatever grade you want.” This is bizarre for many reasons, one of which is that universities have processes whereby students can appeal their grades. Explanation is required, and the professor is required to give their side of the story. So students are not at the whim of their faculty. And grades are not arbitrary.
The Purpose of Grades
Dr. Watson was seeking to relax one of his fundamental duties: The expert assessment of his students. The practice of grading is debated among educators. How much is subjective vs. objective? How fair is it to reduce a student’s performance to a set of numbers that are then averaged? But there’s a general consensus that a professor — if nothing else — is uniquely qualified to assess student performance. That’s because he or she has a high level of expertise in the subject and the benefit of objectivity.
Accurate grades give students a true measure of how well they’re doing. High grades reward accomplishment. Low grades indicate that improvement is needed. Failing grades send the message, “maybe this isn’t a good fit for you.” Each of these signals is important as students prepare to enter society and the workforce. If a student lacks competence in a certain area, it’s better that he or she be informed. It doesn’t make sense to send graduates into the world who think they’re competent, but aren’t.
So what would prompt an experienced professor to have an automatic grade change policy? For that, we need to understand how professors are graded.
How are Professors Graded?
Professors are assessed on the basis of their teaching, scholarship and service. Some colleges focus more on teaching than research. Others do the opposite. I remember having a great professor during my sophomore year. That year he won an award for his teaching. He was about mid-way through the tenure process. He confided in me that soon afterwards the Dean came by for “a chat.” The message was “Congrats on the teaching award. But what really matters around here is research.”
If keeping your job is determined by how much your students like you, it might tempt you to cut corners.
If what matters is research, faculty have an incentive to spend less time on their teaching. If you assign less or easier work, grading won’t take as long and fewer students will come by for help. Translation: More time for research.
But there can be distorted incentives at teaching-oriented colleges too. We now evaluate teaching almost entirely by student evaluations. As student evaluations have become widespread, GPAs have crept up. The average college student in 1961 earned a 2.5-2.6 GPA (that’s a C+/B-). Recently, that number has swelled to over 3.0 (in the B/B+ range).
If keeping your job is determined by how much your students like you, it might tempt you to cut corners. Especially if your students are lazy or “stressed” by learning that they’re not be as brilliant as they once thought. Researchers have referred to this as a “nonaggression pact”: A tacit understanding between students and professors that goes something like this, “I won’t make you work too hard in this class, and you’ll say great things about me on the course evaluation.”
Caveat: It’s possible to be a rigorous and popular professor. But lowering academic standards often makes it easier to be popular.
What Can Parents and Students Do?
If you care about your kids learning in college, here are a few things you can do:
- Look at the requirements to graduate in whatever major your teen is considering. Compare a few schools. If you can get some syllabi, even better. Schools are under pressure to have high graduation rates, which are easier to achieve if you have fewer and/or easier courses. But if you want academic rigor, you’re looking at the quality and quantity of the courses, particularly those that are at the 300 and 400 level.
- Ask how teaching is assessed. How much of a faculty’s overall performance is based on his or her teaching?
- Some adjuncts are terrific, particularly if they’re teaching one course in the area of their specialty. But others are dramatically overworked and underpaid. What percentage of the courses are taught by part-timers or graduate students and are they required to hold office hours?
- The rumor mill on faculty can yield some valuable intelligence. Encourage your child to take classes from faculty who teach well and are known to be rigorous. One does not imply the other. You need both.
The good news is that the majority of professors care deeply about academic excellence. That’s why they got into teaching. The faculty I know in teaching-oriented Christian colleges put in 50+ hour weeks when classes are in session. By prioritizing academic quality when you select a college — and when you select classes to take at that college — you’ll probably be joining others who share that priority. That helps too.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).