The Tyranny of Marks

A former classmate sent me the following:

I know that education issues are sort
of behind you now, but I came across an interesting article on “What`s wrong
with the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum”.  On
the one hand, it appears that FIMS is doing quite a few things right (lots
of presentations and group-work, compressed time frame) there are probably
a few things to be learned as well.

There`s an interesting notion in the article that because
grade inflation has made transcripts meaningless, perhaps teachers shouldn`t
be grading student assignments.  
does grade the projects] in no case should it be a teacher whose salary
is being paid by the student's tuition. The potential for conflict of interest
and therefore grade inflation is too high and furthermore we want the faculty
to be regarded as coaches rather than evaluators.”

I`ve never really thought of it that
way before, as a student or teacher.

I've spent a bit of time thinking about marks throughout the year myself.  My opinion was (and is) that marks were (and are) pretty much meaningless except in only the broadest sense.  Obviously, as I mention in the MLIS FAQ, they do have a role if you're applying for scholarships or PhD programs or if you're looking for work in an academic setting (I think.)  

But although there are grading guidelines, I'm positive not very many professors (if any) could tell the difference between say, an 82% and an 83%.  I'd go so far to say that, depending on the day, the same professor might give a range of 3-5% on the exact same paper (I believe studies have been done on this but am too lazy to look them up right now.)  That's why I liked the two profs who gave me letter grades in the courses they taught, only converting to a number for the final mark (although I also know that administration didn't like this and wanted all marks in numeric form for preciseness as well as consistency…which would be laudable if marks were consistent between classes which they weren't at all.)

If I was a professor, I think it would be interesting to forego marks all together and do the classes I taught as pass/fail.  (I did a creative writing class this way and it really made students focus on doing their own best work rather than trying to meet the professors expectations and/or “beating” their classmates.  Of course, when I teach my future child's hockey team, I'm probably going to be the guy who says “Every game is a tie, kids!”  Just kidding – a hockey game has defined rules and you can tell the winner – although sometimes the scores are controversial as well.  “Did he kick that goal in?”  “Was the goalie nudged?”) 

Anyhow, tangent over and back to the subject at hand…
If you weren't allowed to do away with grades altogether, I think another interesting experiment for a professor would be to ask everyone at the start of class (after a week or two or even before the very first lecture), what their expected grade for a class was.  Then ask again at the end.  Then average the two and give them that mark. 

The irony?  Most people would probably low-ball themselves!  But it would be an equally valid way of marking as far as I'm concerned because, at least at the Grad level, they put a lot of responsibility for independent learning on the students anyhow.  So why not let them determine their own mark independently as well?  (Maybe only ask them at the end of the course to be fair.  Even better, let their fellow students assess the nebulous “participation” grades.  There's no end to the variations you could try for alternate marking schemes.) 

Would my marks have been different if professors followed this policy instead of traditional marking methods?  My management mark would be about 10% lower (er, unless a future employer is reading in which case it would've been a perfect 100%.  I know my Total Quality Management upside and down, sir/madam!)  My reference mark would be 5% higher.  Most of my other marks would roughly be in the same neighbourhood (hmm, which maybe trashes my whole argument that marks are invalid?) 

You know what – I've been debating whether or not to do this but I think I'm going to list my marks here for all the world to see.  I've joked with people that there are three things people don't talk about in our society – our finances, our sex lives and our marks.  Well, my finances are that I'm broke, my wife's pregnant and here's the third taboo broken…

(I do feel the need to put a disclaimer that because my focus wasn't on getting the best marks but in also trying to do lots of extracurricular activities and initiatives of my own, these might not be as high as they could've been if I was more concerned with getting the highest marks possible.  Oh, and marks aren't in for the final term so the italicized ones are projected marks.)

Semester One
501 – Info Theory – 80
502 – Cataloguing – 78
503 – Reference – 77
504 – Research/Stats – 78
505 – Technology – 86

Semester Two
506 – Management – 96
525 – Managing Internet Info – 86 (this mark's from memory as this was one of the prof's who gave letter grades so I don't have a record of what my final grade was and the Registrar's site is down.)
566 – Children's Lit – 83
697 – Independent Study – 84
746 – Collection Development – 86

Semester Three
532 – History of Information – 88
613 – Public Libraries – 84
645 – Management of Special Libraries – 92
763 – Genealogy – 82
765 – Advocacy – 82

Hmm, that wasn't so bad.  Look at them – just a bunch of numbers.  Some high, some low.  Most in the middle (although it depends whose middle we're defining I guess on what that means.)  

Anything interesting? I did well in technology (no surprise) and management (slight surprise?).  I definitely feel like I took a semester to “warm up” after being out of school for so long with my only 70's coming in that first term (and as I said, I honestly believe my 503 – Reference Mark should've been higher.)  Strangely, I'm particularly proud of that 78% in 504 which is one of my lowest marks.  I'd psyched myself out about stats a bit and started really badly (like 65% on the first assignment badly) so was proud how I made steady progress throughout the class to a mark of 83% on my final assignment.  501 was the same thing but on a smaller scale. 

I never thought to figure this out before but what's my average for the whole year?  <looks for calculator in boxes>  84%.  Not great but not bad (er, I mean “meaningless!  Bah!  Marks!”)

What else about marks?  As much as some people focus on trying to do exactly what the professor wants (big surprise – I was never much for that), another factor I honestly believe had an effect, at least in some cases, was the relationship you had with the professor.  If a professor liked you, no matter how impartial they tried to be, subconsciously that could be a minor bump (or drop if they didn't) of 1-3% in your final grade. 

Another thing – I heard from a few different people that lots of instructors peg you after your first assignment and that's the mark you get through the entire course.  But I only had that happen in one or two classes.  I had courses where I started well but went down on each subsequent assignment.  I had a course where I made leaps every time I handed something in.  And I had classes where my marks were like a scatter plot diagram (see, I did learn something in stats.  Just don't ask me to do a Chi Square test on it!)

Finally, this was a personal thing that probably doesn't apply to everyone and is one of my own acknowledged weaknesses that I'll likely mention if I'm ever asked the dread “What are some of your faults?” question at an interview – namely, that I do really well in things I'm interested in but if I'm not excited by the topic or material, I don't always put the same effort in.  (Well, either that or I'll say: “Ah suppose man, ah'm too much ay a perfectionist, ken? It's likesay, if
things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered, y'know?

Comments 2

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    An interesting commentary. As someone who may be teaching a class in the fall, I found the perspective helpful. As an employer who has never looked at any potential employee's grades, it is perhaps a worthwhile discussion for those who are, for the most part, in a terminal degree program. I don't recall ever being asked, by a potential employer, for my grades — I have only used them to get into other academic programs. When I finished my MBA, even the academic institution I worked for didn't ask for grades. It appears that relatively few care about an individual's academic performance.
    As an employer, I am much more interested in what you can do with the context your MLS has given you. That is, generally looking at the MLS as the basic starting point and then looking more deeply at the work that the candidate has done. From my personal academic experience, I know that the reasons one does well or not well in a class are many and varied and don't necessarily have much to do with academic or practical ability. In my case, I have not found classes I can't do, but I have found classes with content that is ridiculous, instructors who know less about the subject than I (or others) do, and content that I just don't give a damn about. My poor grades in these cases are about my attitude and reaction and not ability — an attitude and reaction that is okay in an academic environment (no one affected but myself) but not okay in a work environment since they are things that we all encounter in our work lives and the work must get done.
    This is getting to be too long for a tiny box on a blackberry. Perhaps we can continue a bit at the next B2B & S2S.
    Jeff B.

    Posted 01 Mar 2009 at 3:01 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Jeff,
    I don't think I ever responded to this but thanks for your observations and thoughts.
    Which class will you be teaching?
    Anyhow, as you say, this sounds like something to discuss at a future B2B/S2S (Leo was bugging me yesterday and wouldn't accept that my Saskatoon one after SLA counts!)

    Posted 16 May 2009 at 1:49 pm

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