Professors discuss grading


Students aren’t the only ones lost in the maze of grading policies across the university.

The Center for Excellence in Teaching held a town hall on grading Wednesday, giving faculty, teaching assistants and students a chance to discuss current grading policies and potential changes to the process. About 30 people — mostly faculty members — attended the event to voice concerns about how their colleagues administer grades and to discuss the possibility of creating a universal grading process for USC classes.

CET Director J. Lawford Anderson said the center’s undergraduate fellows had become concerned about grading misconceptions and led the planning effort for Wednesday’s town hall.

Steven Lamy, vice dean for academic programs, said recent studies show more students complain about grades every year.

Though federal law bans faculty from discussing grades with parents, Lamy said the proliferation of “helicopter parents” — those who swoop in to defend their children — has been one cause for the escalation.

“You’re going to be the first one to give them a grade lower than an A-minus, and they’ll complain,” Lamy said.

He also expressed concern that faculty members are becoming less involved in grading.

“That’s not the model we want,” Lamy said. “Faculty have sovereignty with grades.”

Steve Finkel, an associate professor of biological sciences who led the discussion, said professors hate grades.

“From the student perspective, you might want it one size fits all, but some things are quantitative and others qualitative,” he said. “There’s this conflict between being fair and being consistent.”

Two professors raised a concern about quotas, saying they’ve heard department heads in some schools have set quotas that limit the number of students who get A’s.

“The idea behind it is to ensure uniformity in the grading system because there was one class in two sections taught by two people and everyone wanted to take the professor that gave out a lot of A’s and B’s — the easy one,” one professor said.

Lamy said professors are required to post their syllabi, including the basis for class grades, before the start of a semester. Although there are no public records of quota policies, he said individual professors appear to follow the practice of rationing the number of students who receive specific letter grades.

The registrar’s office calculates how “easy” or “hard” a professor grades by dividing the average GPA of a class by the average overall GPA’s of the students in the class. Lamy said more department heads need to examine this data and talk with professors whose ratings are not a perfect 1.0.

Lamy also responded to concerns about too many midterms in one class by citing a Harvard study that shows students learn best if they have frequent opportunities to be graded.

“The more we can encourage faculty of developing more ways to evaluate students, the better,” he said.

Jeanine Yutani, a T.A. and a CET graduate fellow, said students are frustrated by unrealistic tests.

“They ask, ‘You’re telling me 85 percent of what you are asking me I won’t know, then why are you asking me?’” she said.

One writing professor said he thinks students should be able to calculate grades as easily as the professor. He said departments should examine how they compare to other departments and then communicate their findings publicly, so engineering students will know their GPAs will look different than people in other disciplines.

Other issues raised were the exponential rise in academic dishonesty, the need for clearer and more transparent definition of rules for assessing attendance and appealing grades, and better notification about their mid-semester grades.

After Wednesday’s discussion, Finkel said he will try to develop the best university-wide practices for grading that would still allow departments and faculty to exercise final control.

  • Harvard 4.0

    Supposedly, you have been terribly misinformed. Harvard doesn’t give out 4.0’s to every student; it happens maybe once a decade.

  • bell curve

    Supposedly, Harvard gives every one of its students a 4.0, regardless of whether they deserved it or not. Why can’t USC do the same?