Students work around different grading expectations

Sarah Hillenbrand

Differences in grading scales between professors, classes and departments leave many students frustrated as they struggle to remember what percentage constitutes an “A” in each class. The system is not necessarily arbitrary, though. At Grand Valley State University, the percentage variances between classes serve a purpose.

Ed Aboufadel, unit head of the math department, said each faculty member gets to decide how they will grade in their course sections.

“Part of hiring faculty as professionals is to give them some authority over how grades are determined,” Aboufadel said.

Although this system allows for variances between classes, several department chairs agreed that they are not planning to make a standardized scale and that overall these differences do not greatly impact students’ GPAs.

“I wouldn’t say that a variance has an impact on student GPA,” said Nancy Giardina, vice provost for student success. “I think that the goal is understanding what the grading scale is and what the grading methods are in each individual course, and then making sure they’re working to that standard.”

Giardina said the inconsistencies exist between courses because professors approach grading differently.

“Faculty have different philosophies of grading, faculties use different models for grading, so depending on how an individual faculty member sets up their model for grading, that’s where you’ll see these various variances,” she said. “So a lot of that often has a lot to do with the philosophy a faculty member has on grading.”

Aboufadel agreed that variances between grading do not affect how a student is doing overall at the university and added that he thought a GPA does a good job of representing how a student has performed while at GVSU.

“It could affect students’ GPAs depending on which professor you get for which course,” Aboufadel said. “I think, because it is a grade point average, that these variations average out over time. Ultimately, your final GPA is usually a good representation of your performance here at Grand Valley.”

Daniel Royer, chair of the writing department, said the introductory course of Writing 150 that most freshmen take is probably the most standardized course at the university.

“To my knowledge, it’s the only course or program with reliably standardized grading,” Royer said. “That’s because the teachers of that course meet once a week all semester long to standardize their grading. Then they team grade at the end of the semester, so your grade is determined by the teacher and then verified by the second and sometimes even third reader of your portfolio.”

Royer said that from using this type of grading, his department has learned that simply putting descriptions for what constitutes each letter grade does not create standardization. He recommended that other departments looking to reform their grading practices should follow the example of Writing 150 classes.

“The lesson we’ve learned there is that having a set of guidelines that are written out aren’t very helpful by themselves, unless you meet regularly and look at those guidelines and compare them to a piece of student writing, because otherwise they are too abstract,” he said. “The problem with just having a simple set of guidelines is their interpretation.”

Aboufadel also said departments should be having conversations about what it means to give a student an “A” versus a “B” or “C.”

“I think in this department, for the most part the answer would be consistent, but it would not be universal,” he said. “But I think if you start with that conversation about what people think now, and you might discover that there’s more uniformity than you thought.”

The department chairs all agreed that if the university were to create a standardized scale across all departments, it would not suit all classes.

“Grades serve various purposes,” said Robert Hendersen, chair of the psychology department. “They are an assessment of how (students) performed in a course and what they learned in a class. We like the professors to teach in different ways, in a way they think is best.”

Giardina said each professor has a different way of approaching grades and a standardized scale wouldn’t fit the needs of each grading method.

“If there was just one standardized way of grading,” she said, “I think we’d lose the richness of what grades mean.”

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