Grades, why do you exist?

As you may know, my day job is as a Physics professor at Drexel. We just finished up our spring term, and once again I’m left exhausted by the process of assigning grades and enforcing the grading policy. To many students, grades seem like a reward or punishment. A high mark is something that a student “deserves” or, if not, something that could be granted if I were simply generous enough. At the end of every term, a few students will ask for the possibility of ad hoc extra credit in the hopes of showing that they are truly worthy of an A. Even passing a class is seen as a grace that can be bestowed by the professor. I know what you’re thinking. I must be drunk with power.

I don’t see it that way. Oh, sure, I recognize that grades are an incentive system. The basic reasoning is that I want my students to study and learn physics. Therefore, I want them to practice, attend lecture, learn the theory and how to apply it, and so on, and so ultimately they’ll be good scientists and engineers. Sometimes, though, the sun is shining or there is something good on TV, and the future reward of being a great engineer isn’t tempting enough, so I need to up the ante and give “points” for good behavior. They then attend class, study for their exams, and build bridges that don’t fall down.

Can I tell you how much I hate that system?

What should be a great opportunity to teach and learn becomes, in essence, nothing more than a market for grades. How much of my time, and my TAs’ time, is devoted to grading, telling students what’s going to be on the exam, or trading in points. While in my role of assigning grades I should be evaluating the students for their readiness for future courses, graduate school, or jobs, I find myself worrying far too much about the effect on a student’s GPA or whether I will be perceived as overly harsh. And, of course, it’s not just me. This conflict is the root cause of grade inflation.

There’s no real point to any of this. It’s just a frustration that has become particularly acute over the last term, and I thank you for indulging my little rant.

-Dave

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