Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Grading Question

It is one of those unquestioned beliefs in the world of higher ed that grading is subjective. Some instructors are easy graders and others are hard graders and there is no fact in the world about what an assignment really deserves.

But I had an experience that seems to offer evidence -- albeit limited and anecdotal -- to the contrary. I was on a committee a few years back and a colleague who teaches music history conducted an exercise with us. She brought in three papers and asked us to grade them. We all assigned letter and plus/minus grades independently and then compared our grades to the one she actually assigned. The committee had me, a philosopher, a German prof, a Spanish prof, a sociologist, a physicist, an English writing prof, a biologist, and and an economist.

On all three papers, we were uniformly within a plus/minus grade of each other. I was stunned. It was clear that one paper was an A range paper, well-written, insightful, had a structure that clearly displayed someone who thought through what s/he wanted to argue before s/he started typing. Another was a sure B/B- paper. Someone who had clearly cracked a couple of books and had a sense of what they were saying, but added nothing of his/her own mind to the acceptably written paper. The last was a D-/F paper. The lack of grasp of the material was clear to even those of us who knew nothing of the material ourselves. The lack of citations, the lack of explanation of seemingly important points gave us no choice in the mark to assign. The grade of this paper, like the other two, jumped off the page.

So, was this a lucky chance case and grading really is a subjective matter of taste or is grading really more objective than we usually claim? Could it be that the difficulty of the assignments is what varies and not the grading?