Grading Standards That Students Can Understand.

Sanford Pinsker
December 16, 2003

For more years than I care to say I've been telling students in my literature classes that an A demonstrates excellence; a B "suggests" excellence; a C demonstrates competence; a D "suggests" incompetence; and that an F demonstrates incompetence. And during the years when course syllabi increasingly had the look of legal contracts - which meant that deans reminded professors to make sure that they spelled out, in precise terms, what their attendance policies were, and what the penalty for missing classes was -- I was sure that my grading policy was crystal clear. Unfortunately, it wasn't, largely because "excellence" is one of those fighting words - for students as well as many on the faculty. Who's to say, the new mantra holds, what "excellence" is? Isn't it rather like beauty -- that is, in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, if the "beholder" in the case of grading, is a professor, isn't there something subjective -- indeed entirely arbitrary -- in the process.

None of the current bashing of Truth, Beauty, and, now, Grades strikes me as exactly new idea under the sun. During the late 1960s, students convinced many of their teachers that their courses should be self-graded. Why so? Because students knew far better than their professors how much they had studied and how much they knew. The notion seemed so self-evident to many, especially those who wanted to be "with it" and popular, that self-grading was as much a part of the counter-revolution as bell-bottomed trousers and granny glasses. In retrospect, the days when young men headed off to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair now seems as limited as was their hair. But grading standards. . . ah, that was another matter and today's professors have a mighty hard time convincing an angry, disappointed student that a C grade does not mean that he or she has failed the course.

All this explains why I came up with a better explanation of my grading standards, one that students understand, however grudging their understanding might be. In an extended bow to football games, an A+ is a touchdown that got the crowd to its feet -- a forty-yard pass play or a seventy-yard run from scrimmage. As color commentators like to put it, :so and so "took it to the house."

Players like this get in the game's highlight films. An A is a touchdown that generates loud cheers but not necessarily a standing ovation. True, six points are six points but some touchdowns are simply more graceful than others. And as for an A-, it too racks up six points on the scoreboard, but it is a grind-'em-out, three yards and a cloud of dust affair. Nobody ever refused the points, but such touchdowns are the stuff of an ugly win.

B grades are akin to field goals. The student got close but at the end had to settle for a good kick and three points. Granted, teams can win games with field goals but not nearly as many as they can win with touchdowns. So what does one say to the student who finds his or her way to the "red zone" -- inside an opponent's twenty-yard line -- but who can't quite score a touchdown. Well, a teacher might start by congratulating the student for getting so close, and then go on to talk about raising the level of argument by choosing evidence more carefully, and by thinking harder about the intellectual consequences of that evidence. In most cases, this is a matter of putting a paper through a second -- and, yes, a third draft. Reading the paper aloud is another good trick that A students know and B student often don't.

C students are the sort who can get a first down, even a couple of first downs, but in the end, they punt the ball. These are the people who are dutiful and who launch their papers with an earnest discussion of what "in this paper I shall prove." Writing of this sort is akin to feeding a dozen hungry farm hands with two pounds of hamburger. The trick is to make meat loaf and to put in lots of "filler": bread crumbs, celery, and at the end, whatever is handy. Put another way: C papers play it safe. Some students simply repeat what they heard in class (sometimes including a footnote: "Heard in lecture, 9/28/02.) Others fill up the assigned number of pages with plot summary or long block quotations followed by "In other words." The most positive thing one can say about C work is that field position is important and that a good punter can put the opposing team deep in its own territory. Eventually field position can win games, but field goals and touchdowns win them more often and more decisively.

D work might be likened to a team that cannot protect its quarterback and that thus suffers the big-time loss of yardage known as "sacks." When a team loses ground, punting the ball usually puts it in great field position for one's opponents. D papers lug around enough mechanical mistakes so that a teacher's red grading pencil gets a brisk workout. These can be equated to sacks, and they have the same bad consequences as do sacks on the football field.

F work is obvious. It can come as an interception or a fumble but, either way, you've given up the ball. Period.

At first I worried that this extended football metaphor was cheesy, but I tucked that worry away when I saw that it was working. All my students -- male and female, black and white -- knew what I meant by A's, B's, C's, and so forth. Moreover, the football field is a place where political correctness is less important than performance, despite those who feel that the Washington Redskins should smell the coffee and change their moniker. The football field, unlike much of modern life, is a level playing surface. Meditating on the matter this way made my grading standards seem even better than I initially thought. Still I worried, not only because worrying is what I do, but because I am well aware of the damage that the football culture does on many campuses. The emphasis on winning -- and often the money at stake in alumni giving -- has corrupted the sport in college sports, with football and basketball (depending on the school) being the biggest culprits. I finally decided that a jeremiad about big-time college football programs could wait for another day. What sat in front of me were students who deserved to know what my grading standards are, and to know them in clear English that they can understand. So far I haven't had a single complaint, which I equate to one of those touchdowns that can get a stadium packed with 80,000 plus fans on their collective feet.