Musing on Grades

If I were to give grades to those taking the CyberEconomics course, you can be sure I would follow the advice of the following memo which I sent to the faculty at St. Joseph's College in the spring of 1997. If you are a student, you might show it to your professors if they are not as enlightened as I am. You can be sure they will see the logic of this much-needed reform.


The end of the semester has arrived, and with it the pleadings of students:

"If you give me an F, I will not be able to graduate and start my new job;"
"If you do not give me at least a
B, I will lose my scholarship and will not be able to come back to school next semester;"
"I need a
B in order to remove probation and continue in school;"
"I want to transfer, and I need a
C in your course or else the other college will not take it."

One thing I have noticed in grade appeals is that they are all need-based. I almost never get an appeal that says, "I DESERVE a B because I worked hard and learned a lot, but you for reasons that I cannot understand gave me a C." (Actually, I did get one non-need appeal several years ago, and it was resolved when I learned that the registrar's office had made a mistake in keying in the grade.)

Maybe the customer has a point which we need to take more seriously. We seem to assume that grades should be performance based (or at least all the faculty members I talk to say this, but I may be ignoring those who are more open-minded). Maybe it is time to reexamine our assumptions and consider seriously a need-based grading system.

A need-based grading system would be much more fair than our present system. There is great merit in basing grade (or any other rewards) on need. The alternative tends to reward ability, which is randomly--and hence arbitrarily--distributed. Further, by requiring us to closely examine the needs of our students, a need-based system would force us know students better, building close personal relationships that would aid learning, not to mention retention.

An issue students bring up regarding performance-based grading is that it is not clear whose performance is really being graded. A student may do poorly in a class because the teacher does not present the material in an interesting, engaging manner. Since poor performance is at least partly due to the failure of the instructor, it is unfair to penalize the student. A need-based system of grading would avoid this problem.

In the past I have advocated performance-based standards, so my advocacy of a need-based system represents a conversion for me. It is very likely that other faculty members have been much more progressive on this issue than I have been, but I am trying to catch up. I believe that though there may be elements of a need-based approach in some of our grading, we need to formally adopt it on a college-wide basis. I encourage you to petition the academic cabinet to act on this matter early next year.

Thank you for your time.

R Schenk


(I have learned that humor is dangerous--some people do not believe that economists can have a sense of humor, and the results of their taking seriously what is meant as a joke can lead to dire consequences. So just in case you did not catch the drift here--the above was meant as a joke. It is about as funny as I can get--I am an economist, after all.)\