As my final college grades come in, I once again reflect back on my undergraduate classes and their grading schemes. The key question: how much did my grades correspond to the amount of material I learned or the amount of the subject I mastered? This is a tricky question to consider. Obviously, the amount of “mastery” required to get an A varies from school to school, subject to subject, and even course to course within the same field. But I believe that everyone can give a rough interpretation of how much he or she learned from a class (at least, right after it finishes). This may or may not correspond to the actual grade.

For the sake of completeness, here are four cases that can occur, supposing for simplicity that an A is the standard for excellence:

  1. You get an A, and feel like you deserved it.
  2. You get an A, but don’t feel like you deserved it.
  3. You get less than an A, and feel like you deserved it.
  4. You get less than an A, and don’t feel like you deserved it.

I have had all four of these cases happen at Williams. Case 4 is obviously bad, since everyone feels slighted when this happens. But Case 2 can arguably be just as worse in the long run, since you know less about the subject than what might be suggested from your transcript, but employers may not see that until after you’re on the job. In an ideal grading scheme, only cases 1 and 3 would occur.

So how can classes be designed to reduce instances of the two undesirable cases? I have two suggestions, but keep in mind that these are aimed at computer science and/or mathematics courses. I don’t have enough experience with other majors, though these might work for corresponding classes anyway.

Suggestion 1: Require Individual Work

One of the main observations I’ve made while at Williams is that sometimes it is possible to “hide” your weaknesses by joining a group and earning the group’s collective grade. For instance, this might involve a computer science group project where everyone in the group gets the same grade. In these cases, your grade is largely determined by who you work with!

Learning how to work in groups is certainly an important skill, so I’m not suggesting that these projects be eliminated entirely. Instead, I urge professors to divide up projects in two categories: those that allow groups and those that must be done individually. Or during a group project, perhaps require that everyone give a self-evaluation of their peers. This happened in my African Studies class in the Spring 2013 semester. (But this tactic runs into problems if you work with shady people … again, it matters who you work with!)

In a typical computer science course, grading is determined by a combination of group work, homework, and exams. For mathematics courses, they typically use only homework and exams. This brings me to my next suggestion…

Suggestion 2: Make Exam Score Ranges Larger

I think this suggestion will be more helpful than requiring individual work, and in any case exams are (I hope!) an example of something in that category. The problem that I have experienced in Williams classes is that exams are often set so that the vast majority of students (say, 85%) get scores in the 85-100 range. In a ten question exam where all questions are weighted equally, the first nine might be minor variations of homework problems, and only the last question gets used to differentiate between those who really know the material.

But this doesn’t give enough discrimination among students, and it means more students might get As because they lucked out on that tricky question, and more students might get Bs because they happened to make a careless error on one of the easier questions.

Increasing the exam score range so that the median and mean are within the 70-75 range would give professors more ability in distinguishing the different categories of students. With an “85-100 exam,” if I get a 94 and another person gets a 95, should I consider myself equal to that other person in terms of knowing the material? If I lucked out on that last question, that class might end up giving me an A, but I might view it as Case 2. But if scores were distributed over a 40-100 range, all of a sudden that 94 starts looking a lot better. And if I end up with, say, a 70 on an exam where lots of students get 90s, I’ll be momentarily disappointed, but the grade I get will reflect that I didn’t know enough of the material to warrant a higher grade, and that others were more deserving of getting an A.

I think a lot of students won’t like larger score ranges, but really, this shouldn’t be the case. Professors should assign grade ranges appropriately, so that scores in the 80-100 range would be an A, rather than the “standard” 90-100 range. All these numbers are really arbitrary, and in the real world, no one knows “100 percent” of their field/profession anyway.

PS: It’s good that Williams’ final exam period ends five days before the last day of May. Otherwise, I would have broken my streak of having at least one blog post a month…