Subjective Personal Factors in Grading

A friend is a professor (at a different school than mine, and no, it’s none of the Co-Op bloggers). Recently, he asked me this question:

“When is it permissible to incorporate personal information about a student into the grading calculus, to give that student’s grade a ‘nudge'”?

His situation is this. He’s got a batch of student papers for his class. There are some clear A papers, and some clear B’s, and so on. And one student’s paper is borderline-A. Maybe an A-minus, but maybe not. Slightly better than other A-minus papers; not quite as good as the A papers. It’s right on the borderline.

However, through a series of personal conversations with this student, my friend is privy to the fact that this student is going through some very challenging family circumstances right now. My friend is impressed that this student was able to put together a borderline-A paper under the circumstances, and is thinking of giving the student an A. (At present, he’s undecided). As we discussed the matter, we hit on the broader issue: When is it permissible to allow subjective factors to weigh on a student’s grade?

First, let me note that I don’t really have to deal with that at Thomas Jefferson. We use blind grading here; even if I wanted to give higher grades to students based on some subjective criteria, I wouldn’t be able to do so.

But even if subjective grading were allowed, I don’t know that I would engage in it. It’s not clear to me which subjective factors ought to be brought into the calculus. Should I give a higher grade to students who are overcoming some personal struggle, as in my friend’s example? This path seems problematic. I’m the students’ professor, not their therapist. I don’t know what struggles any particular student might be going through. This would make it easy to misjudge any nudge. For example, I might give student A a nudge over student B because student A just had a death in the family. However, I might not know that student B is also going through a family challenge — perhaps his wife just had a baby. Both are being subjected to family challenges; however, one tells me and the other does not, and so I nudge one but not the other. That seems like a major potential problem.

There are also structrual questions. It is easy to sympathize with the student who suffers family challenges. Who wouldn’t want to go easy on such a student? But aren’t there other subjective factors that could be brought into play? For example, one could also conceive of giving nudges based on race, class, or gender. If blacks or women typically perform more poorly in law school, why not bump them all up a notch?

The possibilities get even murkier. Some students are chattier in class than others. Some are friendlier. Some are more punctual. Some are better-dressed. Some are better-looking. There are a thousand subjective differences. If I’m willing to deviate for the student who has a family crisis, where do I draw the line? Do I also deviate for students who are nicer to me? Students who smile and greet me in the hallway? Students who dress well? Students who attended my alma mater?

Perhaps at some future date, I’ll be sufficiently comfortable in my professorial role to start experimenting with subjective factor grading. But right now, I find even objective grading to be difficult enough — I don’t need to add more factors to the equation. Subjective grading is a can of worms that I’d rather avoid for now. I’ll respect my friend’s decision on the matter, whichever way he goes. But my own grades are going to be strictly based on the factors laid out in my syllabus.

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11 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    In my own grading rubrics (math at Yale), I have a deterministic method for assigning scores, and then I eyeball a curve to put dividing lines between letter grades. If I know a particular student and know he has put in significant effort, significant improvement, or a situation like the one in the post, I use that to nudge them across the border if they’re just to one side of the line.

    In this case, it isn’t clear if this is a borderline A/A- or a borderline A-/B+. In either case, I’d probably bump the student to the higher bracket, but no higher than that. There are no extra points for extraneous circumstances (outside of what the college may mandate for such occasions), but in general we’re assigning a hard value to what is an inherently fuzzy concept. If I feel personally impressed by the student, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but no more.

  2. EN says:

    The thing is, it doesn’t sound like your professor friend would be “deviating” in any meaningful sense. If the paper in question was a clear “A-” paper and he was considering bumping the grade to an “A” on the basis of the student’s family situation, then the problems you detail would come into play. But you say that the paper is “right on the borderline” – better than the “A-” papers, not quite as good as the “A” papers. If there’s truly no way to determine what the paper deserves, then the grade that ends up on the transcript is going to be arbitrary anyway, right? So unless the grading is on a curve and giving the student an “A” will bump another to an “A-“, I don’t see the problem with using the student’s family situation to bump the grade up instead of, say, flipping a coin.

  3. Jim says:

    “So unless the grading is on a curve and giving the student an “A” will bump another to an “A-“”

    Unfortunately, this IS the situation. Grading is on a strict curve – with an inevitable zero-sum outcome.

  4. John Armstrong says:

    Jim (assuming from your comment that you’re the prof in question):

    I’d have no problem with setting the borderline for A/A-, then bumping up a student who I knew had, essentially, gone above-and-beyond, while pulling back a student that I know the minimum about. If he really deserves that A, it will show up on his other grades and the single A- from your class will look like maybe he had a cold on the day of the test.

  5. T says:

    Ignoring the actual example, there are ways to allow for so-called ‘subjective’ factors (in fact, I don’t think they are subjective at all; they are open to judgments, but we can point to facts that legitimately carry positive or negative weight on a student’s grade).

    First, establish that test scores / paper grades alone establish a floor for the final grade; a student can do nothing else and receive the weighted average of the scores. You can do this grading anonymously. Second, you explicitly reserve the right to _raise_ any student’s average (generally some small increment – quarter- to half-grade) based on excellent participation, which can include class, review session, office hour, or email engagement. Any issues like lack of punctuality or disruptiveness can counteract that extra.

    This, though, is legitimate pedagogical stuff. Grooming, race, gender, not so much. Save social policy for legitimately political venues, where there are at least some procedures for incorporating (e.g., affirmative action, if morally permissible in the first place, should be done at an administrative level – NOT at a professor’s discretion).

    As for hardships / the actual case. I’m inclined to make _prior_ accommodations (extra time, e.g.), but not let it affect the grade (having it “truly on the border” actually complicates the example – and EN gets it exactly right on arbitrariness – an exactly borderline grade can get bumped up WITHOUT cause in my way of thinking).

  6. Safely anonymous says:

    Please don’t use subjective factors to adjust the grade. I absolutely hated it when teachers would down-grade me for fine work because they “knew I could do better.”

    If it’s an A- for Bob, it should be an A- for Charlie.

  7. Bruce says:

    Given the strict curve, I don’t see how you can give a nudge, assuming you’re reasonably confident that you’ve *ranked* the papers correctly. Otherwise your nudge to the one student will invert your ranking. Once you have the ranking, and the grades are determined by the curve, that’s it, you’re done.

  8. GW says:

    No nudge. How many other students also have personal issues going on, but are just handling it themselves?

  9. Kiva Williams says:

    I just think it is really annoying when a student is 1% away from a higher grade and the TA or Professor refuses to move the student move.

  10. Safely anonymous says:

    Me, I think it’s annoying when a student is 2% away from a higher grade, and the TA or professor refuses to grade inflate. After all, what’s the difference between an 88 and a 90, really? Its not much, but think of the paycheque!

  11. Dave says:

    Would you ever make the reverse move? Imagine, for example, that a student is just over the borderline between a B+ and a B, barely on the B+ side. However, you also know that they’re the son of a renowned law professor who teaches in that area, and that the prof-parent has been giving her son extra coaching on the side–a huge advantage over his classmates.

    It seems like the same logic should apply as in the case of original hypo. But for some external, random factor, the grade would have been in a different register, only it would have been lower in this case as opposed to higher.

    Still, all that having been said, I wouldn’t move the student’s grade down. I’m not sure why. For some reason I feel comfortable saying that a student has earned a grade that’s just barely above the minimum, though I’d entertain the possibility of moving a grade up that falls just short of the minimum.