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.