Wednesday, July 13, 2005

College grades - Bell curves, vacuums, and subjective professors

I am currently taking a Corporate Finance class at Queens College, needing just a C in the class to transfer the credits as a Pass to Lander College. (Got to love summer school...) Therefore, the following story upset me, not because I care about the points, but just because of the philosophy behind it. Each week, every student must hand in a one-page 'critical report' of a business article that they found. My report took me a good fifteen or twenty minutes, and I felt it was pretty decent. Yesterday, we received our reports back, and I had received a 90. This would have been acceptable, until I noticed the teacher had written just one comment on the paper: "This is not a business article." Thinking that I had lost ten points for this, I immediately raised the issue to the professor. I had taken an article that was in the Business section of FoxNews, which I believe is a major news organization that is far more accurate in their reporting than many other news sources. The teacher felt that they are not a 'bona fide business section because FoxNews does not focus on business.' I asked how they were different from, say, the New York Times, to which he responded that 'The Times is different, they are a well-established source.' I responded that I believe that FoxNews is a pretty well-established source - they have been around a number of years and are well read and watched, to which he shrugged and answered that they are not a real business source - but that it didn't affect my grade, so I shouldn't worry about it. When I questioned what it is exactly that did affect my grade, he said, "A 90 is a good grade! The best grades I give on these reports are usually 94-95 - only if something really sticks out do I give a better grade." Now this bothers me. While I disagree with the philosophy I am about to mention, I understand why places such as Harvard grade students on a Bell curve. (Quick explanation: Top percentile get A's, most people get C's, bottom percentile get F's - regardless of what the actual scores were. You can get an 89, have the lowest grade, and fail, or the highest, and get an A+.) This curve allows people to look at the grades and understand who outperformed their peers, and who underperformed vs. their peers. In the 'real world', the difference between someone who does a very good job or a fantastic one could be a multi-million dollar/case-winning/life-saving difference. However, the professor in my class is not grading in such a fashion - he is grading each person individually (as in a vacuum). Therefore, to 'not give' high grades without there being any specific problem with an essay is wrong. The grade should be an A, in the 93-97 range. I allow that the teacher could choose not to give 98-100, because by definition an A+ is something that is over-achieving; therefore, that could be reserved for the ones that 'stick out' at the teacher. But the idea that an essay that has nothing wrong with it is anything less than an A is ridiculous. The teacher himself looked at me and said, "It is completely subjective." No kidding, Sherlock. Glad it doesn't affect my GPA.

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