Making Grades Feel Fair

I haven’t blogged much about teaching, but I’d like to start.  I had an enjoyable and successful run as a programming teacher for the last few years.  When I teach, one of my priorities is gaining the confidence of students.  Students have a tenuous trust in teachers, earned from the uneven quality of instruction they receive.  I draw upon my own experience as a student (mostly recently finishing a Master’s degree) to inform my strategy for gaining that trust.  Personally, I am frustrated by situations where tests feel unfair or when I’m not clear what material I am responsible for.  I know many high quality students can be turned off by unclear and unfair policies.  Good students are often your best allies during the first few weeks of a class, so putting some time into creating a fair-seeming grading policy is a good first step towards winning over your best students.

Why Grading Can Be Unfair

Even a good teacher has unfair elements in his or her class.  Recognizing these problem areas is a key first step toward improving fairness.  Some examples of unfair elements in a class:

  • Incorrect or vague test questions
  • Lecture or reading assignments don’t match tests or assignments
  • Grading accuracy of teacher, TA, or grader isn’t high
  • Badly planned deadlines, such as big assignments due the day of a big test
  • Poorly defined rubric and assignments with hard-to-evaluate deliverables
  • Unintended absences are too punishing or give too much leeway

I hope to talk in specifics about these points in the future.  Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to completely eliminate any one of these factors, let alone all of them.

How to Recognize When Students Feel Cheated

You get only one comment about a particular unfair element, so it’s important to keep your ears open.  Sometimes these comments can be confrontational or even annoying.  It’s important to not feel defensive when this occurs, as you aren’t alone in making mistakes or oversights when planning material.  Imagine a smart aleck student pointing out that you that either of two options in a multiple choice question are correct.  At first this feels like a contest, but remember that students approach these tests trying to get the best grade possible.  Though some people take pride in pointing out errors, students are typically more concerned with losing credit for a question they feel capable answering otherwise.

Analysis of assignments or tests can also help reveal unfairness.  When you notice the same assignment deliverable being repeatedly missed, examine the possible causes.  Occasionally, it’s not your fault.  I’ve seen student achievement dip towards the end of the term, especially during summer classes.  If not that, though, it’s probably a disconnect between your perception of what the students understand and the reality.  Was this material covered hastily towards the end of a lecture?  Did this subject only appear in the book reading, without any support from assignments or class time?  Was the question worded too broadly to direct you towards the answer you expected?  Trace these symptoms backwards to the cause.  If a piece of information was never reinforced, it’s importance can be lost.  Assignment and test results are your most objective sources of information on what students learned.

Adjusting For Unfairness

Therefore, I see unfairness as something that is kept in check, not completely eliminated.  How can we counterbalance negative feelings and improve classroom morale? A simple method is to “fix” bad test questions by giving credit for an unfair question whether or not the test takers got the “right” answer.  Another one is giving full credit on a homework assignment that was too challenging whether or not the full work was completed.  While “reparations” for teaching mistakes are a good front-line defense, they are time consuming and finicky.  What teacher wants to go back and re-grade an entire test after learning a few questions weren’t fair?

After a period of experimentation, I settled on well-structured bonus credit as the best way to adjust for unfairness.  Imagine a test with 30 questions.  What portion of these questions were unfair for one reason or another? Maybe one to three of them?  Then, provide students with three bonus questions.  This is a proactive way to compensate students for imperfect material while encouraging a variety of useful behaviors.  Bonus questions are exciting for students.  Difficult bonus questions reward students who read ahead or study book material.

Proactive use of bonus questions help when dealing with the previously mentioned “smart aleck” student. When they try to nickel and dime you asking for more points, you can ask them if their problems with the test exceed the bonus questions in the test.  If not, they’ve already been compensated.  You can then be grateful for their correction without their grade also hanging in the balance.

Bonus questions aren’t a new idea, but I also build a second kind of bonus credit on top of that concept.  Each term I would have a wide array of bonus credit activities, such as “study guide” exercise sheets, optional presentations, peer tutoring, and even fun things like bringing in snacks for the class.  I offer about 20 of these opportunities, but then I would “cap” credit at five or six.  That way, a student could do five small, rote practice assignments to “cap out” or could do a presentation and two assignments, or other combinations.  Any highly proactive student “caps out” about halfway through the term, though they often do all of the optional assignments despite that.  By offering a relatively small, but clear and consistent way to earn credit, I could reliably get 60-70% of my students to complete at least a few of these bonus activities.  Students feel like they are sneaky bonus, when they’re really being “tricked” into learning more and having fun doing it.

The Feeling of Fairness

It would be wonderful to provide a complete, objective and fair grading system that doesn’t require compensation.  Though quality can always be improved, it’s not clear to me that perfection can be achieved in this regard.  Instead, I recommend using the excitement and enthusiasm for bonus credit as a way to counterbalance any unforeseen unfairness in class structure.  In my end-of-term survey, I often read comments like “The class can be hard, but you can earn points back by doing bonus assignments.”  Giving students a feeling that they have some control over their grade, even when the class is difficult, is highly motivating.  When students feel responsible for each assignment, they will pay attention in class, ask more questions, and turn in assignments on time.  When extra effort is rewarded with extra credit, that feeling of control is enhanced further.  A properly motivated classroom is much more fun to teach, leading toward everyone having a good time.  This achieves my goal of winning the confidence of the students and is one of the contributing factors to the enjoyable classes I was able to teach.