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All About Grades

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Grading systems differ around the world, and most universities have a whole office devoted to figuring out how to count grades and units of credit transferred from other universities.

That said, there is also a certain unimaginative sameness to most systems.

For most universities most of the time, the passing grades are A, B, C, and D. Usually they can be modified by the addition of a plus or minus to show slightly better or slightly worse performance.

Most universities also have something corresponding to a "Pass" or "Satisfactory" as a credit-bearing grade in ungraded courses (often directed reading or small seminars). In America, most universities let you have a choice of a letter grade or a pass/not-pass (or satisfactory/unsatisfactory) option for at least some courses.

And finally, most universities have various other "grades" that do not signal successful completion of a course: F = failure, W = withdrawal, R = registration followed by withdrawal, I = incomplete with work still outstanding, and so on. Sometimes (but rarely) an F for failure to understand the material is differentiated from an F showing academic dishonesty or an F showing failure to pay fees on time.

Campuswide, UCSD has no useful guidelines on how professors should grade, and no realistic appeal procedure for students who believe they have been inappropriately graded. Rumors to the contrary have no basis in fact. Most departments are also quite unstandardized.

Grading & Curves (1): Quota Systems

Assigning letter grades normally involves allocating numerical scores for assignments, exams, or parts of exams and then the application of cut-off scores applied to the numerical scores in order to differentiate one grade from another. Although these cut-offs are (and must be) rigid for any given purpose, there is no standard way in which they are established. (Occasional courses, especially graduate courses, base the term grade on the instructor's subjective impression of a single term paper. Such courses are not what we are discussing here.)

Sometimes the expression grading on a curve is limited to a system in which each student's grade is based on the performance of the whole group of students in the class, or on the highest grade actually attained, or the like. In such a system, the cut-off scores vary from assignment to assignment and from year to year. The contrasting term absolute grading evaluates a student in comparison with an unchanging set of cut-off scores which do not vary even if all students do well or all students do badly. Absolute grading, although sometimes announced at the beginning of a course, is actually rather rare.

A few universities (not including UCSD) recommend (or require) a quota system for each class or each department. For example, one nameless university requires that in every class passing grades must be distributed as follows:

A = 25% of students
B = 35% of students
C = 25% of students
D = 15% of students

Some professors, even without such external constraints, still like to grade with such a quota system. (A quota system is what some students wrongly call a "curve.") The advantage of a quota system is that it keeps a happy professor from giving all As or a sad one from giving all Fs, and it avoids grade inflation (or deflation).

Unfortunately, a quota system also promotes competition among students for a limited number of high grades and discourages cooperative studying, especially in small classes. There is probably no truth to tales about competitive students dumping pollutants into each other's chemistry experiments, but obviously that is the kind of behavior to which this grading scheme could potentially lead.

(Such competition is damaging only to roughly similar students near curve cusps, one of whom may, by getting a higher grade, lower the grade of another. If I take a B, there is one less B left for you. Students distant from each other in performance are immune to this, of course — whether I get a C or a C- has no effect on whether you get a B or B+. However there is also little academic motivation for the stronger student to collaborate with the weaker one.)

Grades are not nearly as important as having a degree.

Some professors prefer to distribute points on a histogram and then look for "natural breaks" in the distribution through which to draw "reasonable" grade cut-offs. "This is the A cluster; this is the B cluster; &c.) Usually "reasonable" is driven by a vague sense of what a quota system would probably generate, although there is flexibility in order to minimize the number of cases on a grade cusp.


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Grading & Curves (2): Inflexible Standards

Some professors award points on assignments, and then use a fixed set of cut-offs for all assignments and all classes. This is the familiar (and mindless) "Ninety to a hundred percent is an A. Eighty to Ninety percent is a B." And so on. There is no limit to the number of students who can receive the same grade, but a hard exam obviously lowers all grades, and an easy one raises them. Therefore the average letter grade tends to reflect the difficulty of the exam more than the knowledge of students. Professors devoted to a single, fixed standard obviously need to have a great deal of confidence that all of their assignments are equally difficult.

(For obscure reasons, college freshmen tend to believe that there is a universal and eternal set of fixed equivalences between percentage scores and letter grades. That is complete nonsense —I have never met a college professor who did this— but it is one of the few things students both remember and deeply believe from high school. If they remembered instead where Poland was, the world would be a better place.)

College freshmen tend to believe that there is a universal and eternal set of fixed equivalences between percentage scores and letter grades. That is complete nonsense.

A variant of the fixed-standard appears when professors evaluate student writing, where it is notoriously difficult to create easily described criteria of quality, and where evaluations are necessarily impressionistic. (Not wrong. Simply fuzzy.) Saying "That is a B- paper" is not meaningless, however uninformative it may be. But the only defense available is that the professor has seen a lot of papers and trusts his or her general sense of them.


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Grading & Curves (3): Relative Standards

It is possible to apply cut-offs that are not based on the absolute number of points possible on an exam or in a course, but rather are linked to the highest number of points actually achieved by students in the class. Ninety to a hundred percent (or whatever) might still be an A, but it would be ninety percent of the top point-score anyone actually achieved in the class, not out of all points thoretically available. This system (which I use) recognizes that assignments and exams vary in difficulty. It also dispenses with any trace of a quota system, thus promoting cooperative studying among students, since they are not in competition with each other. However it means that an identical performance in two different years might receive two different grades because the top student from which the cut-offs are calculated is different. Obviously such a system still depends upon an arbitrary set of percentage-based break points, although they are percentages of points, not of students.

Grading & Curves (4): Rank in Class

The ultimate relative standard is the familiar "rank in class." Popular in law schools, and sometimes calculated on transcripts, this method depends upon enough data points that students rarely have identical scores, so that they can be unambiguously ordered from best to worst. Although this is a relative standard, it shares with the quota system (#1) the property of promoting competition and discouraging cooperation among similar students, since two students can rarely finish with exactly the same rank ordering. Most universities do not use rank in class in place of ordinary grades.


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Who Cares?! Majors, Grades, & Jobs

Jobs have always been almost completely unrelated to majors, except that people who don't major in engineering don't usually become engineers. For example, being a bus dispatcher is a job. Linguistics is a major. We have no majors in bus dispatching, and there are few jobs open only to linguistics majors. (Graduate school doesn't count.)

As far as I can tell, the only influence that a major has is a very slight bias in favor of a job that just possibly might have some vague and distant overlap with it. Being a psych major may increase the chances of getting a job dealing with people rather than a job building furniture. Majoring in anthropology may very slightly increase your hirability for a job that involves international or cross-cultural human relations. Majoring in English may slightly increase your chances for a job in the communications industry.

So the bottom line in picking a major is: Major in anything you happen to like and leave it to God and the devil to sweep up after you. They'll work it out somehow.

Major in anything you happen to like and leave it to God and the devil to sweep up after you. They'll work it out somehow.

It's not quite the same for grades. First of all, grades are not nearly as important as having a degree. Throughout your life people will be interested in the fact that you have a degree from this or that university (and will evaluate you, whether you like it or not, based in part on which university it is). And people will assume you know something about your major (even if you have long forgotten it).

In contrast, your GPA, let alone the grade you got in a particular class, is surprisingly uninteresting to potential employers, and even less interesting to anybody else. Your first employer, since you have no prior employment history, may be vaguely interested in your grades just to be sure you aren't a hopeless screw-up. But after that it is very unlikely that anybody will even ask. Employers are interested in what you can actually do that they need to have done, and your success in a prior job (or an internship) is therefore much more interesting than the grade you got in Math 5 or Sociology 102.

Critical Exception: If you apply to graduate school, they will want you to have good undergraduate grades, and if you apply in an area that was not your undergraduate major, they will want an explanation. Graduate schools are also interested in your score on national examinations, typically the GRE. But applying to graduate school is a whole different topic.




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