Friday, April 13, 2007

Midterm Redux

So I've been busy this week with midtermy stuff, and now that I've graded the test, I'm sort-of fascinated by the entire process. I hadn't realized, although I probably should have done, that the tests would show me as much about the quality of my teaching as they did about the quality of my students' learning.

It was entirely fascinating to see what I taught refracted back to me through the prisms of my students' essays. I could clearly see where I taught a concept well and they really got it and understood it. I could see where they were just parroting back what they knew was correct, but weren't really connecting with it. And I could see one area where I'm going to have to do the entire lecture over before next year because I'm really NOT pleased with what my students wrote on that topic. My husband, charming man, says this is their own fault for not understanding the reading because he's sure my lecture was excellent, but I rather feel that it must have been my fault for not explaining it clearly enough.

At first I really hated marking students who scored poorly -- I hated being the one who had to hand out the ugly grades. But as I got to the bottom of the stack of tests to grade and the number of "couldn't be bothered" tests increased, I felt far less bad. Apparently a bit of jadedness is required to be the pen that wields the grades. (Good thing I jade fast!)

Generally I was quite pleased. All of my students who put in the effort got As and Bs. I always preferred assignments with clear instructions and transparent grading policies so that grades were comprehensible, and ideally so anyone who puts in the effort to do it properly and demonstrates a solid understanding can get at least a B, so that's the kind of work I try to assign. I don't like classes where it's graded on some ethereal imaginary scale of "what the professor feels like" or, ugh, on a "curve." If every student in the class comprehends the material, every student in the class deserves to pass.

And seriously, curves seem far more common in math and science classes, which strikes me as insane because they're OBJECTIVE CLASSES! If you get 90% of the questions right, it seems like you deserve a 90%, not some arbitrary number created by how much your classmates understood. I get "soft" curves in subjective classes (where the professor is loosely grading essays in relation to other essays), but I have never, ever understood them in objective classes. It's like, "I did enough math to get 90% of these problems correct, yet you have strangely assigned my test an 87%; why are you teaching math if you don't understand percentages?" Hard curves have always pissed me off, where 2 students will get As, 6 Bs, 10 Cs, 6 Ds, and 2 Fs, regardless of the quality of the work. That doesn't fairly assess student quality. I can't even imagine why anyone would deploy such a scale. If you've got a class of geniuses, some of them will arbitrarily fail, and if you have a class of morons, some will arbitrarily pass. With As, no less. I'd really prefer engineers not be graded on a curve. If you know how to make bridges stay up, you should pass. If you don't, you should fail. I don't want to be driving across the McCluggage Bridge wondering if the engineer was graded on a curve in a class full of morons and only passed for that reason. The laws of physics, oddly, do not grade on a curve.

Of course I had a few who couldn't be bothered, but by and large my students did me proud. One of my students, on his essay analyzing an ethical problem, began with something to the effect of, "Anyone who hasn't taken an ethics class would obviously say X, but now that I've taken class I can't do that because I keep thinking about it." (In an amusingly resentful tone.) Yay! That's the entire purpose of the class! I've sown confusion!

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