Making the Hard Call

I just turned in grades last week, so I’ve had to struggle, yet again, with what to do with students on the edge of a certain grade, especially those on the edge of passing.  Many students have no idea how much we agonize over this decision.  They might believe we take great glee in giving them an F or not rounding them up from a B- to a B.  The truth, is, though, we do spend a good deal of time (maybe too much time, at times) struggling with this decision.

As almost always happens, I had a student who was just a few tenths of a percent from passing.  The question I always ask myself when I have a student in that situation is, “Will it help this student to take the class again?”  There are times where I think it won’t help them at all.  They’ve learned as much as they’re ever going to learn, and going back through will just give them the chance to add one or two points and pass the class.  There won’t be any difference in their knowledge or skills.

There are other times, though, where I think the student does need to go through the class a second time.  This is often the case in composition classes.  First-year students could simply use more writing experience to help them improve, so a second run through a writing course could be exactly what they need.  I have seen students go through that second time and come out much stronger students in the long run.  Of course, I’ve seen others struggle to pass two or three times or pass on the second try, but not really have improved.  That’s what causes the dilemma.

There is also the question of how we make these decisions when they’re not about failing.  I often tell students I look at attendance and engagement in the class, essentially saying that I’m measuring effort.  Of course, there’s no real way I can know which students put forth significant effort and which didn’t.  Just because one student was present more class days or spoke more than another student doesn’t mean he or she is putting forth more effort, but that’s how we perceive it.

I have had students who miss one assignment, not even one of the major assignments, causing them to drop a half letter grade.  Sometimes, they tell me what’s going on in their lives, so I’m more willing to round a grade up, if they are having a real crisis.  Of course, the student who’s not comfortable telling me about a crisis in his or her life would not receive the same benefit.

One could argue that the only fair thing to do is either round no one or bump everyone up the same amount.  I used to do that, but then I decided that I could at least reward some people, even though others didn’t receive the same benefit.  It is a judgment call, but much of teaching is.  There’s little difference between a 75 and 79 essay, but, over the course of the semester, giving one student the lower grade would result in his or her getting a lower grade than the one receiving a 79 consistently.

I’ve simply embraced the messiness of the system, knowing that I might be making mistakes as I go along.  I’d rather make them and reward a few students than claim some sort of fairness and reward none.  There are drawbacks to that approach, but there are drawbacks to them all.  I’ve chosen the one I can live with.

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