Friday, May 21, 2010

College Grading System Revisited

As a follow up to my previous post on the college grading system, I wanted to direct my readers to an interesting Washington Post article about dissatisfaction with the letter grade system. I found it most interesting in discussing the history of letter grades in the United States.

There is also in interesting discussion of grading in Robert Persig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have always found his discussion, which involves abolishing the grading system, and really, any evaluation system at all, tantalizing, if ultimately unworkable. Yet, he raises a number of important issues. His ultimate conclusion: that grades actually hold a student back. They determine what grade they want to get (some students are happy being C Students), and then work only hard enough to get that grade.

I also wanted to add a few of my own comments on the Post article.

First, I found it interesting that letter grades are not as entrenched as I thought. The first came from a Harvard Professor in 1883, only 130 years ago.

Second, once letter grades became more or less the standard, I found the strictness of the grading system harsh, or have we been dumbing down our grading system. Here is the example of the grading scale from Mt. Holyoke College, 1897:

A 95-100
B 85-94
C 76-84
D 75
E (= F) below 75

If I presented this scale to my students, there would be a mass revolt.

Most of the negative comments about letter grades in the article concerned issues of different standards at different schools, grade inflation, etc. Nevertheless, I think the biggest issue which I raised in my last post, is one of justice and fairness, and how students perceive the way in which they are represented by their grades. A student has a good point that an 89.5% B+ does not represent him or her fairly compared to a 90% A. Going to a percentage grading system, I would think, would solve these problems for both teachers and students.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

College Grading System

As every semester comes to an end, and I have to input final grades for my students, I am always struck by a couple of things.

First, I will get an avalanche of emails from students who were just a couple of points from the next highest grade and they are requesting a "grade bump," when a professor exercises free grace by just bumping a student to the next grade. This is a practice that I only employed for one year, when it came back to bite me. Now I make clear in my grading policy on my syllabus that I under no circumstances will bump a grade. The reason for this became quite clear in my first year teaching, namely, it is subjective and unfair. If I bump one person, why not another. If I bump by 3 points, why not four points. Ultimately, I cannot make such choices. Better to just let the students be responsible for their own grades.

Yet, this grade bumping quandary that I face every semester brings up a much bigger issue of justice and fairness in my mind. Namely, why does someone who gets an 89.5% in my class deserve a B+ (3.5 grade points at my school) and someone who gets 90% deserve an A (4 grade points)? Is not the person with an 89.5% much closer in actual performance to the 90% student than the 90% student is to one who scored a 99%. Yet, the 90 and the 99 both receive 4 grade points. Play this out on a larger scale. Someone who scored 90s throughout college graduates with a 4.0, but we know that student has not performed as well as a 99% student, yet they both graduate with a 4.0. Why even deal with letter grades and the grade point system? It should just be dropped entirely in favor of a percentage system. Most professors grade on a percentage system and then translate that to a letter grade, which then translates to grade points. Why not remove the translation altogether and just assign people a percentage.

With a percentage system, one's performance is accurately represented to those evaluating such matters, such as graduate schools and perspective employers. In that case, a graduate school for example would know the significant difference between someone graduating with a 90% and someone with a 99%. It would also remove any need for grade bumping, and really, any impetus on the part of the student to ask for such a bump. In this system, a student who scored an 89% feels justly represented next to a 90% student, while in the present system they feel they are not correctly represented.

So, the question I return to, why a grade point system in the first place?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Our $200 Dollar Piece of $#!@ Coffee Pot

I rarely rant, ask my wife, but I have treated her to a couple of doozies in the recent months as she comes out for our morning coffee.

The first thing on our list of wants with the various sets of gift cards we got for our wedding was a really nice coffee pot. Brooke is a coffee fiend, and I am a supportive 1 or 2 cups in the morning type of guy. We had our dream coffee pot picked out: the Cuisanart 12 cup burr grind and brew thermal coffee pot which retailed for $200. Right after the honeymoon, we went to Bed Bath & Beyond and used our gift cards to buy this Cadillac of coffee pots.

This coffee pot has everything. It is supposed to require the minimum of actual work possible while creating a perfect cup of steaming coffee. It has a bean hopper that holds about a weeks worth of coffee beans (at the rate we drink). It has a self timer so that it will turn on, grind the beans, brew the coffee, all in time for us to walk out to a wonderful smell and a great cup of coffee when we get up. All we have to do is make sure the hopper has beans and the reservoir has water and the pot does the rest. In theory!

The pot worked pretty well for a couple of weeks. Then the coffee started to taste a little weak. We found that the coffee chute was clogging. But hey, no problem, just clean it more often. Then we found that it clogged almost every day. On closer inspection, it appeared to be our beans that were a little oily that were clogging up the chute and grinding mechanism. No problem, switch beans.

Then, sometimes we would get up and the coffee had not brewed. Turns out, the machine was starting to have mechanical problems. Every moving part in this machine needs to be perfectly aligned, perfectly clean, perfectly perfect in order for the pot to brew. So, no more timer. I had to get up and babysit the machine to make sure it actually brews.

Then, the biggest problem of all. The lid on the carafe is temperamental. Sometimes it allows the coffee to flow through smoothly, other times it decides to slow the flow of coffee into the pot enough that it overflows the lid and drips (or flows) over the pot, onto the shelf it is on, down the cookbook shelf below.

Here is the typical morning now.
Step 1: clean the pot.
Step 2: Align everything perfectly.
Step 3: Make sure there are enough beans in the hopper
Step 4: fill the reservoir with water.
Step 5: Pray.
Step 6: Push the start button.
Step 7: The grinder starts, but I have to coax the beans manually into the grinder so that it grinds enough beans. Then, the clicking as the pot tries to maneuver the parts into perfect alignment. I hear the beep-beep, telling me that something is amiss.
Step 8: turn off the coffee pot.
Step 9:Open the door
Step 10: realign the pieces
Step 11: press the grind-off button (to avoid a second grind)
Step 12: press start. I might have to repeat from step 8 2-3 times before the pot actually starts to brew.
Step 13: once i finally hear the bubbling of the water, I quickly grab the paper towels and babysit the machine to make sure that it does not overflow the carafe lid. If it does,
Step 14: I quickly stop the machine while stemming the flow of coffee with the paper towels.
Step 15: Clean up the mess
Step 16: repeat from step 9

So, I am ready to shelve the Cadillac of coffee pots and buy a $20 Wal-Mart model.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bible vs. Church History

For the past three years as I have been finishing my Ph.D. Dissertation (I finally finished and defended on March 4th and am awaiting graduation next Saturday for anyone looking to give me a teaching Job), I have taught the introductory religion courses at Baylor University. Every Baylor student must take two religion courses: Introduction to the Christian Scriptures (Bible) and Introduction to the Christian Heritage (Church History/Theology).

Back when I was an undergraduate at Baylor, students were also required to take two religion courses, but they were two courses in Bible, one for introduction to the Old Testament and one for introduction to the New Testament.

So, which system is better? I will now make a case for the current system which includes a course in church history. I will also tell you why, even though I am a biblical scholar, I enjoy teaching Christian Heritage more than Christian Scriptures.

First, I will list the negatives of this new system, which I think are few. One, teaching the entire bible in a semester is impossible. Two, teaching church history in a semester is impossible. Ok, sure, more time would be better for both subjects, and really, teaching each in a semester turns out more like an outline. But, the question should not be how much time is necessary to cover a subject as fully as the professor would like. That question focuses on the needs of the professor. The question should be, what does the student need.

The answer, Baylor students are in dire need of a course in church history. Most Baylor students come into my Christian Scriptures course with at least a rudimentary, if not quite good understanding of the content of the Bible. Sure, there are several things that they can learn during the semester if they are willing, and much of the scholarly research into the scripture is completely new to them. They are, however, usually less concerned with learning the new stuff as they already think they have a grasp on the Bible. In general, even though most Baylor students would call themselves Christians, and have a decent understanding of the content of the Bible, they do not see the necessity of taking a college course in it, and thus they are less engaged in the subject.

The situation for Church History couldn't be more different. Students come into that class a blank slate. Baylor students, even the lifelong church-goers are almost completely ignorant of church history. This makes the class much more interesting and engaging. I am always shocked by the fact that they know so little, but that also makes the teaching that much more satisfying. It also makes for much livelier discussions. A student will say something like, "you mean Augustine really said that after the fall humans had no choice but to sin? You he didn't believe in free will?" Or, they might say, "Wesley organized his church into small groups of 10-12 members for holiness and accountability? I thought small group ministry was a recent phenomenon." Or again, I hear over and over, "Inerrancy is a recent term in Christian history? The Early church didn't have a doctrine of biblical inerrancy?"

I love being able to teach students things they didn't know, and also, to see their eyes light up when they learn something new that clarifies their view of Christianity.

So, I contend that, even though it is not ideal to teach the Bible in one semester, it is far more needed that Baylor students get at least an outline of church history. At Baylor, Scriptures is taught as a divine drama or story in six acts: Creation-Corruption-Covenant-Christ-Church-Consummation. Even though the New Testament does talk about the consummation in the book or Revelation and elsewhere, that consummation has not yet come. History is still awaiting the consummation. That means that the story that began in the Bible is not yet complete. Yet, many Christians today read this story and skip 2000 years of church history. To use an analogy that is close to my heart right now, that would be like watching season one of Lost and then skipping straight to the final few episodes of season 6. As anyone who watches Lost would tell you, one would be completely lost skipping that much of the series. Yet, this is exactly what one does if one reads the Bible and then tries to locate him or herself in the story of Christianity while skipping 2000 years of the story.