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Stock photo of a cropped college transcript, with fall and spring courses and A and B grades. Black and white.

While 76 percent of white Student Voice survey respondents agree that their professors grade fairly over all, 63 percent of Black respondents do, along with 65 percent of Hispanic respondents and 66 percent of Asian respondents.

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Two in three students say their professors grade fairly over all, according to the recent Student Voice survey of 3,004 two- and four-year students by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse. About one in 10 students says their professors grade too harshly, meaning that the overwhelming majority of students are positive or at least neutral as to whether they’re graded fairly over all.

Yet a closer look at these and other findings tells a more nuanced story: different subgroups of students vary in their perceptions of and experiences with grading—whether it’s fair, whether they understand it, whether they agree with grading on a curve and more. Five key examples:

  1. While 76 percent of white students (n=1,265) agree that their professors grade fairly over all, just 63 percent of Black students (n=244) do, along with 65 percent of Hispanic students (n=458) and 66 percent of Asian students (n=603).
  2. Also by race, white students are likeliest to say that grading on a curve is fair: 46 percent, compared to 36 percent of Black students, 37 percent of Asian students and 38 percent of Hispanic students.
  3. Socioeconomic status may factor into students’ perceptions of grading fairness, as 74 percent of upper-middle-class students think their professors grade fairly over all, compared to 68 percent of both middle-class and working-class students.
  4. Two in 10 students with learning disabilities and related conditions (n=649) say they often don’t understand how their professors grade compared to one in 10 students without such conditions.
  5. Students with learning disabilities and related conditions are more likely than those without to say their professors grade too harshly over all, at two in 10 versus one in 10, respectively.

Classroom Implication: Alternative Grading

Joshua R. Eyler, director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and author of the forthcoming book Scarlet Letters: How Grades Are Harming Children and Young Adults, and What We Can Do About It (West Virginia University Press), says these differences matter. They’re also part of what’s driving a groundswell of faculty interest in alternative grading. (Eyler has previously argued that grades are fueling mental health problems among college students. Student Voice survey respondents who say they’ve struggled academically due to mental health issues [n=1,097] are about as likely as the sample to say their professors grade fairly over all. But they are significantly more likely to say they’ve had at least one professor who graded too harshly.)

“Grades mirror and magnify inequities that are already a part of the structure of higher education,” Eyler says, citing a major 2016 review of a century’s worth of grading research finding much room for improvement in the validity, reliability and fairness of grading. More specifically, the analysis found that earlier studies determined grades to be unreliable while more recent studies frame grading as measuring both cognitive and noncognitive factors that reflect what teachers value in student work.

“We don’t talk about the inequities related to grading often enough because they’re connected to structural issues,” Eyler continues. Even so, “we are in the midst of a major effort to change the way grading is done at the individual level, meaning individual faculty.” (Institutional progress is harder to gauge, he adds.)

Ungrading is one alternative grading model that’s received much attention in recent years. But numerous other models exist.

In Eyler’s experience, standards-based grading is particularly popular among science, technology, math and engineering professors, due to its emphasis on course content, for instance. In this model, students’ grades are based on demonstrated mastery of clearly articulated skills and concepts.

Common faculty concerns about alternative grading include whether rigor can be maintained and whether it will be too time-consuming, Eyler says. The former concern requires some “unpacking,” namely, what the instructor means by rigor. Is it about maintaining high academic standards for students, Eyler asks? If so, “there’s nothing about these alternative models that takes away from academic standards.” These models prioritize feedback, “which helps students to reach those high standards.”

But if rigor is code for “inequitable gatekeeping, or making things overly difficult so as to bottleneck the pathway to success,” he says, “that’s a whole different issue and grading is the least of our concerns.”

As to whether alternative grading means more work for professors, Eyler says it may mean “front-loading” labor, in the form of course design, and orienting students with the grading model. After that, he says, “I find that the amount of time I spend giving feedback is roughly the same. In fact, it’s often a little bit less because I’m not using the feedback to justify the grade.”

Additional findings from the survey:

Curve appeal: Students who took all their classes online in the fall (n=352) were much less likely than students who took all their classes in person (n=1,403) to say that grading on a curve is fair (26 percent versus 45 percent). And just 29 percent of community college students (n=597) say that grading on a curve is fair, compared to 43 percent of four-year college students.

Too harsh: Relatively more four-year college students (43 percent) than community college students (32 percent) say they’ve had a professor who graded too harshly. Slightly more women (42 percent) than men (36 percent) say this, as well—as do students at private institutions (46 percent) versus public (39 percent). By discipline, natural sciences majors are most likely to say they’ve had a professor grade too harshly (43 percent). Just 5 percent of students say their professors grade too easily over all.

A question of difficulty: Half of students say they’ve struggled in a class due to overly difficult materials or exams. Of these, 36 percent have had at least one professor whose grading they didn’t understand, compared to 28 percent of the sample over all.

Unclear expectations: Students who say their success has been negatively impacted by unclear expectations in the classroom are more likely than those who don’t to have had a professor whose grading they didn’t understand (two in five versus one in five).

Other Considerations

Michael Dennin, vice provost of teaching and learning at the University of California, says to take notice and follow up when students report that things are “too hard.” That’s because “sometimes things we do to make courses ‘rigorous’ actually go counter to rigor and just make things ‘hard.’”

On grading, in particular, Dennin says that students often think things are “hard” based on their numerical scores, even though numerical scores aren’t necessarily “calibrated to what students think they mean.”

Ultimately, he says, there needs to be transparency around how grades are earned as well as “what the grade is for.” And if a grade is meant to represent what a student learned, this requires 1) a clear statement of the learning outcome and 2) a clear rubric or connection between the grade and how well the outcome was learned. It also can’t be a curve, by definition.

(Dennin notes that grading on a curve has different meanings to students, including shifted grades that can allow those who don’t necessarily score a 90 or above to get an A, those who don’t necessarily get an 80 or above to get a B, and so on. True bell curves that adjust students’ grades to fit a normal data distribution are being used less but remain relatively common in large, lower-division courses, he says. Eyler, meanwhile, calls bell curves especially “egregious.”)

Mary-Ann Winkelmes, founder and director of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project, or TILT, is struck that so many students say they’ve struggled in a class due to overly difficult materials or exams. The finding seems to suggest that students “didn’t recognize that they weren’t fully prepared to do the work” before approaching materials and exams.

Winkelmes, whose project advocates making learning processes explicit and accessible via transparent assignment design, is similarly struck that just one in four students says they usually understand how their professors grade. The TILT framework can help in that it engages both teachers and students in communication before an assignment or project, including around “a shared understanding that aligns with the teacher’s expectations and criteria for grading.”

Read more from the Student Voice survey on Academic Life.

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