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Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Fairness" In The Classroom (via Inside Higher Ed)

From Inside Higher Ed:
At a session entitled "“Perceptions of Fairness in the College Classroom,"” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington Thursday, faculty members pondered the student who works his or her tail off, but never quite edges out some talented peers who rarely study but ace the test nonetheless.

When that hard working student gets an 89.3 percent, and 90 is an "A"” wouldn'’t it be fair to just give him or her a nudge over the bar?

Read the whole thing here.

I just had a conversation with one of the other professors on my floor. It's always interesting talking to him - he teaches Management, and views many issues in ways that are completely foreign to me (and vice-versa, I'm sure). What always impresses/amuses me about our conversations is how we can both use the same term (like "fair") and have it mean two very different things.

I wonder - how many professors give credit for effort (as opposed to going strictly by "objective" measures like test grades)? And if we do, do we help or help or hurt our students? My impression is that if we're clear about our standards and stick to them, it puts more pressure on the students. And that pressure is not entirely a bad thing (Lord knows, they'll have enough of it in the post-college world). Knowing that a standard is firm and that there's no slack for "trying" makes students work harder, since the chance of failure is greater. And the reason "winning" is so sweet is that losing stinks.

I have quite a few students who took my class, failed once, and came back the second time after "getting religion". I'd guess that more than half of the repeaters ended up with a "B" or better the second time around. Most of these told me afterwad that it was one of tproudestodest academic moments. And a couple of years later, they still remember some of the material.

I also wonder if there's a difference across disciplines in the attitude of professors toward giving "points for effort". At least in my experience, it's much less common in disciplines like finance, accounting, or engineering than it is in ones like marketing, management, or english. If my experience is representative, I'd guess that it's due to several factors:
  • Disciplines like finance are more objective than fields like management (i.e. the payment on the loan is either $635 or it's not).
  • As a result, there's more potential error in assessing performance in less objective topics, and the professors take steps to make sure they don't mistakenly grade students down for errors on their part.
  • Finally, the nature of the discipline determines the type of people who choose to be faculty in that discipline. I've found that finance/accounting people are more likely to view the world in absolute terms than are those in management or marketing. This has a big effect on how we choose to organize our classes, set up our grading, and view performance.
What's been your experience?

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