To Round or Not to Round: Encouraging Consistency of Message in Grading
As the spring semester drew to a close, I followed a Twitter debate pitting students against professors. On one side, students were sharing plans to argue about their final course grade and bemoaning professors who refused to call a grade “close enough.” These students took issue with the idea that some professors were inflexible when it came to students asking to “round up” to change an 89.49 to a 90 to earn an A-. The students were correct in pointing out that nearly every college course has a degree of subjectivity in the grading, and the difference between an 89 and a 90 was often open to interpretation.
The professors, on the other hand, were understandably some combination of weary and irate. They argued that the laws of mathematics dictate that an 89.49 is rounded down to 89. They expressed their frustrations with knowing that the submission of final grades would bring a flood of emails to their in-boxes, many from students who had never before expressed concern about their grades, pleading for leniency and citing everything from need to maintain a scholarship to desire to remain off academic probation as reasons. The professors were justified in feeling a bit attacked.
Now, we are in the middle of summer break, with grade disputes hopefully put to bed, and professors new and experienced are preparing syllabi for fall classes. In your role as an academic leader, you are in a position to support your faculty in behaviors that will reduce the end-of-term anxiety for both professors and students.
1. Require exact information about grade calculation in the syllabus
Much of the debate in the Twitter exchange I witnessed seemed to center on the problem of rounding a grade up when it was sufficiently close to the cut-off for the next letter grade. As in the example above, students questioned whether an 89.49 was close enough to a 90 to warrant a bump up, especially if this was the difference between a B+ and an A-.
Professors enable this kind of debate by failing to match their delineation of the grading scale with how they will calculate the final grade. For example, if you calculate your grades to two figures past the decimal (e.g. 89.49), then your syllabus should either note that 89.99 is a B+ and 90.00 is an A-, or you should have a stated policy that grades will be rounded to the nearest whole number. Either way, this student earns a B+. As the department chairs collect the syllabi for the semester, they should check to see that this information is available to the students.
2. Be consistent
Many institutions mandate a set grading scale to be used regardless of the department offering the class, which goes a long way toward getting students used to consistent expectations. If yours does not, be sure that your department or your college establishes a consistent grading scale and that all professors are applying it equally. This makes end-of-semester questions much easier for professors to answer if they can point to policy rather than perceived whim in assigning grades.
3. Encourage student questions
One of the more disturbing elements of the online debate I witnessed was the number of professors who noted that they responded to student grade questions with “read the syllabus” or attempted to head questions off by noting a refusal to negotiate once final grades are in. This may be appropriate in some cases, but a dean or department chair should set the expectation that there is a time for student questions.
I recommend faculty training that emphasizes teaching students to ask good questions about their grades, a practice that will also help them develop critical thinking and argumentation skills. For example, questions at the end of the semester that appeal to the professor’s generosity or that cite the student’s perceived need for a certain grade as a rational can be safely turned away. However, questions that come earlier in the semester and that argue for additional points based on the quality of work submitted demonstrate the student’s understanding of expectation of the subject matter. The professor should take these questions seriously.
In the end, I’m glad that I experienced that social media debate; it has prompted me to take a good look at my own syllabus and how I convey my grading practices and expectations to my students. I have some tweaking to do to make sure that I am clear. However, I know that it is debates like this that allow both students and professors to learn how to communicate their positions clearly and persuasively.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the author of Lecture is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom and The Care and Motivation of the Adjunct Professor.