December 21, 2009

In Which I Succumb To Grade Inflation Pressure

So I've been worried about teaching an undergraduate class.  Here's my solution, and the rationale.  Returning undergraduate students have their strengths and weaknesses.  For instance, they deal poorly with ambiguity.  That means that if I give them this question:
Paul and Donna both live in Los Angeles.  They are parties to a written contract.  The terms of the contract are that Paul is to pay $10,000 to Donna, and Donna is to give her sky-blue 2005 BMW 735i to Paul in exchange.   Paul delivers a cashier's check made out to Donna in the amount of $10,000, which she takes.  After depositing Paul's check into her personal bank account, Donna drives her sky-blue 2005 BMW 735i to Toronto and sends Paul an e-mail saying that she really likes her car and prefers to keep it.  Which of the following is the most likely conclusion a Court would reach in this situation?

A)  Paul has breached the contract because there was no provision for payment in the form of a cashier's check.
B)  Donna has breached the contract because she failed to perform her end of the bargain.
C)  Neither party has breached the contract because Donna properly rescinded the deal.
D)  Donna has not breached the contract because she has moved the car beyond the jurisdiction of a California court.
Now, you might think that the correct answer is pretty obvious here, even without having taken an undergraduate-level business law class.  But remember, I don't teach at places like Stanford or UCLA.  So if I ask that question of ten undergraduates of the caliber I anticipate getting, at least one of them will answer "A," and at least three of them will answer "D," and at least two will answer "C."  When I announce that the correct answer is "B," I will get a lengthy, passionate argument from one of the students who answered "D" about how no court in California can possibly extend its jurisdiction to Canada.  When I say that even if that's true, Donna still breached the contract, another student will begin to whine loudly about how figuring out the answer to that question depends on an unfairly subtle and arbitrary interpretation of "one little word" and the complaining student's murky misunderstanding of the question is just as valid as mine and should be given at least partial credit.  I've got about a one in three chance of the guy who answered "A" responding to my refusal to give him credit for that answer by filing a complaint to the school's administration about my "trick questions."  That's what I mean when I say that undergraduates do not deal well with ambiguity.

It goes on from there.  Undergraduates expect that if they "put in the effort," this will produce a good grade.  Which is a way of saying "they expect to be given second and sometimes third chances to make up for their own poor study habits because I'm supposed to believe they spent eight hours staring blankly at the textbook last night."

They do badly with grading units that compromise large percentages of their grades; they are more comfortable with evaluation formats where each set of criteria are relatively small portions of their overall grade.  Their downward grade projection curves only increase over time, of course, because they don't properly diagnose and correct academic performance problems which are signaled by poor results on earlier evaluations.  But they like getting those signals.

They expect to be rewarded for participation, and by "participation" I mean "showing up," and doing so in a timely fashion is often more than can be reasonably expected of them.

They respond better to being told in advance what is expected of them.  This means that they want to be given the actual objective questions that they will be asked, in advance of being actually asked them.  "Could you distribute the actual final exam maybe the week before the exam is due?" is a question I actually was asked by one of my students the last time I taught this class.  The student was quite earnest and truly didn't understand why I scoffed at this suggestion.  Now, I have learned from that mistake and I will do as he suggested -- as I describe below.

After all, these are adults, they are paying good money for the service and the ones who are good students are going to learn the material no matter what I do, and the ones who are not good students are not going to learn the material no matter what I do.  So I need to cater to these expectations because I am not teaching in a world of academic rigor or high standards.  I need to minimally satisfy subject matter coverage and demonstrate that I am doing something to evaluate the students by way of producing a grade spread.  Well, getting a spread is easy; something like two-thirds of them wouldn't even bother putting their own names on things they turn in to me even after I remind them to, so if the written test consists of "1. Sign your name to this form.  2.  Turn it in." I would still get a grade spread because that's too complex a series of instructions for some undergraduates to successfully execute.

Very well.  I will cater to them.  I will produce a format to my class that gives them second chances.  It will sort out unique grades for each student that will appear to any auditor as though I were actually evaluating the students.  It will reward "participation" by which I mean "showing up."  And it will still make sure that only students who actually master the material get "A" grades, so enough students will still complain to the school's administration about me that they'll never suspect just how far I've dumbed down the class.  Here's how it will work.

I've been assigned to teach the class in nine classes, once per week.  So each class is one-ninth of the overall grade.  Each evaluation unit will be a twelve-question quiz; each question will have four possible answers and only one "best" answer.  I will distribute the actual quizzes in advance of the class in which it is due.  Quiz answers are due at the start of each class.  A correct answer is worth 5 points, which is full credit.  An incorrect answer is worth 1 point, because, after all, the student "participated" by answering the question at all.  Then, I will lecture about the subject matter of the quiz.  If, at the end of class, a student believes that she has turned in an incorrect answer, she can amend her answers and I will use the amended answers.  A correct amended answer is worth 3 points.  The only way to get 0 points is to not answer the question at all.

The school's grading format is 90% and above is an "A," 80% and above is a "B," and so on.  60% and higher is a "D," which earns credit for passage.  There are no plus or minus grades; so there is no C+ or B- or so on.

Now, you'll notice that 3 is 60% of 5.  If you get the question right initially, that's 100% credit.  If you blow it and get it wrong (if you somehow thought that Paul breached the contract by paying the exact amount he was supposed to pay in the form of an irrevocable demand instrument that was actually negotiated), then you get a second chance -- after I discuss this exact question and say, out loud in class, "...and that's why 'B' is the correct answer to question 1," you can turn in a form that says "I change my answer to question 1 to 'B.'"  Then you jump from 20% credit to 60%, which is the minimum you need to pass.

If you're a complete boob who gets literally every question wrong, you can still correct and get 60% of the credit, which is what you need to pass.  Leave aside the issue that I'm going to make the questions as easy as I can in good conscience and...  Strike that.  Strike everything in that previous sentence after " I can."  I thought my example question above was pretty easy, but I intend for that to be the "tough" one.

But, no one is going to get literally every question wrong.  A Cornish game hen will wind up selecting the correct answer as between options A, B, C, and D roughly 25% of the time.  I played with some probabilities and the chances of purely random selection getting all 108 questions wrong is 1:311,447,000,000.  Even that one poor soul whose odds of doing so spectacularly badly are less than one in three hundred billion cans till show up and pays enough attention to correct his mistakes and if he does that he'll still pass.

Taking it a step further, of course, the odds of someone getting all the correct answers by chance are roughly equivalent to a quantum tunnel appearing in his garage while he's watching the rebroadcast of Survivor: Santa Monica,* and inciting a localized fusion event that transmutes his 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix into a two-ton bar of pure gold complete with engraved elephant logos.  Yes, it could happen.  The odds are just phenomenally against it.  If the student is not concerned with getting a perfect score but just wants a passing grade, then his odds improve to only 102,522,541 times less likely than he is of winning the Mega Millions Lottery jackpot in any given draw.

So you see, I can defend this against academic scrutiny.

But what's really likely to happen is that the dimmest possible student will guess at all the answers and through the machinations of chance get 25% of them right and earn full credit.  Then, that student will amend and correct the 75% he got wrong.  25% of the questions earning 100% credit, plus 75% of the questions earning 60% credit produces -- 70%.  That's a "C."  So if you totally ignore the reading, simply guess as to all the answers, and come to class and pay attention, statistically you should get a "C."

Or, you could read the book and try to get the answers right, and simply skip coming to class.  Truth is, that's perfectly fine with me.  If I never see you, never talk to you, never have to deal with you in any way other than plugging twelve letters you send me over the e-mail once a week, that's a pretty sweet deal for me and it could be a sweet deal for you, too.  If your study lets you get 75% of the questions right, and 25% wrong, and you don't bother to come to class to get partial credit for the ones you get wrong, hey, that works out to a grade of "B." 

But, of course, every class has its over-achievers.  There will be those students who do the reading and come to class.  I figure that if you do the reading and actually understand it at a rudimentary or better level, you can get 75% of my questions right given that you have a week to answer twelve questions which you know in advance with the benefit of the textbook right there in front of you.  And if you come to class and "fix" the other 25% so you get partial credit for them, then that's what passes for "excellence" these days and you get an "A."

I know there are law school and college professors out there reading this and blubbering with tears that I've reduced my standards to be this low.  "Any damn fool could get an 'A' with a format like that!"  You're exactly right.  But don't worry -- there are still going to be plenty of people who manage to not get "A" grades despite this format.  I'll bake and eat my favorite hat if that doesn't happen.

Besides, I'm just responding to market pressures.

I get paid to cover subjects X, Y, and Z, not to teach English.  If undergraduates have poor writing skills, that's your fault, English teachers, for passing students who don't know that sentences have both subjects and verbs.  If they have poor research skills, that isn't my problem.  It's your fault, academic skills instructors, if students from your classes think that "research" means cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.  If a college student doesn't understand that the proposition "Some Americans are Democrats" does not logically support the conclusion "Barack Obama was born in Kenya" that is the fault of critical thinking and logic instructors, not the fault of a business law teacher.  If you get a student who thinks that a "tort" a small pastry with a fruit filling, or that the penalty for filing bankruptcy is habeas corpus, then okay, you can come talk to me about that.

And I really, really don't get paid to "weed out" the students who don't yet have college degrees because they lack the intellectual ability to deal with material at this level.  The way I see it, it doesn't matter how easy I make the class.  Those students will still, somehow, find a way to fail no matter how easy I make it.  And I suppose no matter what, I'll have to deal with their angst about that.  But this will be easier because I can tell them that no matter what, if they show up and pay attention, they'll still get at least a "C."

See, it's become clear to me that there isn't really a lot of concern about what I actually teach.  I've given up on hoping that any of my undergraduate students will be inspired to explore law as a career option.  They look at the class as a hoop they have to jump through and an additional chit on their student loan package.  They look at the degree as a formality, a meaningless piece of paper, and not as a symbol of actual knowledge or intelligence.  That's how their employers treat the degree and at the end of the day, the for-profit career college treats it that way, too.

Instead, I get to talk to a captive audience for a few hours, try out new jokes, and refresh myself about the UCC.  It's fun to see the bright students "get it," but the pleasure I get from that isn't worth the misery of dealing with the students who shouldn't be in college in the first place.  So I've decided it's easier to make it as simple as possible to cut down on the whining, still filter out the excellent from the mediocre to satisfy my own sense of intellectual obligation that I do so, and adhere to the overall ethic of "Pay your fee, get a C."

* See, it's not just my tests that are getting easier over time.

1 comment:

Friendly Technocrat said...

This brings flashbacks from my College days. I feel like I had some of those same kids in my class. Oh yeah, the ten providences of Canada. Right, I've heard of those.