Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What is the best possible grade?

What is the best possible grade a student can possibly get in a course? The answer seems to be obvious: it is an "A", or maybe "A+", right?

But imagine a student with 4.0 GPA. Would not it mean that this student did not challenge themselves enough? That they took courses that were too simple for them, like CalcI when they ought to have taken CalcII? Would not it mean that they never struggled with the material? Arguably, if you are smart, the easiest way to get a 4.0 GPA is to always pick courses a notch lower than your current level. Then you will surely shine, like a superhero among normals.

Which is curious because from behavioral studies in animals and humans we know that we learn best when we fail in about 50% of the cases. It maximizes information transfer, and so maximizes learning. It is surely very uncomfortable, even humiliating, and it would surely make you question your place in science if you fail on every other attempt, but curiously, all other aspects being equal, that's when you would have learned best.

I obviously don't suggest that we make students fail in every other assignment (it's not middle ages anymore, and we just don't have the mental and emotional preparedness for it), but to learn they should fail at least every now and then. Which typically, for an honest and hard-working student, corresponds to a grade of A minus. Maybe even B plus.

Does not it suggest that grades are useless though?

Anecdotally, it seems to be the case. When I grade objectively, on a rubric with fixed thresholds, I see that non-specialists (students of different majors) and prodigies (students who take senior-level classes in their sophomore year) typically get about half a grade lower than similarly hard-working majors and seniors respectively. But is not it silly? They surely learn more, and in a way the very fact that they take harder courses than they are expected to speaks of their resilience, enthusiasm, and brilliance. But it's not reflected in the grade (although I can comment on it in a recommendation letter).

And if it is silly, what should I do? Just give all sophomores a boost of half a grade? This would not seem fair. Grading on "effort"? I don't think it is possible to grade the effort objectively; some people would just suffer silently, and also it would send a wrong message to students. I have no good solution here, but sure it is an interesting question.

And at least at the personal level I can tell that if I needed to hire an assistant, I would probably always prefer an A minus student to a straight-A student, as A minuses just seem to be more persistent and / or adventurous.

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