Grades, the Curve, and Questions


If you’re wondering why you got the grade you did, there are a few things to consider:

  1. It’s possible that I was forced by the University Administration to give you  lower grade than you really earned. This unfortunate requirement by our university is, sadly, common across Korea in Universities. It is, in my opinion, unfair although I can understand why it might have become necessary at some point in the past. In any case, regardless of my feelings and regardless of the quality of your work, there are limits to how many As and Bs can be awarded to students in classes of 20 or more students.

    The curve, combined with the inept management of this system, in handling students who drop courses, is the cause of a lot of frustration and anger, and also of painful feelings, every semester. It hurts me to give students lower grades than they have earned, but I cannot do otherwise: the computer doesn’t allow me to enter more than a limited number of As and Bs, and all I can assure you is that I work from the highest grades to the lowest to make sure that the grading is as fair as possible, given the unfair system.

    If you doubt my anger at this system, or my frustration at its unfairness, then please feel free to visit me sometime during semester and we can talk about it. I will turn red in the face very quickly, and probably start shouting at the walls within ten minutes. I hate this system, but there seems to be nothing I can do about it. Maybe as students, you can do something about it?

  2. The University’s definition of “classes of 20 or more students” is also problematic. Students who stop attending but don’t bother to drop a class are counted as a member of the class. This is relevant for my Listening & Speaking class this semester, in which there were only 19 students in the course, but 23 on the class list. While I cannot publish the names of the students who quit attending the course but didn’t bother to drop the course officially, they are the problem in this case. I’m told that there is nothing I can do, and therefore a number of students deserving of As and Bs received Bs and Cs.
  3. It’s possible that you missed some specific homework or other factor. Some students performed extremely well on major course tasks, but participated poorly. Some students participated well but missed a few homework assignments. A and A+ grades are for students who excel in all aspects of the course, managing assignments, participation, performance on exams or essays, and so forth. Indeed, not all completed homework assignments are equal: a checkmark is okay, but a check-plus is better, and a check-plus-plus is the optimal score. Missing small assignments seems like a little thing, but it adds up. Doing small assignments just well enough to receive a check-mark (but not check-plus or check-plus-plus) is simply not competing with others for the chance to receive the limited A and B grades available in the class.
  4. When it comes down to a choice between two people of the same grade for the last A or B available, then all things being equal, class participation, engagement with course topics, and quality of homework are always more important than attendance, exams or essays.
  5. If you stumbled in a major way — not coming to a midterm or final exam, missing more than ten hours of class (which is my limit), didn’t participate once in class, or otherwise, then you should receive an F, plain and simple. If you didn’t, then be grateful! If you ask me to reconsider your grade in that case, you’ll probably receive the F you deserve!

To sum up: I spend hours and hours every semester grading, tracking grades, inputting grades into my system, thinking about participation marks, and thinking about how to improve my system for grading each of my classes. While I think grading and grades are detrimental to education, I take them seriously, I work hard to make sure they are fair, and I spend a lot of time on them. So before you ask me whether you got the grade you deserve, please think over what I’ve written above. Check out this page, too, for more observations on grading.

One last thing: if you got a grade lower than you would like in my class, it doesn’t mean getting the grade you want is impossible with me. A number of students who have gotten Cs, Bs, or even A0s with me have gone on to get A+ in a later class, when they are more used to my teaching methods and ready to work at it. So please don’t give up! You can do it, and I am eager to work with you.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas (I was grading!) and a marvellous New Year’s! Good luck, and hopefully I’ll see you next semester.

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