[Column] Grade sorrow

Handing out grades can be tricky. At times the indignation of a student or project group makes Bob van Vliet doubt his own judgement.

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)


The ‘mercy six’ is rightly frowned upon. Better to be honest and just give a five. Sometimes the work is simply insufficient. Perhaps it’s not completely worthless, but the claims are utterly unclear, for instance, there’s a complete lack of structure, or it contradicts itself. A mess. A five.

But when students nonetheless put some actual effort into it, that grade can often come as a surprise to them. In general, this confirms the fact that they didn’t learn enough to be able to judge the level of their own work. But at times the indignation of a student or project group makes me doubt my own judgement.

‘We feel this grade doesn’t match the previous feedback,’ one group emailed me recently. And yes, crap, I thought, they have a point.

On rare occasions, I really do regret giving a low grade

This group turned up at the first of four feedback sessions with a presentation that seemed thrown together with very little effort put into it. Their second try was also weak. At the penultimate session they seemed at last to have studied the subject in some depth. I saw elements appear of something that could become a very reasonable report. The penny seemed to have dropped! And then you become enthusiastic. You cheer them on. Like a parent on the side of a sports field. “Come on! You can do it!”

The times that this hope comes true are the moments that make it wonderful to be a teacher. It means you get to surprise people who thought they couldn’t do something with a high mark. The times this hope turns out to be in vain, are the moments at which I start to question whether I might be the one who is mistaken.

After all, what exactly was it that was so much worse in these students’ end result than in those promising intermediate results? Or was that earlier work also weak, and I just didn’t see it? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t my final assessment take into account the fact that they were misinformed? Didn’t they deserve that pass after all?

On rare occasions, I really do regret giving a low grade. In those cases where, without noticing it, my expectations kept rising during a project and I subconsciously judged the end-result in terms of that changed norm, instead of according to what would have been sufficient in other years. Poor students. Usually, I mostly regret what happened before the final assessment. But even then, I’m always afraid at first that I’m guilty of the former.

Luckily, when I looked back at my feedback videos this time, it turned out that I had, in fact, pointed out problems that weren’t properly addressed. And luckily, they have the opportunity to improve their report and still pass the course.

Grades. Ideally, I’d eliminate them altogether (link in Dutch). Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes students don’t really believe their work is insufficient or outstanding until you give it a five or a nine. But every time that happens, it feels like a failing grade for me as a teacher.

Bob van Vliet is a teacher at the Faculty of  3mE. Before, he was a teacher at Industrial Design Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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