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Plus or minus

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As hot debates go, on (college) campus, this one at least seems more in tune with the place:

Plus and minus, or not?

At the University of Idaho, the faculty seem to like it, the students seem not to, and the president may have to weigh in.

There’s a bit to unpack here.

The debate is over what it sounds like: Should students be graded on their assignments with an A, B, C and so on, or an A+, A, A-, B+, B and so on? The standard has been full letters only, but many schools – many in higher education and many in K-12 schools as well – use the fuller system. (The fact that many others use the more varied system is one of the arguments for adopting it at UI.)

The university faculty voted at a meeting on Wednesday in favor of the expanded approach, to take effect in 2023. (We don’t want to rush into these things.) It’s not the first time they have suggested the change; a proposal to do much the same was tried in 2005 but killed by the university president.

The arguments pro and con may seem like a narrow (and for non-students, not especially important) subject. But the implications around it are worth thinking about.

Do you want precision, or is a more general view appropriate? Number grades – zero to 100 – are a sometimes-used approach too, and in some cases, such as a test with numerous objectively right-or-wrong answers, may be the right measure. But is an essay test properly rated an 86 or an 87? That can be harder. Deciding between an A or a B may be clearer and more easily understandable.

And – here’s where some of it hits the road – deciding between an A- and a B+ can be a subtle thing, not a lot different than navigating that 86 or 87; but the difference between the two reads to the student, and to anyone else encountering the score, is something quite distinctive. For a casual observer, it seems like the difference between really good (A-) and just okay (B+), even if it may not have been quite intended that way.

The student newspaper The Argonaut (disclosure: I wrote for it many years ago) quoted plant science professor Allan Caplan as being concerned about attempts at too precise grading: “I doubt I can slice the pie that fine as to distinguish C+ from B-, even though my courses are heavily fact-based.”

A counter view in that article came from ecology professor Penelope Morgan, who, “…said it will help her better communicate with her students about their performance. She said that for students who fall in the B and C ranges, the system could provide more incentive to improve. She said if students don’t think they can move from a B to an A, for example, a B+ may seem more achievable and that could motivate them to work harder and get more out of a class.”

This gets my attention now because we all have to assess and issue metaphorical grades when it comes to developments in our society and in our politics: Is your state legislator or member of Congress an A- or a D+, or do we have enough information to make a clear distinction?

Or is pass/fail good enough?
 

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