Keep it 100

When I’m putting together my syllabi before the start of a new semester, I tell myself, “This is when I’m going to get it right. I’m going to assign just the right amount of reading. I’m going to come up with inventive and engaging lecture topics. And most importantly, I’m going to make sure the essay due dates don’t overlap for each one of my classes.” Suffice it to say, I didn’t quite nail that last goal this time around, as I’ve spent approximately the last month buried under a mountain of essays that need grading. On top of this, I have a bad habit of getting a bit existential when the work piles up like this, and as I’ve done in the past, I’ve started ruminating over my approach to giving out grades. Specifically, I’ve been wondering whether I’m too easy when it comes to these things.

It seems almost scandalous to admit that I’m a professor who gives out a generous portion of A grades and even a handful of 100% scores on occasion. As I was about to mark those three digits at the top of an essay earlier this week, I paused for a moment and felt trepidation. As I sat with red pen in hand, I recalled all the stories about “grade inflation” in higher education that seem to rise anew from the ashes at least once a year in articles and academic blogs. I thought, “Wait a minute. Am I one of those professors? Am I not pushing my students hard enough?  Are my grades leading them down the primrose path?” Faced with such neurosis, I did the only thing that seemed sensible. I went to Facebook and asked other people what they thought:

Fellow teachers, do you give 100s for subjective assignments like essays or other stuff? I give them but always feel weird about it like I’m not trying hard enough to find something I can critique. But on the other hand, I would feel like nitpicking if I just arbitrarily took off 1 or 2 points and gave a 98 for something that was otherwise just fine.

This cry for help provoked a wide array of responses from various friends and colleagues. One told me he saw a 100% as something to only be given out for truly exceptional work and that he’d only ever given out 2 or 3 in nearly a decade of teaching. Another said that it’s not quite such a big deal. If a student follows the instructions on an assignment and doesn’t make any glaring mistakes, a full score is warranted. To not do so out of a sense that “well, nothing’s ever really perfect” is demoralizing to the student and perhaps akin moving the goalposts after the fact.

Out of the replies I received, more than anything, my takeaway was (as is probably obvious in hindsight) there is no one size fits all approach to such things. It comes down to what you expect out of your students and what you want them to take away from your evaluation of their work. If I’m being honest with myself, I could probably stand to be just a bit more critical overall. At the same time, I don’t think I’m corrupting the youth of the nation if I do give out the occasional high grade. In any event, that stack of essays is still waiting for me.

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