Thursday, December 15, 2005

Can Olin's grading system be changed?

Was talking to Amanda the other day about grading at Olin, and she made a very good point.

There needs to be a way for external people to see us and understand who we are and what we've done. Heck, we need to understand who we are and what we've done. The thing is, the grades we give now - what do they mean? They're constrained to what the rest of the world thinks they mean: "A" means you did well, "B" is just barely passable, "C" means you must have slacked and been an idiot all semester. (I can assure you this is not universally the case. I know more from some of my 'C' classes than I do from my 'A' ones.) According to our official school papers, the grades I've just cited are all bumped up a whole letter. But since we've got to compensate for what external viewers will think when we speak this language of grades, we end up with this.

Instead of patiently trying to transcribe our A-B-C grading system into theirs, if we actually want to evaluate ourselves differently, we should just speak a different grading language entirely and give them the keys to translate it. One of the first things we learned in Human Factors was that "slightly off" things are deadly because people assume they're not off at all. If you're going to be different, be so ridiculously different that nobody could possibly mistake your foobar from the classic ol' foobar. Make them examine it and assign it their own meaning, not the "automatic" meaning they assume when they see a normal ol' foobar.

Humans are curious, Amanda argued. And they'd be willing to give us a chance. We're no longer crazy nobodies from a nowhere school; people know us, they've heard of us, they've heard of the people we work with, and they'll actually take a second look at us It's the difference between "Eh, 2.5 - I know what that means; toss it" and "An E in teamwork? What does this mean?" and a closer look at your application.

Becoming the same as the rest of the world is no way to change the world.


Luis Diego Cabezas said...

So the thing is, Olin wasn't supposed to have an A,B,C,D grading system, nor a GPA system. From the beginning through Dec 2002 (the first semester of the full class of 2006), there was lots of discussion about what grading scheme we should have, since most people (students faculty AND staff) agreed that the standard systems are insufficient at reflecting the true potential and achievements of a student. I believe there was even a committee in charge of this specific issue and I remember taking surveys and having large talks about it. However, no one could fully agree and all committees were swamped with lots of other important things (remember, only 75 students and a handful of profs then), and suddenly the P/NR semester was over and we needed SOME system. So the standard letter system was adopted "temporarily". It was supposed to be replaced by something new and unique in Fall '03, but the committee in charge had not yet made a decision (it wasn't their sole responsibility), so the "temporary" system was left in place. By Spring '04 (your first semester with grades), few people were talking about grading (sick and tired of the discussion, perhaps, and a bit disillusioned) and it got put on the backburner. Right now, with accreditation coming up, it is unlikely that we can change it anytime soon, as we wouldn't have enough time (data) to prove its reliability to the ABET accreditation group.

After that... your guess is as good as mine. The classes that were strongly opposed to a standard system will be long gone, and each new class brings a higher proportion of students who are more interested in a top notch education than in changing its paradigm (even if it would make things better). This means the burden falls on the professors and administration to get the grading discussion rolling again, a tough task given all the other initiatives and programs they're working on now that the school is in full force.

So in short, it won't change unless the students clamor for it, and I don't really see that in the newer classes. If you ask around enough however, you may find others willing to champion the idea with you. And if you ask the right people, you might just find a whole TON of documents and proposals that discuss alternate grading schemes in QUITE some depth...

As for me... down with letter grades! It seems like I'm going to fail my favorite class this semester and get an A in the one I did not really care much for, even though I learned much much more in the first of the two. It's a messed-up, outdated system that does not tell employers nor graduate schools what they really need to know, and it does not reflect your ability to contribute to the outside world (which is what one would really like to know, right?) It's only in place b/c no one with clout has dared challenge it, and it's frustating that while Olin is gaining more and more respect every day, it's not using it to challenge some of the most important weaknesses of traditional engineering eductation. IMO.

Keep on questioning everything! ;)

Simone said...