Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Tragedy of the Grading Commons

I have posted (to some) way too many times on the closeness of faculty governance to the tragedy of the commons. I should say some faculty governance because I am confident that there are faculties that overcome individual self-interest and whims and  avoid the tragedy. (Please do not tell me if I am wrong, I need the eggs.)  Some do not. This was brought home to me over the last two days when a student described what the commons could look like and I compared that to the actions and logic of those in charge of managing the commons.

According to this student our law school should graduate the most effective and professional students possible given whatever budgetary restraints exist. This means, according to him, more competitive students, fewer disappointed employers (who will come back for more), and, most importantly, clients who get the best possible service. I have a hard time not agreeing with this.

According to him, this means that students should choose courses -- with proper advisement -- that best prepare them for practice. A factor that should not be part of the decision is "what grade will I make." He was not the only one with this view. A colleague on my faculty said just recently that one of the best things he heard when he entered law school was a statement by the dean that grades would not in any way be determined by the selection of courses or teachers. In short,  the students would be free from pressure to game the system and from weighing a possible higher GPA against taking a course that would be part of his or her best preparation.

Maintaining that notion of the commons means that each professor at my colleague's school had to agree with the plan -- not just a curve but a grade distribution.   In other words, there would not be some teachers who would achieve the required average by giving lots of As and Cs while others achieved it by giving mainly B+s. (Some of you will also note how, if there are varying ways of achieving the curve,  the impact will be felt differently depending on whether students are risk averse or risk takers.) The answer, of course, is a curve with some semblance of a required distribution. And it would also mean that some, maybe all, teachers would have to subordinate what he or she preferred in order for the commons to be established and maintained.

Everyone knows what causes the commons to collapse. Each person does what is in his or her self interest.

So what types of specific things cause the tragedy and what are the arguments for not having a required distribution. First, the first sign that the tragedy is in trouble is when a faculty member's first instinct it to see if his or her past grading would comply with a possible distribution. But beyond that how about these tragedy promoting arguments:

1. We already have a curve. This distribution thing is just too much. It requires even more math. (Oh come on! I really don't know what else to say this one.)

2. Since I don't like the curve I also do not like the distribution idea because I want to give the students what they "deserve." (You lost that argument when a curve was adopted.)

3. This impinges on my academic freedom. (Yes people who don't have the balls to say anything controversial raise academic freedom as a reason why they are entitled to help destroy the commons.)

4. Hey, why don't we compromise and just have the distribution in some classes. (The problem is not classes. It is people grading the classes. Applying it to some classes and not others does not solve the problem)

5. The students in my class all made As and they expect to get high grades. The distribution keeps me form doing that. (The curve already prohibits giving them all high grades. The distribution would only keep you from giving them all the same grade. If that is the problem and it could be, there are exceptions.)

6. I'm not saying anything because I hope to be dean someday. (Just kidding no one actually said this but in a way they did.)

Why the photo of Rick Scott? If there were a saint of commons destruction, he would be a prime candidate.

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