12 October 2007

The Professor From Hell

Maule has a thoughtful discussion of a case without legal merit, but with a lot of moral merit, about a professor from hell:

Brian Marquis, a student enrolled in the University of Massachusetts College of Social and Behavioral Sciences . . . enrolled in Philosophy 161, Problems in Social Thought, taught by Jeremy Cushing, a teaching assistant.

On the first day of class, Cushing distributed a syllabus that explained the grading policy:

Each exam will be worth 25% of the final grade for a total of 75%; The response papers will be worth a total of 20% (or 5% each). Each paper will receive a number grade (from 0-5) in .5 point increment; The remaining 5% is for participation in class.

Marquis finished the course with response paper scores of 5, 4, 4, and 4.5, for 17.5% out of 20%. His exams earned 23, 22.5 and 19.5 out of a possible 25%, for a total of 65% out of 75%. He earned 5% for class participation. His total score of 92.5% . . . .

When, after the semester, Marquis looked up his grade on the university's data system, he saw that a grade of C had been entered for the course. He contacted Cushing and asked for either an explanation or a re-evaluation. In his response Cushing wrote, "This brought your final grade to an 84 for the class. The numerical grades were on the high side .. but I thought your grade (of C) was a good reflection of your work. To make the grades more representative of student performances, I set a curve (or, more accurately, I drew up a new grade scale). There were two other students that had grades in this range, one with an 83.5 and one with an 84.5, both of these students also received a grade of C. In your case, the grade assigned by scale seemed to fit."

Maule comments:

The Marquis case is not an instance of a student who is unjustifiably unhappy with his or her grade. It involves a serious grading problem. . . .

Cushing gave the students a partial explanation of how the course would be graded. To his credit, he did more than some teachers, especially college and university faculty, provide in this respect. What he omitted, of course, was the connection between the acquired percentages and the letter grades. One might assume that a 100% earns an A, but after reading what happened in the Marquis case, I'm unwilling to make that assumption. . . . Professional educators tell us that a good grading system lets the students know what is expected and what grades can be earned when a student performs at a particular level. . . . Cushing then altered the grading system without notifying the students. What appeared to be a 92.5% became, somehow, and 84%. Professional educators agree that this is a terrible thing to do. To leave students thinking that their total scores will be based on a published explanation but to use a different grade scale without telling the students is appalling.

The biggest mistake Marquis made was probably his approach to obtaining redress. He went to the university ombudsman, a seemingly sensible choice. But, the department chair, or the supervising professor for the T.A., would have been better choices. A strategy of imploring these supervisors for mercy rather than insisting on relief as a matter of right would have been wiser. And, in the absence of relief from these persons, a campaign of public pressure enlisting fellow philosophy students aimed at the appropriate dean or the provost would have been more effective.

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