I have taught for over 30 years, mostly history, but also courses in philosophy, government & political science, psychology, English, and a few other things. I have taught in public and private high schools, public community colleges, a private sectarian college I helped to found, maximum and medium security penitentiaries, two major American universities, and two Chinese universities. Throughout that time my philosophy and practice of grading has not changed one bit.My guiding principle for teaching is that the teacher is first and foremost a servant. I am in the classroom to help the student learn, not to inflict my personal prejudices on my students or feed my own ego. I will never consciously violate the trust placed in me by my school or my students, and when I am uncertain about a student’s conduct or achievement, I will always give the student the benefit of the doubt. I always set a much higher standard for myself than I do for my students. However, I also try to push them a little, and generally try to make my first examinations slightly intimidating. A little hard work and sweat rarely hurt anyone.
Grading is not an exact science. It is as much an art as it is a science, and any teacher who thinks he can tell exactly what a student has earned, probably doesn’t know what he is talking about. My favorite evidence for this is a study done some years ago in which hundreds of experienced teachers were given thousands of student papers to grade. They were told each student’s grade level, and asked to evaluate each student’s performance. Every student in the study received every grade from A to F! At the very least, this should remind us of the extremely subjective nature of grading. Even teachers who use “objective examinations” must subjectively choose which facts to emphasize and which to ignore. Knowing this, the teacher should make allowance for his limitations and should evaluate his pupils with a certain amount of humility and uncertainty.
In determining final grades, I have a rule. When a student is very close to the border between two grades, I will give him the higher grade, unless the student has repeatedly missed classes. Over the years I have given many students one letter grade higher than their total scores indicated they actually earned. But I have never given any student two letter grades higher. I am willing to give the student the benefit of the doubt up to a point, but I do insist in maintaining reasonable standards. I have never in my life given a student a lower grade than what I honestly believed that student earned. Never. I do not penalize students who disagree with me or who hold different religious or political views. I have known many teachers who do this, but I consider this the height of arrogance and unprofessional conduct. I encourage my students to disagree with me, so long as they have intelligent reasons for doing so.
During the Vietnam War when male students who flunked out of college could be drafted into the military, there was an anti-war professor at my university who claimed he gave “A” grades to all male students to help them keep out of the war. To balance the class average he gave “F” grades to female students who allegedly had nothing to lose. There was another professor who claimed he threw student papers down the stairs and assigned them grades based upon which step each paper landed. Longer research papers are heavier and thus travelled farther, so they deserved the higher grades. Pure physics, according to the professor. And I have a good friend who never went to college because her English teacher gave her a “B” grade on a paper which the teacher never actually read. This caused my friend to miss earning a scholarship by a fraction of a point, and without the scholarship, she could not afford college. A couple of years later the teacher actually looked at the paper and remarked that it was a truly excellent paper. Of course it was then too late to help her student, but it does provide a negative example of the consequences of lazy and dishonest teaching practices.
October 21, 2008
Gary L. Todd, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Sias International University
Xinzheng, Henan, China