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My View: Intermediate Grades Overestimate Grading

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

After talking with quite a few people about the scheme for intermediate grades, I have found that there is quite a range of opinion on the issue. For one person, intermediate grades are sure to lead to more stress; the next is sure it will reduce it. While one person finds comfort in coarse grading, another would simply prefer more resolution.

I think this difference of opinion reflects the variety of thinking styles present on campus. Rather than presenting my own preferences as supreme, I will just lay out how I think about getting grades here at MIT.

When I look at my transcript, I don't look for what I like to see - A's, that is. Rather my eye tends to gravitate to the grades that stand out, namely the bad ones. If I had a bunch of C's, those would be the grades I would regret having on my transcript. To me, then, having intermediate grades raises the prospect of having a C- there instead. To me having a C- and a C+ is worse than having two C's, because I notice the bad grade more.

Another important factor is that, for many, intermediate grades will make MIT an even more stressful environment than it already is. I am here to learn, but, in practice, I work for security. When I have two solid A's, two solid B's, and one C that could be a B, I can ration my efforts, and bring maximum attention to bear on the grade I stand the most chance of improving. This is healthy, because if I spread myself thin among all of my classes all of the time, I risk messing up my performance in all of them simultaneously.

Generally, however, I have a philosophy on stress that many people would share, and that many would not. To me learning and stress are not terribly related. I learn by going to lecture, doing reading, or working on problems. The stress in writing a paper or preparing for an examination does more to hinder my learning than it does to force me to learn the material.

I look at stress not as a help to learning, but as a necessary evil brought on by our need for self-evaluation. Since I know that intermediate grades would add to my stress level, and since stress does not help me learn material, I naturally dislike the idea of intermediate grades. I expect many others share this preference.

The question of intermediate grades does raise issues that go beyond personal preference into debatable questions of fact. One issue involves accuracy. MIT's coarse grading resolution is a good reflection of the fact that grades at MIT are often not a very good reflection of a students' performance. Some people learn material well, yet perform poorly on tests. Should those who can pull any answer out of their ear when test time comes be rewarded for that ability?

Grading in many classes has nothing to do with effort or mastery. I can hand in a well-written, insightful paper without having attended a single lecture. I can understand a subject quite well, and, in a momentary lapse, mess up an entire problem set.

Second, since many classes grade students on a curve, "excellent performance" and "mastery" can be relative terms. Yet in many small classes everyone can learn the material well, yet still be subjected to the curve.

True, many professors are quite good at gauging effort and performance in their grading. But just as many have no clue about how to find the "shades of gray between A and B." I don't suggest doing away with grading, but I don't believe that MIT should pretend grades accurately reflect one's performance here. To increase the resolution is to suggest that all professors are better at gauging performance than most are.

Finally, some suggest intermediate grades as a solution to the problem of grade inflation. In the recent budget amendment debate, some commentators noted that while nearly two-thirds of the Senate support an amendment to balance the budget, there is never a majority in support of actually balancing it. Similarly with grades, professors have the power to eliminate grade inflation: If they want to deflate grades, they can do it. They don't need this scheme.

In evaluating this grading proposal, I believe that issues of accuracy and intended results should override issues of personal preference. But perhaps we disagree?

Opinion Editor Anders Hove is more than happy with the grades he has received so far here at MIT.