Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Tag: exams

Why Are Grades Higher In The Humanities Than In The Sciences?

In Academic Year 2013-14 the grades given in the Arts & Humanities Division at Dartmouth were on average 0.29 points higher than in the Science Division on a 4-point grading scale, and in 1977 the difference was 0.25 (you can see the data here).  The Social Sciences Division has always been sandwiched between the two, with grades about 0.05 points higher than the Sciences on average over the years. Finally, grades in our Interdisciplinary Programs show more variability over time, but are more similar to the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences and Social Sciences (again, see the data here).  

Discussions about grade inflation typically devolve into a shouting match between the Sciences and Humanities, which is completely wrong.  Grades in all Divisions and in all departments within them over the past 50 years have risen at nearly identical rates (again, see the data here).  Let me say that again: grades in every Science department at Dartmouth are increasing at the same rate as grades in every Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities department and in every Interdisciplinary Program over the past 50 years.  

Our committee believes that these differences in grade distributions among academic disciplines are natural.  Our effort is decidedly not to equalize grades across Departments or Divisions at all.  I think very good educational reasons exist why grades in the Arts & Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs are higher than in the Sciences and many areas of the Social Sciences. Let me outline some of them here, but in so doing challenge everyone in every discipline to return to more rigorous grading standards.  If we do, our students will be better and accomplish more.

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More On What Exams Are For

We just finished up another term of classes and are now starting the next term. This morning I got my student evaluations from last term’s classes. Student commentary on most aspects of a course are typically very thoughtful. Criticism can be harsh, but most students do it with a spirit helpfulness and construction. However, I always find comments about the exams in a class to be the most incongruous.

The most common comments from students are (1) the exams are too long, and (2) the exams didn’t cover a lot of the material we covered in class. Frequently, students will make both these points within the same sentence.  First of all, these students don’t realize the contradiction inherent in this compound complaint.  If you want me to ask about everything we covered in class, the exams will have to be considerably longer.  However, I think both, and particularly the second complaint reflects a lack of understanding about their own educational goals and what one can expect for their education.

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What are exams for?

If you teach long enough, you start to think that students are only after an extra point on an exam, and not trying to learn from what you are trying to teach them – particularly the broader learning experiences that students should be having in genuinely evaluating their own performance, and engaging in self-critical evaluations that will make themselves better.

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