What do grades actually mean? I began pondering this question while designing a course for the fall semester. Theoretically a grade indicates the amount of knowledge or skill that a student possesses. But really? Those of us working in the USA are quite familiar with grade inflation. A final grade of C today probably doesn’t indicate the same level of knowledge or skill proficiency as the C from fifty years ago. There is also the persistent problem of knowing whether our assessment tools are measuring the types of learning that we think they are/want them to. And it is probably safe to assume that, both in and out of the classroom, there is a lot of learning happening but we just aren’t interested in trying to measure it. The situation gets even more complex given that — again, in the USA — a “learning activity” often won’t function as intended if students believe that it has no discernible effect on their course grades.
I structure my syllabi so that the sum total of points available from all assessed work is greater than what it needed for any particular final grade. For example, a student might need to accumulate at least 950 points over the semester for an A, but there could be 1,040 points available. I do this to deliberately create wiggle room for students — with so many assignments, students don’t need to get perfect scores on, or complete, all of them. While this leads to higher grades in my courses than if I graded strictly on a bell curve, I want to give students plenty of opportunities to practice, fail, and improve. And I firmly believe that sloppy writing indicates slopping thinking, while good writing indicates the converse. So in reality what I’m doing with most of my assignments is evaluating the writing abilities of my students.
This system often produces a bimodal grade distribution that is skewed to the right. Expend a lot of effort and demonstrate a certain level of proficiency, and you will get a grade somewhere between an A and a B-. Choose not to expend the effort, or consistently demonstrate an inability to perform at a minimum level, and you will get a D or an F. I’m comfortable with this result, in part because I know from the cognitive science research on learning that repeated exposure and frequent testing builds long term memory.
This leads me to the reason for doubting that grades my courses mean the same thing as they do in courses where the only assessment is done through mid-term and final exams composed of multiple-choice questions. Yes, the proportion of A’s in the latter might be lower than in the former, but I bet on average my students are retaining more. At least I like to think that’s the case. There is no way for me to be sure.