Burlap Sack: All-or-nothing grading schemes

What's a lazier way to evaluate students than this?

With COVID-19 necessitating online courses, some professors have decided to switch up how to calculate grades. Previously, two midterms, a final, and maybe five per cent for attendance was a sufficient grading distribution to reflect a students’ knowledge of course material.

It wasn’t the best grading scheme and there are plenty of complaints to be had about standardized testing. However, may I present to you a greater evil: all-or-nothing grading schemes.

No, I don’t mean a pass/fail mark for the overall course. I’m talking about a pass/fail scheme for assignments which eventually make up your course grade. It’s arguably the worst way to assess understanding of course material, one that unfortunately, some professors are illogically defensive of.

I completely respect — and applaud — professors for making weekly assignments add up to the course grade. This bypasses concerns of academic integrity and technology mishaps during online exams, whether they’re proctored or not. Having weekly assignments is also a consistent way to see if students have grasped the concepts, whereas two midterms and a final for a whole semester feels more like a measure of how well students can jam material into the crevices of our brains within a short period of time.

But why do these assignments need to be marked on a pass/fail basis?

Some professors might say, “it’s so you are forced to really master the material!” and “each assignment is only five or six per cent, so it won’t make or break your grade!”

But these claims fail to acknowledge the crux of the issue. Pass/fail grading simply doesn’t reflect how well a student has understood the material, and it’s not conducive to learning.

When students spend hours trying to figure out one assignment because they’re terrified of getting one question wrong out of 20, even the most stubborn professor should recognize this does not lead to a better understanding of the material. When students get one question wrong out of 20 and receive a zero, despite getting 19 other questions correct, this grading does not fairly reflect the overall grasp of knowledge.

The only thing all-or-nothing grading achieves is instilling anxiety and frustration in students who already feel swamped with extra assignments and readings.

Of course, online learning is also a huge challenge for professors, and students shouldn’t expect them to have everything perfectly figured out. However, all-or-nothing grading feels…lazy. Especially when some professors claim to use a pre-written program to do their grading for them. Students are still paying high tuition for Zoom calls and self-learning, so is it really too much to ask professors to grade in a way that accurately reflects the effort we’ve put into understanding the material?

Professors are doing their best to overcome technological challenges, answer hundreds of emails, and deal with curveballs like administrative restructuring. But this doesn’t excuse dismissive and defensive attitudes towards students who worry about how getting one question wrong on a few assignments can result in a failing grade. In the midst of a pandemic where students and professors alike are juggling courses, employment prospects, and health of the public, all-or-nothing grading schemes is a ridiculous hill to die on.

Students, I know we’ve had our disagreements about grading schemes in the past. Some of us rioted about the credit/no-credit grading for Winter 2020 courses, while some of us thanked the stars for that little reprieve during the chaos of lockdown and rising COVID-19 cases. But perhaps we can unite in our fruitless disgust at all-or-nothing grading. We can’t force professors to give up this antiquated method of ‘teaching’, but we can, at the very least, feel a sense of camaraderie in our collective annoyance with the all-or-nothing grading scheme.

Tina Tai

Tina is the 2020-21 Magazine Editor and the 2019-20 Online Editor of The Gateway. She is a Psychology major and enjoys training her cats to give high-fives using behaviour modification methods. In her spare time she enjoys making sushi, watching murder mystery shows, and taking naps so long they may as well be sleeps.

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