Professors should give accurate feedback

In a culture teeming with concern about political correctness, it’s amazing that separating students by letters as a mark of achievement is still allowed. Five of the first six letters of the alphabet have long remained an indication of intelligence and a source of stress for students, especially those at a university like Carnegie Mellon.

At mid-semester, a daylong break and a letter-grade assessment often substitute for an actual progress report. At Carnegie Mellon, most professors are good at actually providing a mid-semester grade, but we have found a few misleading grading habits, including giving everyone the same grade, refusing to give an A, and not explaining the grading criteria for mid-semester grades. Giving everyone the same grade doesn’t help students improve, refusing to give an A is a silly motivation technique that prevents some students from knowing how well they’re doing, and not explaining the criteria for the grade makes the whole process of mid-semester grades meaningless.

In an effort to improve themselves, it is not uncommon for students to question their mid-semester grades — if a student wants to be the best he can be, he will want to know how to improve.
Mid-semester grades are useless without a set of standard guidelines, and can even hinder students’ performances if they take the grades at face value as a true marker of their successes or failures.

De-emphasis of actual grades has become popular recently, usually as a way to encourage actual feedback that helps a student perform to better standards. We’re not for this — letter grades simplify an identification of progress, and provide a standardized extrinsic motivation that, ideally, everyone can achieve within — but grade de-emphasis has its perks in that it can paint a real picture of a student’s achievements.

We encourage professors to take advantage of the current grading system more fully. Providing honest and accurate mid-semester grades, and explaining the criteria, can only help the serious student, while shoddy grading can only hinder the serious student.