Getting an “A” at Harvard is e-z!

Unfortunately students can be quite focused on their grades, and as a result I end up paying more attention to grading than I would like. By the way let me point out that ‘grading’ is more than assigning a grade to a bit of homework. Without going into detail, you have to decide and communicate:

  1. What all the gradable items of work are (e.g. a programming assignment, a reading assignment, a test, a presentation, a mockup or prototype, etc. etc.)
  2. Your logical scheme for assigning a grade to a work item. That is, what is an “A” for a programming assignment? For a particular presentation, etc.)
  3. What the relative weighting is of each grade is
  4. What formula you use to convert all the individual work item grades to a final grade

And then when you are teaching you have to stick to what you decided and communicated because you can be sure someone will ask for an explanation. 

I just had a converation about this today with some students. So in this mindset I was amused / intereste to read this article:

The most commonly awarded grade at Harvard is an A – Quartz:

“The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-,” the school’s dean of education said today, according to the student newspaper. Even more stunning: “The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

Now. Harvard will probably say, and maybe reasonably, that it’s so hard to get into Harvard that all the students deserve the grades they get because that’s just how good they are!

University Teaching – homework, tests and grades?

I am about a week from beginning teaching my course at Brandeis University. The curriculum is a little different from last year, focusing on mobile software engineering and game development. This is different from last year, where we focused both on web and mobile software engineering.

The structure is that we teach during june and july, 4 days a week, and the students end up with 3 courses worth of credits. The students are both graduate and undergraduate. Given the time frame you can see that it’s an intensive boot camp-like experience. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun.

So with my mind on teaching, curriculum, homework assignments and grading, I made note of “The Poor Quality of an Undergraduate Education“, an article about higher ed in the New York Times:

“In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.

The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks. (from The New York Times)

There are serious questions about how much homework is enough or too much. There are also serious questions about grading. I ponder these, from a newbie’s perspective – after all this is only my second year teaching at Brandeis.

I happen to think that the greatest learning happens when a student is struggling to solve a difficult problem or trying to formulate and defend a subtle opinion.

I also think that while I work hard at preparing a good lecture, that the most I can expect is to get the student excited about learning a topic, help them find perhaps the key concepts that they need to try and understand and give them excellent feedback on the work they are doing.

So we grade on homework and class participation/performance. There are no tests. However, many argue that grading itself is not a useful tool. If the student is motivated and works hard they learn, and if not they don’t. After all, in the real world you don’t have tests and you don’t get grades, right?

I kind of agree with that. For me, grading is not about the final grade, when all is said and done. It is about the daily ‘marks’ on homework and other deliverables – they act as a motivator and a focuser of student effort to spend time on things that seem to lead to the greatest learning.

(remember, I’m a newbie 🙂 )


Insightful article about education

An insightful article about higher education in the USA: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. Here are some interesting quotes. It’s a long article and all of it was quite interesting.

“Students at places like Cleveland State also don’t get A-’s just for doing the work. There’s been a lot of handwringing lately over grade inflation, and it is a scandal, but the most scandalous thing about it is how uneven it’s been.

Forty years ago, the average GPA at both public and private universities was about 2.6, still close to the traditional B-/C+ curve. Since then, it’s gone up everywhere, but not by anything like the same amount.

The average gpa at public universities is now about 3.0, a B; at private universities it’s about 3.3, just short of a B+. And at most Ivy League schools, it’s closer to 3.4. But there are always students who don’t do the work, or who are taking a class far outside their field (for fun or to fulfill a requirement), or who aren’t up to standard to begin with (athletes, legacies).

At a school like Yale, students who come to class and work hard expect nothing less than an A-. And most of the time, they get it.” (from The Disadvantages of an Elite Education)


“The political implications don’t stop there. An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State.

There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances.

Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.” (from The Disadvantages of an Elite Education)

Worth reading the whole thing: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education