college grading: achievement, attitudes, and effort

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Western Kentucky University]On: 29 October 2014, At: 07:25Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    College Grading: Achievement, Attitudes, and EffortLawrence H. Cross a , Robert B. Frary a & Larry J. Weber aa Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University , Blacksburg, Virginia, USAPublished online: 09 Jul 2010.

    To cite this article: Lawrence H. Cross , Robert B. Frary & Larry J. Weber (1993) College Grading: Achievement, Attitudes, and Effort,College Teaching, 41:4, 143-148, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.1993.9926799

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  • College Grading Achievement, Attitudes, and Effort

    Lawrence H. Cross, Robert B. Frary, and Larry J. Weber

    ssigning grades to test scores, term papers, and projects is ultimately a A subjective process, and many teach-

    ers are uncomfortable with it. Indeed, as Ebel(l979) commented, The more con- fident teachers are that they are doing a good job of marking, the less likely they are to be a m of the difficulties of mark- ing, the fallibility of their judgments, and the personal biases they may be reflecting in their marks (220). Perhaps the greatest source of confusion when it comes to grading is the meaning of marks. Al- though it is not uncommon for teachers to consider such factors as effort and apti- tude when awarding grades, Grades are most meaningful and useful when they represent achievement only (Gronlund 1985,445).

    But even if achievement is to be the sole determiner of marks, there is still the ques- tion of what should serve as the standard against which achievement is judged, In the past, a simplistic absolute standard percentage was often employed, and marks were considered to represent a per- centage of complete or perfect mastery (Hopkins, Stanley, and Hopkins 1990, 329). The alternative to an absolute stan- dard is a relative standard where a stu-

    Lawrence H. Cross is an associate pro- fessor of educational research and measure- ment, Robert B. Fmry is a professor and director of measurement and research serv- ices, and Larry J. Weber is a professor of curriculum and instruction-all at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

    dents performance is judged compared to others. We and many measurement spe- cialists would agree with Hopkins et al. (1990) that our measurement technology is inadequate to provide grading on a meaningful absolute standard . . . [and] . . . the most meaningful standard is the normative performance of similar previ- ous students (329).

    However, other measurement special- ists, especially proponents of criterion- referenced measurements, advocate the use of absolute grading standards (e.g., Hills 1981; Kubiszyn and Borick 1990). Still others present both relative and abso- lute standards as acceptable alternatives (Airasian 1991). It is perhaps not surpris- ing that studies of public school teachers reveal grading practices that combine ele- ments of both recommendations and are consistent with neither (Stiggins, Frisbie, and Griswold 1989; Frary, Cross, and We- ber In press).

    Most college faculty members recog- nize their responsibility to tell students how grades in their courses will be deter- mined. mically, a course syllabus indi- cates the number and types of tests to be administered and how much each test, homework assignment, and other course requirements will count toward the final course grade. Also, many faculty mem- bers indicate the percentage ranges for each letter grade, suggesting an absolute performance standard, even though they may add or subtract points to ensure that reasonable numbers of students receive each letter grade. Often, however, syllabi

    do not make clear whether percentage scores or letter grades are averaged, what types of grades are recorded for missed tests or late assignments, and whether ex- traneous factors, such as apparent effort and attitude toward the course, enter into the grading process. The purpose of this study was to examine these aspects of grading.

    Method We developed a questionnaire with

    twenty-one items designed to assess vari- ous grading practices, plus five demo- graphic items. The first author will pro- vide copies of the questionnaire upon request.

    Out of a total teaching faculty of about 1,500 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the questionnaire was distributed to a random sample of 878 out of 1,318 faculty members who had been tentatively identified as teachers of under- graduate courses and who had taught at the university the previous year. Depart- mental secretaries were asked to return en- velopes addressed to faculty members who were no longer with the university or who did not teach undergraduate courses. For each returned envelope, we selected a replacement from the same department and mailed a questionnaire. Respondents were not asked to identify themselves, nor were identification codes used. Although it was then impossible to contact nonre- spondents, we hoped that anonymity would encourage frank answers and in- crease the response rate.

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  • Findings

    Of the 878 questionnaires mailed, we received responses from 365 faculty mem- bers, a 42 percent overall response rate. Table 1 shows the response rates across the eight colleges and six disciplinary areas within the College of Arts and Sci- ences. Although the response rates dif- fered across the eight colleges, these dif- ferences were not statistically significant ( x2 = 9.05, p = .20). Thirty-seven percent of the sample were professors, 34 percent associate professors, 19 percent assistant professors, and 9 percent instructors, per- centages that closely approximated those at each rank for the entire faculty. Women were somewhat overrepresented at 22 per- cent; only 15 percent of the faculty was female.

    Absolute Versus Relative Grading Standards

    As noted above, a major issue in grad- ing is whether achievement should be ref- erenced to an absolute standard or to a rel- ative standard involving a peer group. Accordingly, we asked the respondents whether scores indicated the percentage of

    material covered by the test that each stu- dent knows, or whether the scores provide a ranking of students according to how much they know about the material cov- ered by the test. The respondents were nearly evenly split between these two in- terpretations, thus giving credence to Ebels assertion that the issue of absolute versus relative marking is still a live one . . . (Ebel 1979,237).

    When asked how they would assign let- ter grades to test scores, nearly half (48 percent) indicated that they would use more or less fixed percentage ranges (e.g., 60 percent-70 percent = D, 7 1 percent-80 percent = C, etc.). A nearly equal propor- tion of respondents (46 percent) indicated that they would assign letter grades by tak- ing into account such factors as the dif- ficulty of the test questions, the perform- ance of students whose work they are familiar with, or natural breaks in the score distribution. A much smaller pro- portion (6 percent) indicated that, effec- tively, they would grade on the curve, that is, award approximately the same pro- portions of As, Bs, Cs, etc., regardless of the scores. The three choices were written to capture the extremes between absolute

    Table 1 .-Response Rates (N= 365)

    Number Percentage College Population Sample returned returned

    Agriculture and life sciences Architecture and urban studies Arts and sciences Business Education Engineering Forestry and wildlife Human resources


    Arts and Sciences areas Fine arts Humanities Mathematical sciences Natural sciences Physical sciences Social sciences




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