A conversation on blind grading began over the weekend as comments to an unrelated post. I am moving the conversation to its own post so that this valuable discussion does not get lost.
The comments raised two different but related issues: (1) Is blind grading a myth? and (2) Why do professors grade participation? I'm going to address these questions in reverse order because the second question has the shorter answer.
Why do I grade participation? Grading participation is an administrative hassle, but this year I have chose to include participation in the final grade as a "carrot." The one thing that professors want is an active class. I want students to read the material, come to class, and talk about the material. I want volunteers and I want students to answer my questions when I call on them. I don't even care what your answer is. I am not in love with the sound of my own voice (for many reasons!) and I abhor that Ferris Bueller silence ("Anyone, Anyone?") I also hate it when I call on students and they read out of the book. So, I can try to achieve my classroom goals in many ways. First, I could have an attendance policy and reduce your grade if you don't show up. That's a stick. Instead, I use a carrot. I will raise your grade if you suit up and show up. In practice, it may work like a stick. If the whole class except one comes to class and participates, then effectively the no-show's grade is reduced because everyone else's grade benefits.
Is Blind Grading a Myth? No. I have been teaching since 1998, and I have never seen any evidence that any professor graded exams on any other basis than blind. Yet, this perception still continues among students. I'm not sure if there is anything that I can add to dispel that misperception, but I'll try. First, I think this perception is based on an assumption that the professor has either an intense like or dislike for another student that would trump that professor's own good judgment. To give a biased grade, a professor would have to be willing to put his or her own career at stake to either benefit or abuse a student to the tune of a few credit hours of a total of 90-100 credit hours. I can't imagine that the enormous cost would justify the small benefit. Absent an inappropriate romantic relationship, a professor has too many students over the course of a career to become so passionate about one student's situation to get involved in that manner.
Second, I also think that the elusive quality of grades, especially first-year grades, leads students to latch on to bias as a factor in grades. Unlike in undergraduate courses, grades in law school do not equate neatly to effort. As you sit in your first-year Torts class, you guess who will do well based on who seems to study the most. You gauge your own studying accordingly. However, the resulting grades surprise everyone. How did the professor grade these exams? As students struggle to make sense in a world that seems more arbitrary every minute, law students seem to subscribe to either a chaos theory of throwing the exams down the steps or a bias theory of nonanonymous grading. (We were convinced our Crim Law teacher randomly assigned grades.)
Because it is too unwieldy for professors to hold after-exam rap sessions where the professor explains why each student received each grade, there is a gap in the information. Neither students nor professors are very good at guessing who will get the top scores in their classes because most exams are written to grade application, not information-gathering, and the ability to apply knowledge is not readily recognizable until the exam. I know that last semester, I was surprised by the top-scorers in my Torts class.
Finally, once students are willing to consider that the professor was biased in the grading, students may point out that some high-scorers were students that the professor called on in class a lot or were talking to the professor after class. The cause and effect part of the scenario is not: Student A talks to Professor B after class a lot/Professor B gave Student A a high grade/Professor B plays favorites. The cause and effect part is probably: Student A really likes Torts and understands it/Student A wants to ask questions that are beyond the class discussion, so Student A talks to Professor B after class/Student A gets a high grade in Professor B's class/Student A has an aptitude for analyzing the rules and policy of Torts law.
Professors are human. We like students who like us. We call on students who raise their hands. We go back to students who give good answers and do the reading. We like to chat after class with students who are interested in the material. However, we do not take actions to ensure that those students will get good grades.
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