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Postre: Education: Teaching in Tirana (Tom Hashimoto, Japan/Albania) (John Eipper, USA, 08/08/10 5:28 am)
Tom Hashimoto writes:
JE asked for my report from Tirana, and Randy Black wrote about his personal experiences on grade inflation on August 7th.
At our university, a curve is not encouraged, as some classes have only 5 students.
(For those who do not know where I am working, I work for an American private university in Albania. We teach almost all courses in English and the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] is required prior to admission.)
Generally, courses taught by part-time faculty tend to have a high portion of A's. Conventional wisdom is that they try to score high on student evaluations. That said, students are not so stupid. Some instructors who give up tons of A's sometimes receive low scores on student evaluations. Getting an easy A by sitting hours and hours of boring classes is not what they paid for.
I have been teaching here in Tirana for 5 semesters including summer. In each regular semester, I have 3-5 courses, all for undergraduates. Many of them I taught repeatedly, in which case, I assigned similar materials and gave the exams with similar difficulty each time. The results are different. In one case, I had 25% A's with 25% D's and F's altogether. The same course, a semester later, had almost 50% A's! This was because, in the latter case, almost all the students knew each other and studied together: their exams were impressive.
Of course, I was expecting some noise from the administration, so I went to the Head of the Department with few sample exam answers and asked his opinion. He seemed to be surprised about the number, but he thought we should not penalize students who study hard. Both of us agree that students should learn something from exam preparation, and when exam is easy, it is instructor's fault. We also agree that when students studied and yet failed the course, instructors did not fully "teach" the subject. Ideally, students fail themselves if they are lazy, and get rewarded for their hard work. Thus, senior courses can have high percentage of good students while freshman courses are widely distributed.
After all, a grading curve seems to be an easy solution from administrative point of view. A systematic approach rather than a case-by-case approach is often objective and well-regarded. That said, being myself a student not so long ago, I disagree with curving down. When the exam is easy, it is instructor's fault. The exam should be the right difficulty for the expected level of students. On the other hand, when the exam is too difficult, it is also instructor's fault. This time, the grade should be curved up.
The best grading system I had when I was in college was the above combination. In a Macroeconomics class, the mid-term was so difficult, all of us scored between 0-70%. The score was curved up. Then, the final was relatively easy because all of us studied hard. We eventually ended up in a normal distribution, and no one complained.
JE comments: I see Tom Hashimoto is learning the trick of the veteran teacher: make the first examination very hard, both as a wake-up call and a motivator. (For some students this can have a non-motivating effect, however.) Subsequent hourly examinations can be easier--it gives students a sense of accomplishment, and creates a better environment in the classroom.