In Response to: A Combustible Mix 

I was a full-time tenure track (tenured in 1982) professor for 40 years at research one public universities. I puzzled over grading for nearly all of those years. The questions raised by the article are: “Should students be expected to meet a professor’s standards or the reverse? And should grades represent whether students learned the material or how hard they tried?”

Most of the classes I taught were required for departmental majors. Required in the sense that my colleagues who taught subsequent courses expected students competent in the content of the requisite courses. I submit that the answer to the article’s first basic question (including for organic chemistry — without question the most demanding course I took as an undergraduate) is: You bet students should be expected to meet the professor’s standards. Rare is the student who comprehends what they should learn as well as the experienced professor (whose standards likely are expected by colleagues, not simply his or her sole creation) does.

It’s mathematically impossible for everyone to be above average. Hence, roughly half of every class is filled by students who do less well than the majority of their peers. Those students commonly lament “but I worked really hard.” I learned in freshman physics that “work” is a measure of output (result), not how much energy (effort) was expended. Students usually do not like hearing that if there is a 1-ton weight in front of them and they struggle mightily to move it without success, they’ll be tired, but will not have accomplished any work.

If grades mean anything at all (and apart from everything else, they may not), then they must indicate that learning has taken place. Trying alone has no sustaining value.

As an undergraduate I assumed that the oft repeated “an C at Princeton is an A anywhere else” was simply hubris. However, my repeated experience after graduation was that statement is true more than not. In short, grading has no underlying scale. It simply isn’t realistic to compare grades from one institution to another and probably not from one department to another either (an A in physics means something different than an A in poetry). There have been a number of studies undertaken to understand what grades correlate with. I haven’t surveyed the field entirely, but my understanding is that grades predict only other grades.

For the last third of my career, the distribution of my grades tended to match the distribution of my colleagues. I explicitly told my students “In three years, no one will care what I thought (what grade I assigned), but they are likely to care whether you learned anything.” I did the best I could assigning grades that indicated the degree that students demonstrated mastery of the course material, but I suspect that the correlation was somewhat less than 1 to 1.

I do sympathize with students who are confronted with graduate school admissions that insist on high GPAs leading to a focus on competing for a relatively meaningless score card rather than on learning to think well and solve relevant problems. I think NYU made a serious misstep that undermines the institution’s integrity by attending to the wrong problem in the case of Professor Jones. His standards probably are the best measure available of the world his students will graduate into.

Murphy Sewall ’64
Windham, Conn.