Le Bron and Grades

March 21, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve never used those percentages in grading – you know, 94% is an A, 82% is a B– and so on. Eighty-two percent of what, I wonder, especially on essays? The percent may be just the same subjective judgment of an essay, but one that makes it seem more precise and objective. You can’t argue with numbers. 

I do use points – a point for each multiple-choice or short answer, so many points for a short essay, more for a long essay – to weight different parts of the exam. But I don’t use a standard formula for converting exam scores to letter grades. Instead, I adjust my own idea of what the grades should be to the actual distribution of scores in the class.

I explain this on the first day of class, and I post a document (“How I Grade”) on Canvas at the start of the semester, but apparently neither of those is very convincing. Students see their scores on Canvas, which also converts these to percents. The student who sees 55% on Canvas comes to class convinced it’s a failure. Even when I give them my own number-to-letters conversion for the exam, some remain skeptical. It’s as though I were singing my own made-up lyrics to some well-known song. They hear, but deep down they know, “Those aren’t the real words.”
I came up with a new strategy this week when I gave back the midterms. “Who’s the best basketball player in the NBA?” I asked. Everyone knew: LeBron James.

“What’s LeBron’s field-goal percentage?” The few students who had some idea lowballed it, guessing 40-45%. “Actually, he’s having a good year,” I said. “He’s hitting about 55%.” Then. “So I guess that means LeBron gets an F in basketball.”

That analogy may have done the trick – that, plus a letter grade that was higher than what they had expected.

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