Receiving a shockingly low grade on an exam you truly worked hard for is as demoralizing a feeling imaginable. Rampant red pen stares back at you as you flip to the back page and face your humbling score. Feeling disappointed, insufficient or just plain angry are all common responses to this experience. After poring over textbook passages, notes and lecture slides and still coming up short, a student is robbed of their passion for the subject. Rather than seeing their hard work rewarded in a solid grade, they are left feeling uncertain about what more they can do to succeed.
Classes in which midterm and final exam grades hover around 50 to 60 percent as an average should reevaluate their methods in reaching students. A string of tests that bear these grades do nothing but stunt a student’s confidence in the subject. Generally, such test averages are characteristic of STEM oriented courses. Per the University of Wisconsin’s grade distribution database, mathematics classes showcase the general trend of lower “A’s” received, sometimes as low at 9.1 percent of students receiving such a mark, and a higher number of students receiving “BC’s” or “C’s”, sometimes as high as 29.5 percent of students receiving “C’s”.
It would be remiss to suggest that this pattern is absolute, and that students who study diligently for a subject are doomed from the start. Unfortunately, the issue is more nuanced. There will always be someone to argue that grade distribution is a direct reflection of a student’s willingness to apply the work and time necessary to receive an exemplary grade. While this assertion has truth to it, there is statistical evidence to suggest that classes may be to blame for low-grade averages.
According to a report of a decade-long experiment conducted by Princeton University, lopsided grade distribution may be as much the university and teaching staff’s responsibility as it is the student’s. The experiment was conducted as follows.
“In the course of its work, the committee sought broad input. We surveyed current faculty members and undergraduates, created a public comment website to elicit feedback from alumni and parents, and met with a range of administrators, faculty members, and students to discuss their perspectives on and experiences under the grading policy,” the report says.
Based on this holistic research, the report found that classes in the humanities averaged a much higher percentage of distributed “A’s” than did the average STEM class, sometimes by as sizable a margin as near 40 percent discrepancy.
This is the same case at UW, as classes in the humanities consistently rank higher in “A’s” distributed than do STEM courses. Per a column published by The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell, differences between grade distributions across subjects may have to with the nature of the field, but, perhaps more likely, the issue lies in the nature of the classes themselves.
“A cynic might argue that smaller departments that don’t focus on skills in high demand on the job market are trying to lure students in with easy grades. I think that’s part of the story. But I also think it has to do with the nature of the assignments used to determine grades, the typical size of classes, how specialized or advanced the work is and the composition of the students taking the classes,” she said.
What Rampell is eluding to is the fact that it’s more challenging to distinguish a higher or lower grade on a paper than it is to determine which multiple choice question was correct or incorrect on an exam. I do not believe that humanities classes are inherently easier than STEM courses, I feel that paints too broad a picture and generalizes a student demographic with different skillsets and passions. Rather, I believe that humanities classes are simply more adept at reaching their students, and STEM classes should reevaluate course tactics accordingly.
To assume that STEM classes can be made more understandable just by taking a page from the humanities playbook would be to drastically overlook the fact that the two areas of study are as far from similar as possible.
However, I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that STEM classes could implement strategies common in humanities courses in an attempt to make their course content more widely understood. Perhaps STEM courses could make real world and timely examples of course content more frequent, so as to diversify the forms the information takes. Perhaps STEM courses could provide students with a more open-ended opportunity to express their knowledge on exams and quizzes, rather than dominating them with multiple choice. Perhaps STEM courses could make the future prospects of their line of study known early on so as to interest students in the current matter as a means to an eventually rewarding end.
This line of suggestion is not to excuse poor grades that are given deservedly so and characterize them as a result of a simple pattern, rather this is a suggestion of how to better teach genuinely important information. Ideally, such modifications would make the given information stick more effectively and, as a result, average grades would rise with student satisfaction close behind.
Lucas Johnson ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism.