What do grades mean? 

My time as a full-time student brought the worst set of results I have ever received over the past few years, and the irony of the situation was not lost on me, even as I was feeling lousy over this rather bemusing episode.

The semester started innocuously enough, with an enthusiastic instructor who told many long and winding stories from the Chinese literary canon, touching obligely and infrequently on translation techniques. Going through the material provided, I wondered if I were reading Introduction to Chinese Literature instead of Chinese-English Translation of Literary Works. No doubt though about our instructor’s credentials; she is effectively bilingual and passionately knowledgeable about Chinese literary works, a freelancer who specialises in translating movie dialogue into subtitles. However, she is perhaps not the best person to teach this particular class.

When my first assignment was returned, the marks awarded were slightly lower than what I was used to receiving. While the instructor emphasized that she was being very lenient in the grading, she was unable to convince me, either through in-class error analysis or written feedback on my script, that she awarded more marks than my answers deserved. In fact her skimpy feedback offered little insights as to how I could improve my craft. However, I decided not to pursue it, ‘well trained’ by the system to know that sometimes we do well and sometimes we don’t. I went along with this attitude till my second assignment was returned.

I received pretty awful results for my second assignment and I was generally too depressed to scrutinize how it was assessed, until a classmate asked if I also failed the translation analysis question. Now, how could anyone fail an analysis question unless one totally misread the question or the text. So I went to check my script and, lo and behold, I did fail that question, awarded 5 out of 15 marks for my 2-page response. How could this be?

When I met up with my classmate to compare our answers and the marks awarded, we found that for another analysis question, even though we raised the same points but in different languages – we were allowed to answer in either English or Chinese – we were given different scores, with me receiving the shorter end of the stick. This led to our mutual decision to write to our instructor for clarification.

Our instructor took some time to get back to us, and when she did, her response baffled me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry, reading her reply to my email. She prefaced her response with the following: “First of all, you impressed me with your good command of English and your strong research ability. I learnt a lot from your paper.” I appreciate her gesture to affirm but at the same time, I was baffled as I was insulted. The given task required that I analyse a literary extract, which was what I did; and that was why I took offence, for she seemed to be insinuating that I plagiarised my paper (inferred from “strong research ability”), Furthermore, I have no idea what she learnt from my analysis or response, but I do know for a fact that this was the response she awarded a fail grade. Talk about irony, eh.

Taking a deep breath, I read on… Among other things, I was told “maybe there are many aspects of translation differences we can discuss about, but which is the most important one? which part is translated well by one translator but neglected by the other 2?” It took me a while, but I eventually figured out that for this instructor, she had model answers for this analysis questions – 3 points to be exact, 5 marks per point. As I only addressed one of the 3 ‘correct’ answers in my response, I was awarded 5 marks. Whether I made sense for the other parts of my analysis did not matter. Frankly, when I understood this to be her stance, I was indignant, for this began to feel like a let’s-read-the-examiner’s-mind task rather than an analysis task.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it; you can decide for yourself, as I am going to reproduce the task prompt here: “Criticize the translations of the following underlined excerpts … The analysis requires you to examine the principles and guidelines in translating fictional prose. You may answer in English or Chinese. Each analysis should not exceed 500 words in English or 800 characters in Chinese.

There is more I could say but I shall refrain as I am writing this not to complain about my instructor, but to really reflect on the meaning of grades. When I escalated this matter upward, I made it very clear to the administrators that I respect and honour the instructor’s decision. Even though she has singlehandedly demolished my hope of graduating with a first class honours, I did not request for a re-marking. Because the point is not about getting a better grade, but did that particular response deserve a fail grade, and if the assessment stance taken was fair.

I made a case because I cannot agree with such a position – that you mark a literary analysis question with a closed answer scheme, refusing to consider other possibilities. I am well aware that I have no influence over the system, but since when have you seen me back down without putting up a fight? *Grin*

This episode also got me thinking, was I being a poor sport, using rhetoric to mask my disappointment of a poor grade? Truth be told, I am not unfamiliar with poor grades, receiving my fair share in Year 1 and Year 2 of this programme. I remembered whining for a quite a while to my long-suffering friends, but that was about all I did. In those instances, even while I disagreed with the instructor’s assessment philosophy, their stance was tenable and they did have a point, which was why I generally took the marks and adapted my work to align with these instructors’ expectations. Even so, I still did not do as well as I would like to, but I was not half as upset as I was by this.

Unhappy as I was, this episode was valuable for me as an educator. As I was receiving grades that made me howl from this university, I was awarding grades at another where I am currently an adjunct faculty. My frustration at the lack of feedback on how to improve made me more conscious about giving task specific feedback, pointing out to students, at least one or two aspects that they could work on that would improve the quality of their work. I also made it a point to clarify my expectations before each assignment, sending ahead the assessment rubrics so that students have a clear idea how they would be assessed and what they should be focusing on.

Why do I do that? Because grades are important. Grades tell me whether my effort is being rewarded, and if not, is an indicator for me to review my direction, whether it be writing style or point of view or logic. Grades tell me whether I am meeting my instructor’s expectations or not, and to what extent. Grades also tell me where I stand among my classmates, through which I can begin to guess the class of honours that I would most likely be graduating with. For students, grades can be a matter of life or death, make or break a person, even though logically we know that grades are overrated. We can cite plenty of articles about how employers prefer well-rounded individuals and wax lyrical about a balanced student, but I think we are still living in an era where grades are of primacy, particularly if you are a fresh graduate looking for your first job.

As an educator and a life-long learner, I am of the view that grades on their own are meaningless. For example, I received a B for x assignment. Sure, but this B does not tell me why not a B+ or an A-, or tell me what can I do to get that B+ or even an A-? I would only be able to find out all these if the instructor gave qualitative feedback. Yet, we all know, whether we are teachers or students, that qualitative feedback unaccompanied by grades, also do not carry much weight… The more I think about this, the more I think we are caught in a bind, and I too am at a loss.

Truth be told, even now, I still don’t know what grades really mean. I can only hope that coupled with quality feedback, they would be meaningful in guiding student learning and help to improve student learning outcomes.

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