On Grades

This is a prescriptive handout: for more on grades in general, consult the webpage at http://www.math.usf.edu/~mccolm/pedagogy/GRADElong.html.

It is extremely difficult to learn without getting feedback. Hence we have a feedback cycle that works like this:

  • You put what you learn into a compact performance, like the answer to an exercise.
  • You present this performance to a professional evaluator, who tells you how you did.
By going through this cycle repeatedly, you gradually learn how to do performances well, and eventually master whatever it is you are trying to learn.

Note that the grade is not an evaluation of you as a person, nor is it a reward that you earn: it is merely an evaluation of one of your performances. It is very difficult to look at a grade objectively, but that is what you have to do: look at a grade as niether success nor failure, but only as more data. By looking at the evaluation, you can see what you do understand, and how well and at what level you understand it.

There are several problems with grades. Since there is little standardization, it may not be that clear how you did.

  • In large classes, it is very good to be well above the median (the median is the score such that half the class got below the median and half above), while it is not good to be well below the median: in large classes, it helps to know what the median is. If your professor doesn't tell you, ask.
  • In small classes, the median doesn't tell you much. So it helps to ask the professor. It never (hardly ever) hurts to see professors anyway: it shows them that you care about your performance.
But in the long run, grades do tell you what you are good at and not good at; where you are doing well and where you need improvement.

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