Friday, September 25, 2020

Georgetown's MSB Doesn't Want Us to Teach to Mastery

Georgetown's MSB usually has a mandatory curve. When I started here, most classes were curved to a maximum of a 3.33, though a few were allowed a 3.5 and a few others were capped at 3.0. A couple of years ago, we tried to get rid of the curve, but only succeeded in raising it to a 3.5 for all classes. The faculty recognize that the curve artificially lowers our students' grades compared to students elsewhere, and so deprives them of job and graduate school opportunities. They recognize that it creates a zero-sum competition among students which reduces cooperation. Their only real justification for the curve was to reduce disparities among faculty graders. Still, the curve remains.

However, when COVID-19 hit, we voted to suspend the curve while the students were at home/off-campus. As a result, I've been able to change my grading methods. Now, I'm "teaching to mastery". I allow students to resubmit work over and over until they get it right and get the grade they want. (I do tell them that there is an informal rule about being reasonable in their demands on my time and their own. But it hasn't been an issue.) So far, since March, it's working just as expected. Students pass in pretty good work most of the time, but if they don't get an A, I tell them what they need to do. They do it (usually very quickly) and get the A. 

The bummer is that when COVID-19 passes and Georgetown decides to fully open again (I suspect that will be around spring 2022 given that the university prioritizes lawsuit avoidance over everything else), I'll be forced to go back to not teaching to mastery. I'll have to ensure that I run my courses in a way where most students do pretty well but don't master the material or their assignments. Or, alternatively, I could have them master the assignments, but give some worse grades than others by simply using grades to rank them. 


As Phil and I document in Cracks in the Ivory Tower, there is no universal convention about what grades mean at the undergraduate level. While in law schools, everyone recognizes that grades are a shorthand internal ranking of the students, in undergraduate schools, what grades mean varies from course to course. We find there are at least 3 major kinds of meanings grades could have, and each of these 3 admits of at least 3 variations.