Monday, August 23, 2010

What Can Happen When A Professor Is a Tough Grader?

As another school year is kicking off on college campuses around the country, it might be a good time to look back at one of the strangest stories of the 2009-10 academic year.

It involves a thorny issue--grading--that always is front and center at colleges and universities.

A professor at Louisiana State University was removed last April from teaching an introductory biology class because of student complaints about her strict grading policy.

Dominique G. Homberger was removed from the course, and administrators raised student grades.

This kind of "inmates running the asylum" mentality appears to be increasingly common in higher education. I've heard about a case where a university instructor, who did not have tenure, was fired partly because of complaints that he was a tough grader.

But the LSU case shows that even tenured professors, such as Homberger, can run afoul of administrators when students squawk loud enough about grades.

Sources at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) tell Legal Schnauzer that President Carol Garrison sent word to faculty members that "student satisfaction" would be a key element in teacher evaluations.

That, of course, generates this question: Who is most likely to produce student satisfaction--(a) the teacher who gives high grades but maybe imparts little knowledge, or: (b) the teacher who is a tough grader but actually teaches students something?

At UAB, it apparently is better to be teacher "a." And the same now seems to hold true at LSU.

Homberger maintained her position and faculty status at LSU, but her removal from the course raised many eyebrows in higher education. Reports Scott Jaschik, at

To Homberger and her supporters, the university's action has violated principles of academic freedom and weakened the faculty.

"This is terrible. It undercuts all of what we do," said Brooks Ellwood, president of the LSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the Robey H. Clark Distinguished Professor of Geology. "If you are a non-tenured professor at this university, you have to think very seriously about whether you are going to fail too many students for the administration to tolerate."

While a high percentage of students were failing in the early portion of the course, Homberger said many were making progress, and she accounts for improvement in final grades:

At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said.

"I believe in these students. They are capable," she said. And given that LSU boasts of being the state flagship, she said, she should hold students to high standards. Many of these students are in their first year, and are taking their first college-level science course, so there is an adjustment for them to make, Homberger said. But that doesn't mean professors should lower standards.

Interestingly, Homberger got into trouble because she was trying to be helpful within her department:

Homberger said that she has not had any serious grading disputes before, although it's been about 15 years since she taught an introductory course. She has been teaching senior-level and graduate courses, and this year, she asked her department's leaders where they could use help, and accepted their suggestion that she take on the intro course.

In discussions with colleagues after she was removed from the course, Homberger said that no one has ever questioned whether any of the test questions were unfair or unfairly graded, but that she was told that she may include "too many facts" on her tests.

She included "too many facts" on her tests? Apparently, we mustn't have college-level instructors who deal in facts. What does this say about the importance of learning on U.S. campuses? Writes Jaschik:

Homberger said she was told that some students had complained about her grades on the first test. "We are listening to the students who make excuses, and this is unfair to the other students," she said. "I think it's unfair to the students" to send a message that the way to deal with a difficult learning situation is "to complain" rather than to study harder.

How long will it be before a grading controversy becomes a major story in the 2010-11 school year? I'm betting it doesn't take long.

1 comment:

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