In many disciplines, grading is arbitrary. We have all had the experience of having a professor or a teacher whose grading scheme was a black box. This is an archaic problem that has been passed on through generations of traditional educational models. Transparency in evaluation of student work is an important tenet of my teaching best practices.
Assessment of certain assignments lend themselves very well to objective criteria. In most multiple choice exams, the answer’s usually clear. The discrete nature of right and wrong lends itself well to grading. But as we all know, multiple choice exams aren’t necessarily the best way of assessing student learning (also not necessarily the worst). Even short answer questions in biology or multi step physics problems can introduce potential qualitative judgments that an instructor needs to make. Do I give credit for an answer that does not show work? How much “work” is enough for credit? Was the answer precise enough? In most of these assessment methods, a gradient of answer quality exists.
It is the duty of the instructor to be impartial to the students. In addition, I consider assessment to be an ongoing conversation between students and teachers, and in every classroom situation I’ve been in, I’ve tried to foster that environment. This is particularly difficult in an educational system that is structured around GPAs and grades, with students who have worked not to maximize their understanding but often have learned only how to optimize their grade with a Least Effort Approximation.
It is imperative for teachers to be open with their students about what they are looking for. The standards should be loose enough to allow for students to show the quality of their learning on any given task. In other words, tasks should be meaningful. Students will understand expectations better, and teachers are able to explain grades clearly when these guidelines are set. Controversy will undoubtedly exist, even with transparency, but at least everyone will be arguing on similar grounds, which unfortunately does not occur with most methods of evaluation.
If nothing else, teachers should be aware of the problem created by arbitrary assessment and opacity. I doubt I’ll be able to ever fully convince “old model” teachers to ever fully embrace openness with students, but that problem is independent of the arbitrary grading problem, which is a serious problem that probably affects most teachers — and all of their students.