Friday, September 24, 2010

The Theory of Relativity

Friends, just like most of us, even I am not fascinated by the complexity of Science. So you can be rest assured that this post is not about scientific applications of the theory of relativity. But the essence is derived from it. That’s why this theory assumes so much importance as it touches us every day. Let’s explore how?

Einstein's theory of time and space, special relativity, proposed that distance and time are not absolute. The ticking rate of a clock depends on the motion of the observer of that clock; likewise for the length of a "yardstick.” So if you haven’t guessed yet, this post is about Relative Grading. A much used term in academic set up especially in the past few decades. As the common saying goes, “Nothing is absolute, everything is relative.”

This is how IITK introduces Relative Grading, “Many ideas and things were shipped from Washington DC to Kanpur. When a packet from one of these shipments was opened, a brilliant proposal of adopting "relative grading" emerged. And IIT Kanpur was amongst the first, in the country to adopt this relative method of evaluating performance.” Their inputs have been used in the following paras to shed more light on this topic.

So before we move ahead let’s define the two forms of grading i.e. Absolute and Relative. Absolute Grading was the traditional method of evaluating student performance. First of all, a student's performance in a course is quantified as a percentage of marks. Then absolute cut-off levels are used on the average of percentages of marks in all courses to summarise the overall performance of the student. The threshold levels are: First Class with distinction: >=75%, First Class: >60% and so on. The experts feel that ‘Absolute grading’ is convenient when the class size is large, e.g. a state university having over 1000 students in a particular class, though at different colleges. So even though students may be studying at different colleges, they share the similar facilities in terms of infrastructure and quality of instructors, and have a common syllabus and the same question paper.

Now let’s consider the Relative Grading format. Student performances are first quantified as marks. Then, the instructor assigns the following letter grades ranging from A, B, C or F and so on. The degree of difficulty in the various examination papers, the leniency exercised in giving partial credits for incomplete responses, and the instructors overall assessment of the student's understanding of the subject, form the input to awarding letter grades.

So let’s see some of the perceived benefits of this system:
·        It is more suitable for a dynamic environment where content and treatment of the subject keep changing.
·        It takes into consideration the variation in leniency of awarding marks, quality of instructors, level of toughness of the question papers and quality of the competing students.
·        It removes the fine edge of cut-throat competition for marks among students
·        The onus of assigning letter grades based on marks obtained lies on the instructor. Thus it makes them more responsible.

But does it solve all the problems. What about these?
·        The air of uncertainty puts too much pressure on the students as they are not sure of the grade bands. On the other hand, an idea of the "level" of the peers can result in students putting less effort than required. 
·        The movement from the percentage to the percentile setup is more of an attempt at making an already under-fire evaluation scheme look more authentic.
·        Some instructors in order to make it easier to award grades, set very tough questions. This is their way of differentiating. So the onus lies on the students rather than the instructors to prove themselves. It’s relative after all. 
·        To make matters worse, sometimes difficulty in awarding grades is considered while awarding marks as well. As a result differentiated marks are given for similar answers. 
·        You can be awarded an A even with 40% marks if the other students perform worse than you. What about the lack of understanding of concepts displayed by such low marks? Doesn’t the relative system hide such inefficiencies?
·        As is well known, there still is scope for too many As or Fs depending on whether we have a lenient or a strict instructor. Should there be a standard grading procedure or can we really have such a procedure?
·        Though experts recommend relative grading for the intra-college use but it is used to make comparisons among students across colleges say during recruitments or when applying for higher education. How does relative grading help in this case?
·        And what about RG giri? (RG giri, is when some students go out of their way to improve their grades vis-à-vis their competitors. As the common saying goes, “If you can’t surpass them, suppress them.”) It existed in the earlier setup as well but the situation is compounded in this case.
In a country like India that is marred by inequities in terms of quality of education, access to education or lacks even a standard syllabus or evaluation process, does relative grading really help? Is the US model once again failing in the Indian set-up? The absolute grading method was not a good one but the million dollar question is, does relative grading necessarily solve the problems? Or it localises the problem to an institute level? 

Hope to hear from you. Let's explore if things can be improved. 


  1. sir you are totally correct.this relative grading system is a tool to hide our we are not worried about getting some good knowledge from our education rather we are only doing useless competition.our aim is not to grasp the subject matter.we only want to excel more than other and thats why the quality of students are degrading most of the time.

    its a high time to do some serious introspection!

  2. Rightly said Avi,this set up is not working that's for sure. But do we have any better method? Or shall we limit the use of relative grading outside the institute? can we rather have a competency test for jobs or higher studies? after all grading that was different at macro level (university) has now percolated to micro level (college) with the relative setup.

  3. Should have researched on Grade Point Equivalence before lambasting Relative Grading.

    GPE = Actual Percentage/Grade Point Average and is the only connect between relative and absolute grading, hence the vitality while comparing.

    GPE serves as excellent purpose to justify the grades received by students in case it seems unfair compared to absolute grading.

    GPE can be greater than or lesser than Point Factor. Where Point Factor = 100/Max GPA possible.

    Eg. our college Point Factor = 10. GPE = 9.25. Hence the maximum marks that even a 10 pter can score is 92.5%

  4. Srinj, its not the same at IIMs. The marks bands for every grade is determined using the class score. Actual percentage isn't used while calculating your GPAs.
    And at best college level parity can be obtained using RG, what about inter-college? Diff. college have diff. point factors.
    My aim was to focus on the reasons given for implementing RG. There are enough reasons to justify that it's not as good an alternative, it is made out to be.
    If you feel that the reasons given by me against RG aren't justified, I welcome your comments. Do enlighten us.

  5. "And at best college level parity can be obtained using RG, what about inter-college? Diff. college have diff. point factors. "

    Yes, but different colleges also have different GPEs rite.

    Lets take an IIT and NIT with 10 point grading system (both of them).

    Of course it is theoretically easier to score a higher CGPA in a NIT than in an IIT. Hence for an IIT the GPE is 10 while for us its 9.25 because you are competing with a pool of students having better competing capability.

    So when we are applying to IIMs which require graduation percentages to be entered or a GPA converted into percentage is required. An 8 pter in an IIT is put at par with a 9 pter in an NIT.

    that is how GPE can be used to equate across different colleges.

    PS :- My focus was on varying GPEs across colleges and not point factors. I just illustrated a full case using point factors.

  6. Srinj, that's my point. You are assuming that all IITs have similar pool of students and same for the NITs. Are you sure that all NITs follow the same grading system vis-a-vis IITs? Can you equate a student from NIT X with that of NIT Y? Other question is how do you calculate the equivalent NIT CGPA of an IIT CGPA of 8? By your logic of "competing with a pool of students having better competing capability", shouldn't there be different GPE for different branches in an IIT or an NIT as you are taking the performance in the competitive exam to differentiate their abilities?

  7. Ok, one by one.

    "different GPE for different branches in an IIT or an NIT"

    No, because relative grading takes care of that. In case relative grading weren't there, we would end up with the topper of ECE and Civil respectively getting 66% and 86%.

    "Are you sure that all NITs follow the same grading system vis-a-vis IITs? Can you equate a student from NIT X with that of NIT Y?"

    No we cannot equate. But GPEs can be made to vary between NITs as well which can be the case if there are abnormalities in the GPAs recorded by students of a particular NIT.

    "how do you calculate the equivalent NIT CGPA of an IIT CGPA of 8"

    What I mentioned is just an example. The insti never arbitrarily arrives at 9.23s and 9.67s rite ? They of course have algorithms to determine the most ideal ratio.

    With Absolute grading, the problem gets more and more elevated at each stage. Tougher depts will have to be content with lower percentages and tougher marking regimes will yield disparities as well. Last but not the least, frugal-marking profs, tougher papers all will factor in once we switch back to absolute and make things as complicated and unfair as they once were.

  8. Srinj, a really informative reply. The discussion I want to ignite is not Relative Grading(RG) Vs Absolute Grading(AG). Rather the topic is RG per-se. My point is that RG is not as good a solution as it is made out to be. It may work at a micro level but at a macro level, its efficacy is questionable. It seems more of an extension of percentile method. A sample of complication: Even if I give you the list of marks obtained by all the students in a subject at IIM, you can't say with certainty who will be awarded what grade. In fact we have certain quota of grades which can't be exceeded. Thus differentiation is forced on the Profs as well. This in a way compromises with their academic freedom.
    Can you suggest a few improvements in the RG system? It would be a great value add indeed.

  9. It's confusing...