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.