Must a professor grade his students?

On December 10th 2008, Denis G. Rancourt, a full professor in Physics at the University of Ottawa was banned from his campus. Why? Because he refused to grade students:

Problems between university brass and Rancourt began eight months ago when he gave every student in his physics class an A+ after he was denied permission to make the course pass or fail. (University of Ottawa bans controversial professor)

In my courses, you tend to either flunk or pass with flying colors. And I have a reputation for making difficult courses. I never thought of making my courses pass/fail, but I guess it could be a good idea. Students, instead of focusing on the damn grade, might pay more attention to the course content.

My experience in graduate school has been that an A is the passing grade, and a B is a polite way to fail you. As a Mathematics student at the University of Toronto, I was under the impression that you either got an A or dropped out of the course. I never cared much for grades anyhow. Which is not to say that you should not measure accomplishments! You must! But I never felt that my job was to provide student rankings.

Anyhow, what about academic freedom? I guess we still have to fight for it.

Further reading: Dismissing critical pedagogy: Denis Rancourt vs. University of Ottawa

Source: Stephen Downes

Daniel Lemire, "Must a professor grade his students?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 13, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

12 thoughts on “Must a professor grade his students?”

  1. Letter grades are a recent invention. When Jonathan Edwards was president of Princeton, he wouldn’t have understood what an “A” student was. The best students distinguished themselves by what classes they took and by the recommendations of their professors.

  2. How many people know what their family doctor’s GPA was in med school? I personally don’t know any of my co-workers GPA’s, however I do know what degrees most of them have. In the end I don’t think the grades received in class carry much weight (though after reading your comments Daniel I had to look back and see if I got an A in your graduate class).

  3. I’d prefer to see professors not grade their students at all. Let someone else to the assessment; a professor’s job is to teach.

    Beyond that, I am a fan of absolute rather than relative grading. It doesn’t have to be a single pass-fail threshold; different thresholds could correspond to different levels of competence. I don’t care that the student fared better than some fraction of his or her peers.

    Even if there is competition, it’s nice for the absolute scores to be meaningful. e.g., the Math Olympiad.

  4. If grades are needed, professors shouldn’t have to do it. Actually professors are like schizophrenic people :

    1. Teach
    2. Grade

    I’am not sure that teaching and grading shoudl be practised by the same person.

  5. I don’t see much difference in the grades when it comes to graduate education. Though someone may obtain an A due to the excellent “performance” or “achievement”, graduates would be “expected” to excel in their studies. So, should a professor grade the students. I think it depends.
    First, if the university stipulates it as a requirement, there are standards to be achieved, not just pass or fail. This may also be the expectation of the employers and government. Second, in some countries, the grading of subjects in the graduate courses are under A, B, C etc. and most students are expected to achieve those standards before they could be awarded the postgraduate degree. Again, if professors are not to grade them, who are the ones doing that? Third, I am interested in understanding the grading system in Canada, i.e. A is a “pass” normally, and B is “marginal pass”, really interesting. This to me sounds good in that every student is motivated to learn, not so much for the grade in accordance to a typical assessment. Will this be similar to the competent/not yet competent concept under competency based training and assessment? My interpretation is: If one is competent, he/she is 100% competent, not 50%. For a surgeon, competency means that he/she can perform the surgery to the standard 100% of the time required. Otherwise it is 100% failure. Isn’t it?
    Finally, I think this is a complicated issue and cannot be judged solely from an educator’s point of view. It depends on the context, the grading and accreditation system of the course, the expectation of the students and employers, and most importantly, the educational value out of such grading.
    I have made some comments on the grading in my post of in the response to Maru’s post.
    Many thanks for your insight to this important area.

  6. Let’s get this straight: Rancourt is upset because his employer wants him to do the job he is paid for? Give me a break…

    You want to change the system, do it through the proper channels. You want to behave however you like with no consequences, don’t expect a university paycheck.

  7. There are schools that use written evaluations, rather than grades (UW goes to the other extreme, with decimal grades — yes, faculty are expected to assign grades with a precision of 0.1 out of 4.0).

    On the other hand, I don’t agree that competency is either 100% or 0%. Competency is a continuum; even among surgeons, there will be those who can do an operation and do it infrequently and those who do it every day (or even multiple times per day). The latter have better patient outcomes.

    Finally, if you don’t give grades, and your school isn’t small enough for you to give personalized evaluations of students, then they will have problems with grad school, jobs, etc. The rest of the world has an interface that academia has to teach to.

  8. Hi,
    I was one of the student in Rancourt’s class. PHY4770 Quantum Mechanics.
    We were the ones who made letters of complaint to the administration about him not because of the grading but because he would not teach his course.
    In the mechanic class I learned about: his grievances, what is motivation, Palestine-Israel conflict, ect….
    We asked him numerous times to teach mechanics class and he refused and THAT is the reason why we complained.
    This class was a prerequisite to graduate so you had no choice but to take it. Also he took attendance forcing to come listen to everything accept what the class should have been.
    I’m now in master’s and I have to take advance Quantum Mechanic and I’m screwed because I have no basis.

    Is it fair to me?

  9. P.S.

    is it okay for him to do that?
    I think not and tenure should not be something you hide behind why you do arm to your students like he did.
    did he deserve to get fired?
    I think yes.
    I wrote this because we wanted to be anynomous but this his getting out of hands. Because people think he got fired for a different pedagoligy when i fact he got fired because he didnt have none at all.
    thanks for your time

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