On gatekeeping and grading

Chad has a couple of interesting posts at Uncertain principles; one is on “gatekeeping”:

I think there is a legitimate need for something like the “gatekeeping” function in a lot of disciplines. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching introductory physics to would-be engineers and doctors, probably more time than I’ve spent teaching physics majors. I’ve also seen a lot of those intro students graduate with majors in something else, usually for good reason.

Particularly in the pre-med track, but also in engineering, you get a lot of students who are trying to pursue those majors for the wrong reasons. They’re pre-med because their parents want them to become doctors, or they’re engineering majors because they did well in science classes, but engineering seems more practical. These students might have the raw ability to be decent doctors or engineers, but they don’t know why they’re on those tracks.

The proper “gatekeeping” function of the introductory classes is not so much to weed out the “unfit” (though there’s a bit of that), but rather to select out those who are really interested in those subjects from those who are just stumbling along with no clear purpose. Many of those weeded out by the “gatekeeping” classes would be fine doctors or engineers, but they might be great linguists or economists or historians. Part of the purpose of “gatekeeping” classes is to make those students stop and think about whether they’re doing this because they really want to, or because they think they ought to.

This is, of course, no excuse for driving people out of their chosen career path by really bad teaching. I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about a faculty member who gave three dreadful lectures in the first week of a class, and came in the next Monday to find the class reduced by a third. “Still too many,” he said, and gave three more dreadful lectures. The next Monday, with half the initial number of students, he completely changed styles, and was interesting and engaging for the rest of the semester. While it’s occasionally tempting, that sort of thing is deeply irresponsible.

The real trick to these classes is to balance three competing goals: to cover the necessary fundamentals for the upper-level classes, to force students to think about whether they really want to pursue this major, and to be engaging enough to help everybody in the class learn what they need to know. It’s not easy to get them all right at the same time, but they’re all valid and important parts of the educational process.

The other is on grading:

My first few years teaching, I worried about this quite a bit. I talked to different faculty in the department about what they did, and to a few people in other departments. In my third year or so, though, I realized that it just didn’t matter.

The catalyst for this realization was a student who wasn’t happy with his grade. He’d been a decent student in the class, and I thought the grade I gave him was perfectly respectable, but he was hoping to go to med school, and thought he should’ve been a step higher.

I was bothered by this, because he had been a good student, so I went back and recalculated his grade using every one of the methods other people had told me about, from explicit numerical “curves” to setting the mean for the course at a target letter grade, and going one letter up or down for each standard deviation away from that mean. And every one of them came back the same way.

Take a look!

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