Fairness in Grading: A Lesson by the Great Dijkstra

Fairness in Grading: A Lesson by the Great Dijkstra

In my another post “Beauty is Our Business: Mathematics and Dijkstra“, I describe how I came to be enrolled with Dijkstra at UT Austin in the course Capita Selecta and how he and his students understood the meaning of beauty and excellence. But, my intention of taking that course in the Fall of 1988, was not as much to study the course but to have a pretext of knowing the great Dijkstra. As described in that post, I used to spend more time observing Dijkstra than preparing for passing the course. To shield myself from any adverse grade by this guru of Computer Science, I had taken the course on a non-credit basis.

The start of each class session by Dijksta would often be with an abstract philosophical statement that he would write on the board followed by some explanation that was equally abstruse. May be I was trying too hard to connect that statement with the course contents or computer science and which it was not. I guess I was too dumb to understand this opening sentence and was too timid to raise my hand and ask him to explain; may be I was not sure whether I could not understand the statement because I had not thoroughly studied the given reading assignment or may be I had not carefully followed his previous lectures. I tried to play safe by keeping quiet and not asking, as most others in the class were also doing. This philosophical prelude would then be followed by the computer science related content of the course that focused on a systematic process through which statements of a computer program can be logically derived from the preceding ones.

Soon it was the end of the semester and I found that the final exam would just be a viva. Having delayed studying till the end, I somehow could not bring myself down to make that typical last lap run that I was used to doing. Hence, I walked into his room that morning totally unprepared and hoping that I would get lucky. He asked me to sit besides him on his working table, and then on a paper he wrote the first statement of an algorithm and asked me how could I derive the next step from that statement. I had no clue and I said that I did not know. He gave me one hint, then another hint and then a third one. When he did not get any reasonable response from me, he himself wrote down the second statement and explained how it was derived. Then he asked me, how can we derive the third statment from the second one. By this time, I was really embarassed and his calmness was making it more embarassing for me. He again gave a hint. When I did not budge, he gave another hint and then another. At last he himself wrote the third statement and explained how it was derived from the second one. By this time, I was sweating and was thoroughly uncomfortable. He repeated the process for the next statement. By then, I wanted to fly away or vanish or something. But, Dijkstra was supremely calm. He looked down at me and asked do we need to go further. I wanted to run away and escape. My facial expression must have told him that I need to be taken out of my misery. He looked at the student list and remarked. “Oh! You have taken this course on a credit/No-credit basis”. And, then making it still more uncomfortable for me, of all the people, he asked me “What grade do you think you should get”. I could not have said any thing but to mumble “I don’t deserve any credit”. So, he wrote down “No Credit”.

I cherish this “No Credit” from Dijkstra more than the scores of A’s that I have accumulated in my academic life. This was the first time in my life that I learned the lesson about what is meant by fairness in grading. Fairness in grading means that you enable the student to grade himself fairly as to what he deserves. Fairness means that we as teachers need to provide the student with all the opportunity, give him hints and even help him move forward, one step at a time. If the student has done his work and is prepared he would be able to move forward on his own. If he has not done the necessary preparation, he would realize where he stands. It is all about relying on how we grade ourselves. Not about how someone else grades me. It is about enabling ourselves to evaluate our selves. It is about self understanding and self analysis.

In my experience of the last eighteen years in higher education and most of it as academic head and as Dean, I have come across countless cases of students complaining about the grades. I have listened to the point of view of the faculty members and those of the students. Initially I used to hold the position that the students are often at fault and try to gang up against the teacher. Later on, based on my experience of investigation of several such cases I had come around full circle to taking any complaint about fairness of a faculty member very seriously. I now openly tell the students to file the complaint even anonymously and I would look at the issue. I have been involved in the design of several systems for ensuring transparency and fairness in grading. I have seen the vindictiveness of some teachers, I have seen the pressurizing by students, I have seen how the system creates its own unreasonable pressures, I have seen how the demands for grades by the industry has actually convoluted the entire system of grading. I have had a number of experiences in trying to resolve the issues related to fairness in grading.

I have now come to the conclusion and I concur with Alfie Kohn that the real issue of grading is not “how” but “why”!  [A must read link for anyone interested in this issue]

However, till such time that we can not do away with grading altogether we need to understand that fairness and transparency in grading means that the teacher is judging and hence must subscribe to the highest requirements of justice. That is, at the time of grading, a teacher is assuming the role of a judge and therefore grading becomes dispensing of justice. The process of grading is therefore more important than the grade itself, and consequently its foremost requirement becomes: “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. The second related requirement is that of “transparency” and open trial where the proofs should be publicly debated and are available to external scrutiny. On both of these accounts we often fail miserably.

Doing justice becomes really a tall order for a faculty member who has to mark hundreds of papers, assignments and quizzes in  a given term. How can one be fair in each of these markings. How can one fairly mark a subjective essay in a few minutes (in many cases a few seconds) so that the marks are fairly given according to the time and effort and output of each student. How does a teacher maintain consistency. When there are hundreds of scripts, the first few often get marked more stringently and later as the teacher realizes what the average class performance is, the grading starts improving. And, then there is the issue of the reasonableness of the question paper itself. How can you encapsulate the learning of the entire semester or year in a couple of hours. The whole system is masquerading as full of “objectivity” whereas it is not, it is subjective and arbitrary to the hilt. The whole concept needs to be considered abinitio. We must move from Degrading the students to De-grading as explained by Alfie Kohn.

About Dijkstra:

See also:


  1. In the last paragraph, while raising some questions, you did not come up with any solution to overcoming our existing system's limitations. How the assessment should be made keeping in view the current method of students' evaluation that is prevailing in our institutions, especially the public sector? You and I belong to the same society and we have been evaluated with the same criteria and style. Now, how to look for a pragmatic and "acceptable to all" solution?

  2. I think I made it amply clear, that the "real issue in grading is not how but why!" [with link to Alfie Kohn's paper]. The solution that you are looking for is given in the second link to Alfie Kohn's paper "From Degrading to De-Grading". There is no other solution except "Self Evaluation". Fairness requires teachers of stature like Dijkstra who have the patience to wait till the student can arrive at the determination of his own grade. Fairness requires this kind of flexibility to desing the paper and conduct exams in viva and modes other than exam hall time limited final paper, which the imperatives of "Weapons of Mass Instruction" a.k.a schools can never permit.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Dr Sb, you have highlighted a very pertinent issue. As a student of language assessment, I can relate my experience also. I have seen grading as a South Asian epitome of superfluous and pretentious assessment procedures required for evaluating the competence of hundreds of students in a week or two in a particular course in the institutions where the social elite study. You rightly used a keyword 'self-evaluation'. We as teachers and examiners must ask questions to ourselves that if we can really develop reliable and valid rating scales (i.e. rubrics) and use them in the given unique contexts of South Asia, if we really believe in time-sensitive assessment, if we can maintain inter-rater or intra-rater consistency (which is theoretically impossible), if an examination is a platform for a gain or a loss, if the criteria for a learner's evaluation needs to remain linear only, etc.

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