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Students concerned about low graders as final tests approach

April 30, 2004

Taking Zoology 489? Take it easy - the entire class received a 4.0 last term.

Sitting in Economics 201? You might want to pick up the book - last fall, the average grade was a 2.87.

Blowing off Hospitality Business 302? Drop this newspaper now. Head to the library. You are in last semester's toughest course - more than half of the students earned a 1.5 or lower.

With finals week quickly approaching, many students on campus are growing apprehensive about their grades. If last fall's grades are any indication, however, students might not have to stress out.

A State News computer analysis of fall 2003 grade data in classes taken by at least 20 students showed that in 33 percent of courses, the average grade was a 3.5 or higher. In fact, in 31 classes, every grade was a 4.0.

That record is not much consolation for students grappling with some of the university's toughest classes.

Electrical engineering sophomore Jennifer Kelly muttered an expletive when she found out the average grade last fall in Assistant Professor Casim Abbas' Math 133 class was a 2.16. Kelly is taking Abbas' 133 course.

"It is intimidating," Kelly said. "This is one of the more challenging classes I've taken. It's the first time I've been scared going into the final."

Kelly said she is annoyed that other university classes seem to hand out 4.0s at a more frequent rate than many of her courses.

"I definitely think electrical engineering has more challenging classes," she said. "But it is worth it because I enjoy what I am doing."

MSU officials say they are monitoring the disparity of grades across the university and the relatively high marks that are given.

The abundance of classes yielding an average grade above a 3.5 might be a reflection of the higher achieving students that come to MSU now, compared to those who attended in decades past, said June Youatt, assistant provost of undergraduate education.

But Youatt said she would like faculty to consider a few factors that might affect grading on campus, such as: Does assessment style challenge higher achieving students? Are grading scales consistent? Does extra credit allow poor-performing students to still achieve good grades?

"I don't think we would ever try to urge faculty to grade to bell curve," she said. "We do ask the faculty to make best objective assessment."

Some MSU faculty members say their students earn the top marks. Music Professor John Madden, who handed out 66 4.0s to 66 students in Music 119 last term, said music scholars are among the most committed on campus.

Seven of the instructors whose classes averaged a 4.0 taught a 100-level music course.

Madden said grades in such classes are mostly based on attendance and attitude. And, he added, "It is not optional to attend."

While skipping a typical lecture class might hurt only that student, Madden said "if only five of six trombone players show up, it hurts everybody's ability to make music, to improve and to grow."

Others at the university would like to see fewer high marks given. International retailing/merchandising management Professor Brenda Sternquist said when most students receive 4.0s and 3.5s, grades become meaningless.

In the fall, Sternquist's International Retailing course, HED 465, had an average grade of 2.17. More than a third of the students received a 1.5 or below.

"Who it hurts is the really good students," she said. "They feel frustrated and anxious that they work so hard and other people get the same grade."

Hospitality business Professor Ray Schmidgall, the instructor of last fall's lowest-graded course, HB 302, and the second-lowest grader on campus, said his grades are fair because students are made aware of his scale on the first day of class.

Last fall, the average grade in HB 302 was a 1.47. Schmidgall said some students might have stopped attending class, thus received a 0.0. Schmidgall doesn't curve his class, setting 90 percent as a 4.0 and 60 percent as the lowest, a 1.0.

He said the grades communicate the student's knowledge on the subject to both the pupil and perspective employers.

"A student who earns a 4.0 knows at least 90 percent of the material in my class," he said. "I don't give grades ? students earn them."

Some students facing challenging finals say they are in no mood for tougher graders.

Standards for a 4.0 "could be a little lower, so that more people get better grades," prenursing freshman Hollie Lorenz said as she read a newspaper before her Biological Sciences 111 class. Lorenz said she is not surprised that BS 111 students averaged a 2.20 last fall - the 10th lowest on campus.

"It is jumpy - you do well on one exam and then bomb the next," she said. Lorenz said she is not looking forward to the "crazy" final. Her professor promised an exam featuring the most missed questions from previous tests.

"She said she wants to make it very challenging," Lorenz said.

Lorenz did have a word of advice for future BS 111 students: "I recommend not taking it if you don't have to."


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