Final Grades, Or All Our Children Are Slightly Above Average

Grading 640

There they sit, the last stack of student papers, all graded, and I am now filling out the form to submit my course grades for my second semester course, US History, to the Scolarité office at the Faculté des Sciences Humaines. Interesting that here, as at Clackamas, History is part of Social Sciences.

The class used the normal assessment structure here at Université Professeur Joseph Ki-Zerbo, which is a comprehensive exam, reported on earlier, and a group presentation. The group presentations were somewhat unsatisfying. I knew going in that there would be no way that I could distinguish who had actually done the work in the groups. I asked the students originally to give me a list of who did what but what they all ended up doing was having each student read a paragraph or two of the finished product, claiming that portion as their own. It was often pretty clear that the person reading had never seen that text before the moment they stepped on stage, but having no way to assess this for sure I could only give a collective grade to the entire group. There was a certain amount of correlation between exam scores and group presentation scores, but often within a group there would be a couple of members who had miserable exam scores. I felt bad about giving those students credit for work that was most likely done by their more gifted or hard-working teammates, but any attempt to do so would only introduce more elements of unfairness.

A couple of group projects were also pretty clearly cut-and-paste jobs, often, I believe, from high school textbooks. One paper, on the American experience in World War 1, launched midway through into a detailed discussion of the American presence in La Rochelle, France, a port on France’s Atlantic coast that the Americans used as a logistical base. It wasn’t even the most important American rear-area base, that was Le Havre on the English Channel. But for some reason, this group felt the need to stick in several pages, almost certainly cribbed from some local history of the town they found in some library somewhere. The text didn’t come from the Internet as far as I could tell. There were a number of other presentations that seemed suspiciously well-written, but some of my students are quite bright and so I didn’t feel I could jump to any conclusions. Plagiarism is in some ways easier here because few students have access to the Internet. Therefore, they have to copy from books and books are harder to find if you are one professor trying to grade almost 400 people. Also, I’m not entirely familiar with the culture around plagiarism in this world; I know where I work in Oregon we have a lot of Latino students who have an experience of looser standards around plagiarism and we always have to be really careful to tell them what we don’t want them to do. So I didn’t bring the hammer down as I would have in an American class. I just graded them down for poor analysis and organization.

That said, a couple of the presentations were very well done. I had one group give me a very sensible analysis of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks. They had read the 9/11 Commission Report, and commented on it. They had even gone and found a Homeland Security study done around 2010 that discussed DHS’s implementation of the Report; a sort of defense of American security systems and policy. They had a lot to say about the tradeoff between security and the smooth functioning of an open society that seemed well thought out. In free discussion, most members of the group answered questions in ways that led me to believe that all, or most of them at any rate, had actually thought about the subject and read at least some of the sources. If those folks go on to be public servants, cops, or teachers here I think Burkina Faso will be well-served.

The oral presentation grades were higher than the exam grades, by design. Anybody who is willing to get up in front of a crowd of their fellow students and talk deserves some credit just for that. In addition, these folks are mainly being trained to be secondary school teachers, so they should know how to face a hostile crowd. The lowest grade you could get on the presentation was a 10; I gave out a number of 10s, including for the aforementioned paper on World War 1 with the long cribbed section.

The presentation grade was half the total course grade if you did a presentation; otherwise your grade was based on your exam score alone. A total of 382 students ended up getting grades in the class: 379 took the exam, of those 35 did not participate in group presentations, and three people gave presentations but did not take the exam (so I gave them half the presentation grade as their course grade – they may have dropped out after giving the presentation). The outcome should please opponents of grade inflation: the average grade was 10.27 out of 20.

Among 52 people that I could positively identify by their names as women, the average grade was 10.52. Women are still very much in the minority among university students here, as I think is probably the case throughout Africa. The ones who get here have run a huge gauntlet of sexist assumptions and alternative life choices being urged on them. Therefore, it is no surprise that this Darwinian winnowing has left only the strongest standing. Strongest will doesn’t necessarily mean best mind, but determination will get you a long way.

So, anyway, on Monday I will go down to drop off my grades. This will not completely end my association with Ki-Zerbo U. There is something called the “session”, which is a second chance that the university gives to students who manage to flunk their exams during the school year. They average out all the student’s grades for the school year. If he or she gets an average of below 10, they have flunked the school year. However, before making them take the year over, they can take the equivalent of a challenge exam in the courses they flunked to see if they can improve their scores. So some, at least, of the 110-odd students I gave a mark of 9 or less will be back to haunt me in October sometime. I’m going to write an exam and leave it for my boss. The multiple choice part they can mark themselves, but I should probably grade the essays. Mailing the exams to me would be a waste but hopefully they can find a way to scan and email them. Thus, just as the rains in Oregon are starting and the leaves are falling from the trees, I will be returned in spirit to Ouagadougou for one last bit of work. Hopefully not too much…

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