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Should Undergraduates Grade Other Students?

News Feature

By Jeffrey N. Gell and Douglas M. Pravda

When Wallace Professor of Applied Physics R. Victor Jones introduced his teaching fellow (TF) during this semester's first lecture of Engineering Sciences 151: ` "Electromagnetic Communication," the class responded with a standing ovation.

"They rose and cheered," Jones says. "The students actually had him for an ear lier course."

Christopher J. Patrick '96, who lead the bi-weekly laboratory section of the course, says students find him easy to talk to because he is an under graduate.

"I think I'm a lot more pal than authority figure than a lot of other lab TFs," Patrick says. "I think it's good knowing them in that it's easy to get the chemistry pretty good and have a positive feeling in the lab."

But Patrick says he sometimes finds it difficult to grade fellow undergraduates' lab reports.

"Once in a while, it's tough, especially if I have to grade somebody and give them a bad grade," he says. "It makes me take a long time considering what grades people deserve--I really know these guys well."

Harvard undergraduates play a role in grading other undergraduates work in many courses in the natural science.

Although some students say they wonder whether undergraduates are capable of evaluating other students fairly, many say their undergraduate section leaders have been the best teachers and most fair graders they have had while at Harvard.

"My experiences have been uniformly positive," says math concentrator Andrew J. Blumberg '97-'98.

"Mistakes were made, but no more than in my classes with graduate TFs or professors doing grading."

The Policy

Although undergraduate TF's abound in the sciences, students in the humanities are far less likely to be involved in the evaluation of other undergraduate students.

Faculty Council rules, as specified in the "Information for Instructors" handbook, state that although undergraduates "may participate in the evaluation of students, they should not be involved in the subjective evaluation of essays and examinations."

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 says these rules imply a difference in the role of instructors in the natural sciences as opposed to the humanities.

"I think the rules against undergraduates grading subjective material such as essays are appropriate," says Lewis, who is also McKay professor of computer science and a former head tutor. "However, the situations with which I have familiarity in which undergraduates grade problems in mathematics and computer science are not subjective in the same sense and do not present difficulties."

And Menzel Professor of Astrophysics David R. Layzer '46 says undergraduate teaching assistants are most valuable in courses that emphasize a specific "skill."

"In those areas, there's a competence that can be very easily demonstrated," he says. "It's easy to demonstrate that you have a very good grasp of calculus principles."

Mathematics

For this reason, many mathematics courses rely on undergraduate course assistants, says Assistant Professor of Mathematics Kevin D. Oden.

Oden attributes the large number of undergraduate course assistants in the math department to the fact that many undergraduates want to take courses in a department that admits only 12 to 13 graduate students each year.

In other larger graduate programs, graduate students serve as TF for most classes.

This semester, Oden is teaching Mathematics 112: "Real Analysis" which is staffed by two undergraduate teaching assistants.

But Oden says he relies on these assistants to evaluate students as infrequently as possible, preferring to grade most assignments himself.

"I think the students should get the benefit and detriment of my grading the class," he says. "I think the professor of the course is the one students are coming to class to be judged by or graded by."

But Jeremy L. Martin '96, who has served as a course assistant in both introductory and upper-level math courses, says he feels undergraduates are capable of grading even subjective assignments fairly.

"The rule that the College has about undergraduates not being allowed to make subjective decisions is just plain silly," he says. "How else do they expect us to gain this kind of experience?"

Martin says he believes undergraduate TFs can fairly evaluate their peers.

"A point on a problem set here and there isn't going to make any difference in the long run," he says.

Although teaching assistants grade problem sets in Oden's course, the professor says students' homework scores do not greatly affect their final grades.

"Just about everyone was within epsilon of each other for the homework grade," Oden says. "Assigning a grade to the homework is just to provide a way for students to do the work."

Oden says he views teaching assistants as individuals who "augment" the learning process rather than serve as evaluators.

David M. Renton '98, who is currently enrolled in Math 112, says he is comfortable with the role played by undergraduate teaching assistants.

"My TFs have been upper-class math majors and have had a deep level of understanding of the material," he says.

By contrast, Jones says his undergraduate teaching fellow plays a rather large role in determining students' grades in his engineering sciences course.

Jones says undergraduate teaching fellows have the "dominant responsibility" of evaluating students' laboratory performances, which he considers central to the course.

But he says he does not rely on his teaching fellows to grade examinations, explaining, "I don't feel comfortable about it."

A Special Case

Although many science courses employ undergraduates, Computer Science is a hazy area where grading can rely on both subjective and objective critiques.

Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz says the grading policy allows undergraduates to grade material "that is objectively right or wrong."

Of the appropriateness of undergraduates grading others' computer science problem sets, he is less certain.

"I wonder about that," he says, adding that those in the computer science concentration were involved in writing the policy in "Information for Instructors."

Like an essay, there are many ways to write a workable computer program. Similarly, programs can be graded on subjective factors.

"Although there are many different ways to write a CS program, we have attempted to [cut] out the subjectivity by grading on purely objective terms--such as functionality, efficiency and consistency of the chosen style," Abhi A. Shelat '97, a TF for Computer Science 50 and 51, wrote in an e-mail message.

"Grading will never be 100 percent objective because there's always a judgment call needed to allocate partial credit," Joshua E. Seims '96, a TF for Computer Science 121 and 175, wrote in an e-mail message. "But for the most part, the grading standards for each assignment are pretty clear."

Still, Anthony L. DeWitt '96, a teaching fellow this semester for Computer Science 141: "Computing Hardware," says the material he works with is fairly objective.

"[F]or programs, you should just be grading whether the program works," he says. "One should not count off for differences in coding style or any other subjective points."

But Assistant Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer '83, who teaches Computer Science 50: "Introduction to Computer Science," says her teaching fellows must follow strict grading standards.

"In the courses I teach, grading programs is not subjective," Seltzer says. "There are clear standards stating how many points are to be given or taken off for the possible infractions."

"The teaching fellows are explicitly told not to make judgment calls," she says. "If something is not clear on the standard, they are to raise the issue for clarification."

Of the 18 teaching fellows in Computer Science 50 last semester, six won awards from the Derek Bok Center. Five of those were undergraduates, Seltzer adds.

For the most part, student teaching fellows in the computer sciences agree that it is unlikely that undergraduate teaching fellows would unfairly grade other undergraduates.

"Our high school educations have instilled a notion that education has an embedded power structure where the TF or professor holds a special position," Shelat says.

"Although the assumption is that an undergraduate would be more likely to abuse this situation, I don't think it is the case at all. I simply don't power trip," he adds.

Other undergraduate say grading in computer sciences is formulaic and not at all subjective.

"If an undergraduate were grading an English paper of mine, I would feel awkward," Seims says. "But grading in the sciences is much more algorithmic. If I felt someone gave me a bad grade, I could ask him to justify the points he took off, and if I was graded unfairly, it would be pretty easy to establish."

DeWitt says the use of undergraduate teaching fellows should be accompanied by a system of checks and balances.

"I have had instances where an undergraduate TF graded an assignment of mine in a way I though to be unfair," DeWitt says. "But when I asked another TF or the professor to check over the work, they were happy to do so and get back to me. I can live with this."

Non-Specialists

Although computer science TFs tend to be computer science concentrators, not all undergraduate teaching assistants are specialists in the area in which they teach.

Layzer says he selects teaching fellows for his Core science courses who have received an A in those courses. Layzer teaches Science A-18: "Space, Time and Motion" and Science A-22: "Chance, Necessity and Order."

Layzer says he uses two discussion leaders--an undergraduate and a graduate student in the sciences or a postdoctoral fellow--in each section.

"It has turned out that the best undergraduates--and there have always been people in that category in these courses--are in many ways as competent as the senior discussion leaders, even discussion leaders with doctorates," says Layzer, adding that he has employed undergraduate teaching assistants' for 23 years.

Although both undergraduate and senior discussion leaders read students' papers Layzer says the undergraduate has no direct responsibility for determining students grades.

"They have no direct responsibility or even indirect responsibility," Layzer says, "You have to distinguish between responsibility and input."

The Future

Although many students are extremely pleased with their experiences with undergraduate teaching assistants, Wolcowitz says it would not be difficult to make the case for eliminating undergraduate course assistants.

"It wouldn't be hard to convince me we should curtail the use of undergraduates," the assistant dean says.

In particular, Wolcowitz says students come to Harvard "to be taught by experts in the field," not fellow students. In addition, he says it is often hard for undergraduates to maintain confidentiality.

"Should undergraduates know about others' academic performance?" Wolcowitz asks.

But perhaps most important, Wolcowitz says he wonders whether a student who is already taking a full course load has enough time to lead a section and be available to answer students' questions.

"When the work piles up, [undergraduate teaching fellows] don't have flexibility," he says.Crimson File PhotoHarry R. Lweis'68'I think the rules agianst students grading subjective material... are appropriate.'

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 says these rules imply a difference in the role of instructors in the natural sciences as opposed to the humanities.

"I think the rules against undergraduates grading subjective material such as essays are appropriate," says Lewis, who is also McKay professor of computer science and a former head tutor. "However, the situations with which I have familiarity in which undergraduates grade problems in mathematics and computer science are not subjective in the same sense and do not present difficulties."

And Menzel Professor of Astrophysics David R. Layzer '46 says undergraduate teaching assistants are most valuable in courses that emphasize a specific "skill."

"In those areas, there's a competence that can be very easily demonstrated," he says. "It's easy to demonstrate that you have a very good grasp of calculus principles."

Mathematics

For this reason, many mathematics courses rely on undergraduate course assistants, says Assistant Professor of Mathematics Kevin D. Oden.

Oden attributes the large number of undergraduate course assistants in the math department to the fact that many undergraduates want to take courses in a department that admits only 12 to 13 graduate students each year.

In other larger graduate programs, graduate students serve as TF for most classes.

This semester, Oden is teaching Mathematics 112: "Real Analysis" which is staffed by two undergraduate teaching assistants.

But Oden says he relies on these assistants to evaluate students as infrequently as possible, preferring to grade most assignments himself.

"I think the students should get the benefit and detriment of my grading the class," he says. "I think the professor of the course is the one students are coming to class to be judged by or graded by."

But Jeremy L. Martin '96, who has served as a course assistant in both introductory and upper-level math courses, says he feels undergraduates are capable of grading even subjective assignments fairly.

"The rule that the College has about undergraduates not being allowed to make subjective decisions is just plain silly," he says. "How else do they expect us to gain this kind of experience?"

Martin says he believes undergraduate TFs can fairly evaluate their peers.

"A point on a problem set here and there isn't going to make any difference in the long run," he says.

Although teaching assistants grade problem sets in Oden's course, the professor says students' homework scores do not greatly affect their final grades.

"Just about everyone was within epsilon of each other for the homework grade," Oden says. "Assigning a grade to the homework is just to provide a way for students to do the work."

Oden says he views teaching assistants as individuals who "augment" the learning process rather than serve as evaluators.

David M. Renton '98, who is currently enrolled in Math 112, says he is comfortable with the role played by undergraduate teaching assistants.

"My TFs have been upper-class math majors and have had a deep level of understanding of the material," he says.

By contrast, Jones says his undergraduate teaching fellow plays a rather large role in determining students' grades in his engineering sciences course.

Jones says undergraduate teaching fellows have the "dominant responsibility" of evaluating students' laboratory performances, which he considers central to the course.

But he says he does not rely on his teaching fellows to grade examinations, explaining, "I don't feel comfortable about it."

A Special Case

Although many science courses employ undergraduates, Computer Science is a hazy area where grading can rely on both subjective and objective critiques.

Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz says the grading policy allows undergraduates to grade material "that is objectively right or wrong."

Of the appropriateness of undergraduates grading others' computer science problem sets, he is less certain.

"I wonder about that," he says, adding that those in the computer science concentration were involved in writing the policy in "Information for Instructors."

Like an essay, there are many ways to write a workable computer program. Similarly, programs can be graded on subjective factors.

"Although there are many different ways to write a CS program, we have attempted to [cut] out the subjectivity by grading on purely objective terms--such as functionality, efficiency and consistency of the chosen style," Abhi A. Shelat '97, a TF for Computer Science 50 and 51, wrote in an e-mail message.

"Grading will never be 100 percent objective because there's always a judgment call needed to allocate partial credit," Joshua E. Seims '96, a TF for Computer Science 121 and 175, wrote in an e-mail message. "But for the most part, the grading standards for each assignment are pretty clear."

Still, Anthony L. DeWitt '96, a teaching fellow this semester for Computer Science 141: "Computing Hardware," says the material he works with is fairly objective.

"[F]or programs, you should just be grading whether the program works," he says. "One should not count off for differences in coding style or any other subjective points."

But Assistant Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer '83, who teaches Computer Science 50: "Introduction to Computer Science," says her teaching fellows must follow strict grading standards.

"In the courses I teach, grading programs is not subjective," Seltzer says. "There are clear standards stating how many points are to be given or taken off for the possible infractions."

"The teaching fellows are explicitly told not to make judgment calls," she says. "If something is not clear on the standard, they are to raise the issue for clarification."

Of the 18 teaching fellows in Computer Science 50 last semester, six won awards from the Derek Bok Center. Five of those were undergraduates, Seltzer adds.

For the most part, student teaching fellows in the computer sciences agree that it is unlikely that undergraduate teaching fellows would unfairly grade other undergraduates.

"Our high school educations have instilled a notion that education has an embedded power structure where the TF or professor holds a special position," Shelat says.

"Although the assumption is that an undergraduate would be more likely to abuse this situation, I don't think it is the case at all. I simply don't power trip," he adds.

Other undergraduate say grading in computer sciences is formulaic and not at all subjective.

"If an undergraduate were grading an English paper of mine, I would feel awkward," Seims says. "But grading in the sciences is much more algorithmic. If I felt someone gave me a bad grade, I could ask him to justify the points he took off, and if I was graded unfairly, it would be pretty easy to establish."

DeWitt says the use of undergraduate teaching fellows should be accompanied by a system of checks and balances.

"I have had instances where an undergraduate TF graded an assignment of mine in a way I though to be unfair," DeWitt says. "But when I asked another TF or the professor to check over the work, they were happy to do so and get back to me. I can live with this."

Non-Specialists

Although computer science TFs tend to be computer science concentrators, not all undergraduate teaching assistants are specialists in the area in which they teach.

Layzer says he selects teaching fellows for his Core science courses who have received an A in those courses. Layzer teaches Science A-18: "Space, Time and Motion" and Science A-22: "Chance, Necessity and Order."

Layzer says he uses two discussion leaders--an undergraduate and a graduate student in the sciences or a postdoctoral fellow--in each section.

"It has turned out that the best undergraduates--and there have always been people in that category in these courses--are in many ways as competent as the senior discussion leaders, even discussion leaders with doctorates," says Layzer, adding that he has employed undergraduate teaching assistants' for 23 years.

Although both undergraduate and senior discussion leaders read students' papers Layzer says the undergraduate has no direct responsibility for determining students grades.

"They have no direct responsibility or even indirect responsibility," Layzer says, "You have to distinguish between responsibility and input."

The Future

Although many students are extremely pleased with their experiences with undergraduate teaching assistants, Wolcowitz says it would not be difficult to make the case for eliminating undergraduate course assistants.

"It wouldn't be hard to convince me we should curtail the use of undergraduates," the assistant dean says.

In particular, Wolcowitz says students come to Harvard "to be taught by experts in the field," not fellow students. In addition, he says it is often hard for undergraduates to maintain confidentiality.

"Should undergraduates know about others' academic performance?" Wolcowitz asks.

But perhaps most important, Wolcowitz says he wonders whether a student who is already taking a full course load has enough time to lead a section and be available to answer students' questions.

"When the work piles up, [undergraduate teaching fellows] don't have flexibility," he says.Crimson File PhotoHarry R. Lweis'68'I think the rules agianst students grading subjective material... are appropriate.'

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