The Best Students are the Toughest Markers

Another semester has come and gone. In business school, the final week of class is usually when student presentations are scheduled. This is my favorite time of year. I get to sit back and have my class teach me, students get to show off what they’ve learned and the class learns from each other.

Of course some presentations are better than others.

Mmmmm … my laptop is so comfy and warm

This semester in a third-year business course I incorporated a student evaluation in the grade I assigned to presentations. I did this to give presenters the opportunity to get feedback on how their presentation was perceived from the whole audience, not just some old curmudgeon of a teacher.

Needs more lolcats!

While reviewing the results I noticed something interesting. But first, let me explain the process. I had students grade presentations on two parameters:

  1. How interesting they found it
  2. How informative they found it

They scored presenters on each parameter on a scale out of 5, and I gave them these instructions:

  • If the presentation was as interesting or informative as they’d expect from a student in 3rd year business, they were to assign a score of 3/5
  • If it was more interesting or informative, they should assign higher scores (e.g. 4/5 or 5/5).
  • If it was less interesting or informative, they’d give lower scores (e.g. 1/5 or 2/5).

I then let the presentations rip and allowed the grades to fall where they may.

As I was tallying the marks I noticed many students gave lots of 4/5, meaning they found almost all presentations to be more interesting or informative then they’d expect from a 3rd year business course.

One might argue that if EVERYTHING exceeds your expectations, it’s time to raise them

But … not everyone was so footloose with high marks. I noticed that my highest performing students seemed to be more stingy. Figure 1 shows what I found. Out of 77 students, those who went on to earn an A overall in my class typically assigned a presentation score of 3.3/5 (or 66%). By comparison, C students typically assigned a score of 3.7/5 (or 74%). In fact, A students tended to assign the lowest marks when compared to all others.

Figure 1: Final course grade versus student-assigned mark

The grade the student assigns does not impact them in any way. There is no curve, so this cannot be explained by hyper-competitive jerks trying to knock the curve down. Moreover, my A students did assign high grades – they just did so less frequently.

This is what I see happening. The highest performing students establish rigorous criteria to distinguish between presentations that were merely OK versus good versus excellent. Since they are performing at the top of my class, I suspect they also establish such criteria to judge their own performance not just for presentations, but for papers, exams and whatever else.

There is a learning point in this that can be extrapolated to all walks of life. Those who achieve high levels of success tend to critically assess their own performance as well as that of others’ against a set of criteria they’ve developed to distinguish between adequacy and excellence.

Now that you’ve learned that …… on a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate this post?

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