Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 54 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Relativity/Subjectivity of Numbers


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 54 seconds

I am in a place right now that’s making me think of how numbers, supposedly the most objective, neutral things we use to express reality, are really relative and subjective in context.

I’m talking about weather, people. But grades will follow 🙂 because you know I’m not gonna just write a blogpost about weather, right?


I’m in Sharm al Sheikh and it’s late December. Temperatures are in the range of teens and early twenties Celsius. The sun is out and bright and shining every day. The wind is… windy (20 km/hr wind speed I think).

The European tourists are in bikinis sunbathing by the swimming pool, their kids are swimming in the sea.

Me? My family are wearing layers (which we take on or off, but they’re like 3 or 4 layers) because the wind just makes it so cold for us.

At midday, it feels to me like the sun is strong enough and the wind is kind enough, so I take my kid to the pool for a bit. I do this twice despite rest of my family telling me it’s too cold. My kid starts coughing afterwards though I do my best to dry and warm her right after.

Me, same person, living in Norwich, England in 2010 (a cold year where it snowed in places it rarely ever snows). And I remember clearly how I would walk for miles in the snow comfortably and how when the temperature reached double digits, and sun came out, it was a celebration and considered *not cold*.

It is the same temperature. It feels different to different people. Having rheumatoid arthritis makes my bones more sensitive to *wind* when weather is cold. So this is maybe just me, but older.

But you know….temperature, wind, all these are numbers. But they mean different things to different people depending on what they are used to.


I just came across this tweet now, a day after I submitted my grades at an institution which is concerned with “grade inflation” and where I would really rather give students a Pass/Fail grade but have to give A,B,C, etc.

And my first thoughts were

  1. Being on time is valuable, but in real life, I am given extensions ALL the time. Think conference proposal deadlines where deadlines get extended for all or article writing deadlines where you ask the editor for an extension for a reason.
  2. Students who are late sometimes are late for good reasons (e.g. ADHD, life circumstances) but sometimes not.
  3. Learning should not be measured by numbers

And now I am thinking of something. For my own grading. But let me start with what I sort of currently do. I try to do holistic grading where students self-assess their overall grade (but I do give numbers and feedback throughout the semester). I accept lateness to class and assignments but after a while it annoys me if I don’t know why it’s happening and I talk to the student and they don’t explain (they have the right not to explain but I also don’t feel it’s fair to others who are on time)

When someone

  1. Constantly comes late to to class
  2. Constantly submits work late

… I feel like, unless they have a really good reason (like ADHD) that there has to be a difference between them and students who do things on time.

My assignments usually help students prepare for or reflect on the topic we are working on during the time we are working on it. They are usually due a couple of hours before the class time because I read them and use students’ own writing to guide class reflections. I negotiate deadlines with students ahead of time…so I feel like those deadlines are *fair*. I sometimes change a deadline for one or two people. I’m OK with that. I also grade late work eventually (i.e. they get late feedback also) and I do take points off because I want to discourage unexcused lateness.

So now I want to think of alternatives. With my holistic grading approach, can I stop giving things grade but instead grade things as follows:

  1. On time, exceeds assignment instructions
  2. On time, meets all assignment instructions
  3. On time, meets some assignment instructions
  4. On time, meets few assignment instructions
  5. Late, exceeds assignment instructions
  6. Late, meets all assignment instructions
  7. Late, meets some assignment instructions
  8. Late, meets few assignment instructions

Let me just say this. Assignment instructions are subjective. I write them. How many marks per assignment and how they are broken down…subjective. EVEN if written out clearly for students, it is open to interpretation. Deadlines may seem reasonable to teacher but not to student. or some students. Negotiation may seem like a good thing, but some students may fear speaking up lest it leave a bad impression.

Of course, stuff can be late a couple of hours or a couple of days or a couple of weeks. And this should make a difference. I have not figured this out yet. I also haven’t managed to find it in my heart to *not* accept any late work beyond a certain point because I still want those C and D students to pass the course. I want to give some people A for being consistently good and on time.

Thinking of participation grades. When someone is constantly late 10 minutes they miss the first in class activity, which sometimes impacts how they understand the topic or rest of class session. For the most part, it doesn’t mess things up completely. But I do want them to feel like they are missing out. Because they are.

My point here is really

  1. There is intrinsic value to submitting assignments on time and coming to class on time. For students’ learning. That has nothing to do with quality of their work
  2. It is generally good to be on time
  3. I understand not everyone can be on time all the time, but those who try deserve reward beyond the lack of stress
  4. Those who cannot do it need understanding….but?

My institution requires me to have a B+ average in my class. This is so hard if you have some really good students. So then the good but not great students end up with B+ (because even numbers can be curved)

This all really bothers me because i also want to reward students for improving…but not demotivate those who try hard throughout.

The thing is… what appears as more effort in a good output from one student may require more effort from another student to produce a lesser output. Because we often ask students to write, for example. Not draw or record audio.

It’s a lot like the weather. 15 Celsius is cold for one person and warm for another. It also depends on whether you are in shade or sun.

Would I ask all my students to dip into the swimming pool when the temperature is 15? Would it be fair to all of them? Is my learning goal for them to swim in general or swim in a particular temperature range? Is heating the pool an inclusive practice or a kind of coddling (I hate that word).

I think when we do inclusive practices, I would rather err on the side of inclusion… even knowing a few students who don’t need it would use it. I mean, if i allow it, they are not abusing it, right?

How does this apply to grading though?

I am unsure.

Would it be fair to ask students early on whether they want their assignment grades to include a stronger emphasis on timeliness or quality? Naah. This sounds off. Should I have a separate grade for timeliness overall? But it’s not a learning outcome. I could add Time management in. I have had students say they learn time management in my class..but if so, perhaps I should teach it more explicitly.

But all of this struggle really comes down to the fact that the institution requires me to give a grade, to make sure grades are distributed somewhat, and students expect numbers there.

I would rather just give them qualitative feedback throughout and let them assess themselves. Because I want them to learn more than I want to grade them. Duh.


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