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FERPA and announcing grades publicly


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To avoid sidetracking another thread, I thought we should move our discussion of whether TAs should announce their students grades publicly (either verbally or through a class list). Here are a few snippets to give context:



Consider the hypothetical situation:

It's mid-terms week in your class. Test grades are to be posted outside your office, and students come to see their grade on their own time - everyone can see everyone else's grades. While grading, you notice that one student totally bombed the test. The student isn't overtly disregarding the class - comes to class, doesn't disrupt others, etc. But still, totally bombed. You have two choices.

1. You decide that you should give the student a passing grade, but make sure to tell that student that they really need to improve. After all, grades are going to be public. Everyone can see it, and that's going to be really tough. Further, perhaps there was some really good excuse for that poor test. Maybe that student has a learning disorder, or had a family emergency, or had some other cause out of their control. You empathize, so you pat yourself on the back because you didn't make a harsh snap judgment, save them some embarrassment, and you're sure that they'll get it turned around.

2. You give the grade they deserve. You know that everyone is going to be able to see the grades, and if you inflate their grade, they're going to see it's not that far off from everyone else's. Even if you make a point to tell them they're far behind, you see the obvious mixed message and at that point you're part of the problem, complicit. You acknowledge that if something extraordinary was at fault, then they'll take the grade with a grain of salt and move on.


I had responded that FERPA regulations actually mean a TA cannot do Option 2:


I think your hypothetical example is unfair because what you are describing is actually against FERPA regulations (as explained to us during my orientation anyways) and also explicitly against the policies at every school I've attended! You can't even post a list of grades by student number, because those can be used to identify the person. In fact, it's against my school's current policy to even leave a stack of graded problem sets by your office door (or in front of the classroom) so that students can come by and pick them up because this allows others to leaf through the stack and see other people's grades. (This can be allowed if you get every person in the class to sign a FERPA release).


The counter-response was this:


I really don't really buy the ethical argument about why grades can't be made public like in the situation described. I know that  FERPA exists, again, not the point. I think it stems from the same logic that I'm disagreeing with on the obesity front: empathy trumping people being able to deal with adversity. We're so adversity averse now that if someone experiences adversity then there is some systemic problem that needs to be fixed. I think there is indeed a systemic problem, as I've indicated, but I think it's much deeper than the front the siren-chaser 'PC' attorney swarm is currently working on. Hope that clears things up a bit. 


So, I'll make my response here to prevent derailing a different thread (where this discussion started). 


I think the FERPA rules are in the right. A student's academic performance is private information, just like a student's health records, transcripts, academic record, etc. I do not think a school should be an environment where those who are doing well or not doing well should be publicly known.


Also, independent of this point, I think it is a TA's professional responsibility to not reveal information about the people they are helping (i.e. their students). This includes not revealing other people's grades, or leaving graded homework in a place that other students can see other students' grades. But it also includes things like if a student makes a silly mistake on their homework and I want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake, I wouldn't tell or email the class "Don't be silly like Bobby and forget to convert inches to centimetres!" When you do actions like this, you are causing your students to lose their trust and confidence in you. A TA should always be a person of support and positiveness -- i.e. a resource for the student to use to conquer the material. This doesn't mean the TA has to bend to the students' whim (the TA should still enforce class policies), but it definitely means the TA should not act in ways that make their students uncomfortable and unapproachable!

So, I think actions like publicly shaming the students who are doing poorly will not encourage students to approach the TA for help. It also makes the TA on the "other side" (i.e. the TA is someone they have to "beat" to get a good grade) instead of viewing the TA as an ally and a resource to learn the course material.


What do others think about the arguments for/against public announcement of grades?

Edited by TakeruK
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I agree with you: although I think there is a US-wide epidemic of coddling students, FERPA is what it is. It certainly doesn't help in trying to combat the "special snowflake syndrome" problem, but, as students & teachers, we're still obligated to abide by its rules, even if we wish the wording were different. I don't think posting grades publicly like that would ever fly in my department, although I can't speak for the rest of the school. My department can't afford to be stripped of any more funding, & my university can't afford any more public embarrassment about terrible decision-making that snowballs into a public outcry of some sort.


Can public shaming be effective? Absolutely. It works on me, although I would never employ it as a TA myself. TAs can use whatever teaching approach they like, I guess, as long as it's FERPA-abiding. I think it's better to work cautiously within those limitations than to utilize certain tactics of public shaming (or even public praise) etc. that raise the risk of ticking off HRH Prince Fluffybottom or HRH Princess Entitledpants, who will turn right around & call their parents. It happens all. The. Time. It happened at my Top 25 small undergrad college, it happens here at my mediocre state university, & it happens in all my friend's schools. The entitlement problem runs deep. Lord knows TAs & professors are already underpaid & overworked; the last thing you need is King Spoiledkids & Queen Telephonescreamer jumping down your throat threatening to sue.


TL;DR: I wouldn't use public shaming, but other TAs can do what they like, as long as it's acceptable in terms of FERPA requirements - I play it on the safe side, because I don't have time for "we'll sue!"-type hyper-entitled legal nonsense (nor does anyone else, really).

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Stumbled across this - didn't quite connect the dots when you said you were moving it to the teaching forum. 


Because this topic is a little more point specific, I'll add just a little bit to what I said before. I'd like to preface again though, yes FERPA exists. I'm not suggesting that any of my opinions do or do not comply with FERPA. Simply that I disagree with the logical basis for FERPA potentially extending to the situation I described above. 


What I was getting at before is a lot like what Pears pointed out. There's an entitlement culture that runs deep, but not only that, I think there's an inherently pessimistic viewpoint that this logic stems from.


Take my example above. Is that student really being singled out for "public shaming?" No, posting the grades wholesale is a completely neutral act - good grades and bad alike are all out there to see. I didn't say, take that student's grade, highlight in red bold print, and say "look how bad Jimmy did everyone." If you immediately jump to public grades being negative, you are implicitly stating that something negative will be done with the knowledge of everyone's grades. The posting of grades isn't the "shaming," that's done by others - assuming that it actually happens. Granted, in the hypothetical I posed, I mentioned that it would probably be tough on the student, thereby acknowledging that it could very well happen - empathy (I think people here are stuck on the idea of the school yard bully shaming or snotty grade-schoolers that can be relentless; let's fast forward to adulthood and how this would play out in the adult world). So, with that I would then I would ask, is that inherently a bad thing? If so, why? What about that person being held accountable by their peers, being subject to judgment based on their actions, and forcing them to deal with it is inherently bad? Why is adversity suddenly bad? Further, why should you expect anything different as an adult? I think there's an implicit stance in that logic that indicates people shouldn't have to be held responsible for their actions. Or worse, perhaps that they can't deal with being held accountable.


In either case, what happens to that person the first time they are held accountable - i.e. the real world? Do they suddenly figure it out as if it were seconds nature and take it in stride? Doubtful. What coddling people does, especially all the way through adulthood, is kick the adversity train down the road until at some point people are blindsided by it. Systemically breeding in this idea that personal responsibility is something that people shouldn't have to, or worse yet can't, deal with is at best flawed and at worst terribly pessimistic. Color me an optimist I suppose, people can handle it if you let them, and they'll be much better off when a real problem presents itself. 

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I agree that public announcement of grades is inappropriate (and if the reaction to a recent mistake my professor made with the projector is any indication, all my classmates do too). So is public shaming. I work with research trainees now and the most we do to them is set up frequent meetings where they present their work so far, and they hopefully realize that if they don't prepare then they'll be embarrassing themselves. (You'd be surprised how many don't realize this.)


There is a huge difference between "adversity" and choices made by one person that unnecessarily harm another. That really strikes me as an excuse for frustrated TAs to take out those frustrations on students.


Also, in "the real world" authority figures don't publicly shame their subordinates or share assessments of their performance with their peers. Only extremely dysfunctional work environments protect that sort of behavior from managers, and even in those environments any competent workers who can leave, do. The only "real world" skill taught by this treatment of students is how to placate an unreasonable authority figure until you can escape.

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I went to two different middle schools: one where students' privacy was generally respected, and another where educators and administrators believed that total transparency of grades and demerits would motivate better student work. All grades were made public. Detentions and demerits were also made public; students who fucked up were often very obviously excluded from recreational activities). Both schools were basically the same in terms of racial and socioeconomic composition, but the second middle school was miserable for all involved. I don't think the tactics made anyone work harder or try to be smarter. It did, however, foster a great sense of enmity between students and faculty, and smart kids and not-so-smart kids. Fights broke out frequently. There would be verbal altercations between students and teachers. Lots of slamming around and flying off the handle ... things that made it difficult for any of us to learn. One time there was even a fucking mutiny with some of the poor-performing boys using April Fool's Day to unleash all kinds of interesting things. 


When we all went to high school, the students from my middle school performed far worse compared to students from the other "feeder schools" in the same area (schools with similar racial and economic make-up). The first middle school I went to produced a large number of NHS, NMS, and scholarship winners. The second one did not. I don't know if my classmates didn't perform well in high school because of the draconian tactics unleashed in our middle school (which often took away from learning), or if there was something else happening. I can't make that connection, just speculate about it. I also don't know if my anecdotal experience holds any water, but I'd be interested in seeing some studies that correlate grade transparency with student performance.


Honestly, I think it's bizarre to think that making grades public is somehow a sound pedagogical technique. I'm not sure what it accomplishes. Isn't it enough that you're simply honest with your students on the back of their paper? There's this assumption here that people could do better if they just tried harder, and that they'd try harder if everyone knew that they sucked. For some students, that's probably true. For others, not so much. There are some people who could work all day long and not get a C. As a teacher, I am hyper-aware that these students exist in my class, and I'm careful to respect their honest efforts. They are people, and many of them seem totally at sea with the somewhat challenging material. When they come to see me in conference, they often say, "I've never had a class like this before. I'm terrible at writing." And they sometimes are terrible. But oftentimes they're trying to get a little bit better. If I can move that person from a C- to a C+ or a B-, then that's good. But these students are probably never going to be A students (just as I wasn't an A student in certain subjects). I don't think that telling everyone their grade would light a fire under their ass and enable them to move that C- to an A.


I also have other students who are bright but clearly don't care about the class. I guess these are the people that we could supposedly motivate to "work harder" by publishing their grades. Again, I don't think so. Why would a slacker student turn things around because people in his composition class now know he's a slacker? If he's bothered by it, he'll probably just take his chips and bounce because this is college, and you can do what you want. If he doesn't care, then he doesn't care, and you could publish his grades all day long and it wouldn't matter.


And lest anyone think that I'm some softy huggy-bear with my students, believe me, I'm not. You should see my RMP page. I do indeed think that students are probably too coddled and entitled these days. But I don't know why publishing their grades for the world to see would serve as an antidote to the problem. Seems to me that we could start off just by treating people like adults and respecting their basic privacy. Give them the grades they earn. Give them constructive feedback. When they act in a shitty way, tell them you don't appreciate it. Enforce policies about late work or attendance. Again, these are adults, and in the adult world we respect privacy. Unless you're a public employee, your salary isn't available for the whole world to see. When people are evaluated at work, their evaluations are usually kept in the personnel files, not taped to the office walls.

Edited by hashslinger
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Geologizer--glad you found this! Maybe my link in the other thread wasn't super clear. 


I agree that we should definitely hold our students accountable for their work. But I think there are plenty of ways to do this without violating our students' privacy.


I am not saying that grades are automatically negative. However, it's a private trait/feature/characteristic of a person that only that person should have the right to share. A student needs to be able to trust that the TA has their best interest at heart, and not some distant, aloof, impartial* evaluator. (*I say impartial in the sense that the TA doesn't care how the students do, not that the TA is biased towards favourite students etc.). Sharing your students' grades without their permission violates that trust. Like hashslinger's example, when the TA is not seen to be on the students' side, you create a "students vs. instructors" mentality, and that is not a productive learning environment!


As a TA, you also have access to quite a bit of personal information about the student. You will know their grades for your course. Your class roll sheets might show their middle names. Your class roll sheets may have their photos and perhaps this person has gone through a lot of physical changes since their photo was taken (they are typically only taken upon matriculation). Do you think it's fair game to share any of this information? After all, it's just names--why don't we just post everyone's middle names? Or, it's just physical appearance, people have seen them looking like that before, why don't we just post everyone's photos on the class website too? I would argue grades are just as private as your image, your name, your medical history etc. 


In addition to this, we now live in a world where information is very easily shared. If you email a grades list, you don't know how that information will be distributed. If you post it on a bulletin board, people can easily take pictures and share them. Maybe a student doesn't really mind that their classmates and friends know their grades. But some students might have certain people that they don't want to share their grades with. One good thing about FERPA is that it prevents overbearing parents from calling the school and discussing their children's grades with you. 


Finally, I really think that the group of us that are in grad school / applying in grad school does not represent the same distribution of population as our students. Grad students have survived undergrad, enjoyed school, and want more. We are probably motivated by academic challenges and we are probably pretty proud of our academic abilities. So, if we see a challenge to something we're proud of, we might respond well to it and persevere. However, not everyone is like this. I know many people who will react poorly to this type of challenge. 


I think your main argument is that we should not be afraid to have people react poorly to this type of challenge. While I agree that we should not compromise academic integrity to "protect" these people (i.e. do not inflate grades so they don't feel bad), I don't think it's a good idea to have the attitude that "I want to create students who have a certain mindset/set of qualities that I deem to be useful". This will only hurt the academic community, because we would be creating a filter to only select certain features. I know some academics who think that academia is only for the thick-skinned. They say their opinion without filter because they don't think it hurts to speak the truth. 


But, I think there are plenty of ways to achieve what we want without making others feel bad. As hashslinger pointed out, there are a ton of ways to hold students accountable for their work and give them useful and honest feedback. You don't have to publicly praise or criticize in order for it to be effective. Not everyone responds well to that. As others also pointed out, in the "real world', it's also super unprofessional for a boss to chew out an employee in front of everyone. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, and sometimes the power dynamic means that the employee doesn't really have an recourse, but no one thinks that it's good when this happens. So, if we can avoid it, we should!

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I'm pretty much against the idea of grades as a carrot or a stick. Grades aren't just feedback to the student on how the student is doing in the course. Grades are also, and very importantly, a certification of the students' ability to do the work in the course. If I put an A on a student's transcript in a composition course, then I'm certifying to everyone that has access to that transcript in the future (for whatever purpose) that the student's ability at composition exceeds expectations. Using grades as a motivator does not support that ethic.

Now, I do use grades to motivate, in a sense. I assign readings throughout the semester and those readings are worth points. I used to do quizzes, which have no pedagogical purpose other than to motivate students to do the readings, but switched over to a reading journal that has the student answer a few questions that mirror the questions that ought to be answered when they reflexively read scholarly articles (what was the argument/purpose, what issues were addressed, what problems, what solutions, how does it impact you). They get points for that work.

I think there is powerful motivation for performance through recognition, not through negative sanctions. I think that there are studies/research that backs this conclusion up, though it's been a few years since I've read any and I don't remember enough of the particulars to hunt them down.

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As a TA, you also have access to quite a bit of personal information about the student. You will know their grades for your course. Your class roll sheets might show their middle names. 



My students can see my middle name on their online system. I have always been slightly weirded out by that. 

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