Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I had surgery yesterday to remove the last of the hardware in my foot. So I'll be spending my break on crutches. Woo hoo!! All I know is a shoe for my formerly broken foot is in my near future. So my break will be a lot of relaxing, a lot of sleeping, and a lot of movie watching. It'll be nice to have a break when I have literally nothing hanging over my head. It's kind of weird.

This Wednesday, Wharton will host a chat featuring Thomas Caleel, the new MBA admissions director. The chat will a great opportunity for those applying R2 to ask those burning questions. We will also continue the tradition of the all night chat on the eve of the R1 decisions on Thursday. Neuroses like company, so join the chat here: http://s2s.wharton.upenn.edu/wh-wharton/chat

I have been thinking a lot about the grade disclosure issue. With the changes to the HBS policy, bets are being taken around the corridors of Huntsman Hall as to when students vote out grade disclosure. I wouldn't be surprised if the Class of 2008 decides they will disclose grades. The administration will have a monopoly on the messaging about grade disclosure once the class comes to preterm next summer. Given how the administration was able to influence the class of 2007 in terms of academic focus, I wouldn't be surprised if they can accomplish a similar feat with the class of 2008 and grade disclosure.

But personally I think whether or not we disclose grades is not the issue. If the faculty wants students to be more engaged in the classroom, they need to attach rewards and consequences DIRECTLY to that behavior. Class engagement does not directly translate into grades. And this is the point that gets me most riled up when discussing the issue. You can't reward A and when you want B. Grades are usually a Proxy for how hard you worked in a class. But there are several reasons at Wharton why I don’t think this is always the case. 1) prior knowledge in a subject, 2) the crazy ass Wharton curve, and 3) gaming the system.

Prior Subject Knowledge
Some people are able to skate by in a class because they have previous experience. For example in Corporate Finance and Advanced Corporate Finance, individuals with investment banking are a distinct advantage since they have seen much of the principles and theories taught in practice. So for the liberal arts major who has never seen a cash flow projection may really work hard and be incredibly engaged an focused on learning the concepts, but he or she doesn't stand a chance against the banker who never shows up to class and coasts. According to the faculty, they want people like the engaged liberal arts major in my example in class, and they want less of people who coast. But at the end of the day, they reward the coasting banker with the higher grade. Why would coasting behavior change if it's rewarded? What message does that send to students?

Crazy Ass Curve
At Wharton, we have a hard curve. So the top 10-15% get a DS, the equivalent of an A, the next 15-20% get an HP or a B, and the middle half get a P (as in average C), the bottom 10% get a QC (although it's recorded as a P) to signal that you need to step it up. Sounds all well and good right. OK here's the problem. People at Wharton tend to be high achievers, so getting the elusive DS isn't always about how hard you work. I've been an several classes where the means on tests were in the high 80s and low 90 percentile. In what alternative universe is an 89% a C? Wharton that's where. So in a lot of classes the differences between a DS and a P can be very slim.

So in essence the curve amplifies these slight differences. It can be demotivating. Why put in extra effort when you still fall in P range if you can put in significantly less work and still get a P? The fact that the massive middle gets the equivalent of a C even when on an absolute scale they kicked ass is the cause of much of the complacency professors complain about in my opinion. And for those who do work hard for the Ps, the fact that professors (and recruiters if we disclose) assume that they didn't master the material, or didn't care, or didn't try can be another frustrating demotivator. I'm sorry, but nothing you say is going to convince me that the person with a DS and a 96 is that much better than the person who ends up with a P and a 93. Sorry 3 extra points doesn't indicate that much more mastery. That difference can be one question guessed right or wrong. But the rewards that are associated with that three point difference if we disclose, seems unfair. And it does nothing to encourage actual learning.

Gaming The System
Wharton's (and institutions of higher learning in general) dirty little secret, in my opinion. In most classes, somewhere to 40-50% of our grades are based on how well you do on the test. It took me a while to figure this out, but often the key to doing well in a class is learning the type of questions the professor asks on tests by practicing with old exams. This method has nothing to do with the concepts taught in a class. Tests typically have 5-8 question types. You know how to do those and can recognize the question types - you are golden. Interestingly when professors mix It up a bit and ask questions in new ways, the means on tests fall precipitously. If students were rewarded for mastering concepts, asking questions in different ways shouldn't have that type of affect on the means. But students are basically trained to learn to master the test, not the concepts in the class.

Whether or not we disclose grades isn't going to change class room behavior. Nothing about making us tell recruiters our GPAs is going to make people more focused on learning. What is it that recruiters hope to find out from grades? Some recruiters have absolute cut offs for grades – which is totally ridiculous. One of the companies I applied to had a minimum GPA requirement of 3.3. Well since the top 10% is a 3.3, this company essentially eliminates 90% of the class. Is this what they want? What about leadership outside of the classroom? I've learned more about managing work loads and other people through my extracurricular activities than I have in classroom. Does that experience, which will probably make me a better employee, not matter. What is it recruiters are looking for? It's short sighted to over-emphasize grades in an MBA program. It's not just about the grades.

So what's the solution if not grade disclosure. 1) Reward classroom behavior you seek. If you want people to attend your class and it's important to you, it should be impossible to get a DS if you never show up to class. 2) Make it harder to game the system - change up the tests. Make the emphasis on mastery on concepts not on mastery of certain types of questions. 3) Get rid of the curve. Maybe we should be rewarded for mastery not how we did relative to the person seated next to us.

Some outsiders' interpretation of student resistance to grade disclosure is that Wharton students are lazy and don't want to have to work during our two year tenure in the MBA Program. That's just pure bullshit. MOST Wharton students work incredibly hard. Despite the carefree façade many of my classmates present, I know many of them are pulling allnighters to kick ass in these classes. Yes we party hard. But we work hard too. The resistance to disclosing grades isn't because we're lazy. It's because we want our Wharton experience to be about more than just studying. Who wants to look back on their two years at Wharton and have their fondest memory be how hard they studied for their OPIM exam? Wharton shouldn't just be about the grades. Overemphasis on grades belittles the richness of the Wharton experience. I think the grade disclosure debate misses this point. I guess we'll all have to see how it plays out.

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