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This is the first installment in a series of articles from The Michigan Daily that explore course evaluation and grade data at the University. To explore the data on your own, visit gradeguide.com.
When one LSA junior signed up for Psychology 225: Psychology of Human Sexuality, she did not realize she was about to take the course with the worst grade distribution in the entire college of LSA.
The class has consistently produced a mean grade of C+ in the past two semesters in which the course was taught: the lowest average grade out of any class within LSA. The course has been taught over the last 9 years by Associate Psychology professor Terri Conley. It offers a broad introduction of the various aspects of human sexuality as well as its intersections with gender.
“I was definitely surprised,” the junior, who wishes to remain anonymous due to worries of repercussions in class, said. “First of all, when I’m signing up for classes I don’t really look at the grade distributions — I know that’s a thing I can look at, but I never do. This was kind of something I signed up for last minute. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be an easy course, but I also was not expecting it to be graded super harshly, especially since I’m a computer science major and this is a psych class, so I was definitely surprised.”
The course has been graded on a curve and often results in a normal distribution. Though the average was low, prior course evaluations showed students felt coursework was not overbearing and demonstrated strong interest in learning the subject matter.
Conley was very surprised to find out about the class’s standing; she did not know it had the lowest average grade in LSA until The Michigan Daily informed her of the fact. Though she was aware her students did not always appreciate having a curve, she never imagined it would lead to the lowest average in LSA. She explained how students in her class from the Ross School of Business typically seemed to understand grading on the curve, but others struggled with it.
“The business school people who would take my class were always like, ‘Yeah, we know what is going on,’” Conley said. “So it was just shocking to me to have it as the lowest class because I assumed most people were doing this, but I guess this explains why people can’t understand the curve. Although I do think it is a little troubling when people with psychology backgrounds don’t understand what a normal distribution looks like.”
The Daily’s data estimates PSYCH 225 is the only course in LSA that uses a true normal distribution centered at B-/C+. The vast majority of curved courses use a skewed distribution, which results in significantly higher average grades.
Conley also argued the curve used to benefit students’ overall grade, contrary to what many of her students believed.
“The curve actually always helped out students, it didn’t hurt students,” Conley said. “I would say that but I think they didn’t believe me except for the ones maybe who would come in and look at the distribution with me.”
Course evaluation data obtained by The Daily through the Freedom of Information Act also shows many students in the course felt like they did not know what was expected of them. Previous course evaluations show 69 percent of people felt they knew what was expected of them in the course. 88 percent of University courses had better expectation scores.
The LSA junior also mentioned the issue of expectations. She explained even though the syllabus is pretty cohesive, the exam style and the grading scale are not articulated thoroughly by instructors.
“The syllabus is very detailed, and we also have to sign a student contract,” she said. “So I think there is a big emphasis on the setting expectations, but I also think it’s kind of hard to really know what exams are going to be like before you go in. We did have the practice midterm, but even still, the criteria of the grading scale was not sent out until the morning of the exam. So yes, that sets expectations, but it gives no room to prepare accordingly.”
In regard to the course’s level of difficulty, Conley explained she never wanted to make the class unnecessarily hard, but instead hoped to offer a meaningful challenge for her students.
“I get concerned about setting the bar too low, to some extent you could say if you reward people they persist,” Conley said. “But if it’s so easy that it doesn’t seem meaningful then I think people are less inclined to value what they’ve learned or think it’s important. I tend to think we should be having students work hard because that’s why you come to college, it’s supposed to be a challenge.”
Conley also addressed the challenge of getting some students to appreciate the academic nature of a class on sexuality, which is something she feels is not a problem in other subjects.
“It’s not like I set out to do this, this wasn’t my goal, but as I think of it, it does serve a purpose with this particular topic — an argument you wouldn’t have to make in students, let’s say, in chemistry, that chemistry is difficult or that chemistry can be intellectually challenging,” Conley said.
Public Policy senior Samantha Kennedy is also taking the class this semester. She felt the low grade average might be due to something as simple as differing levels of incoming knowledge about human sexuality.
“I think that the most surprising to me about it was just that I assumed a lot of people had the same knowledge I had going in and that’s why it might’ve been easy for everyone, but I’m realizing people, especially freshman or sophomores who haven’t taken other women studies classes before, might not have had exposure to this kind of thinking, and this kind of open discussion about sex.”
Kennedy also praised the content of the course, especially the way that it exposes students to facets of sexuality which are not usually accessible in a classroom setting.
“We’ve broached a lot of topics that are often considered taboo to talk about in a classroom setting,” Kennedy said. “For example, we watched porn in class the other day, and we had a guest lecturer come in and pass around sex toys, so it’s been fun.”
This semester, Conley redesigned the exam style from mostly multiple choice to short answer. She hopes the change will offer students a chance to critically think about the concepts in class.
“This semester, I decided I wanted to try to engage them in a different way that I thought might map on better to how the course is structured, which is asking you to think critically about the issues that we’re talking about and provide their own ideas,” she said. “So that’s how the class is structured this semester to see if we can challenge them in a way that’s different than what we do in multiple choice exams.”
Students recently experienced one of the new exams through a practice midterm, which took place last week.
While the LSA junior appreciated the chance to try out the exam without the pressure of a grade, she found it very difficult to complete in the amount of time provided. She said the exam consisted of 8 essay-style questions and about 12 minutes were allotted to answer each one.
“We did just have a practice midterm, so it was the same format as the other exams, but it doesn’t actually count towards our grades,” she said. “Which was a nice opportunity, but it ended up being super hard … Even though it was open note, we had to cite from lectures and the book, so that was definitely kind of surprising for me because that was more difficult than I expected.”
Kennedy, however, found the exam less difficult and noted the importance of using critical thinking when answering questions.
“To me, it seemed relatively easy,” Kennedy said. “A lot of it was asking questions that sort of encouraged us to do our own analysis of things we had talked about a lot like stigmas surrounding STD, uses and comfort with sex toys and things like that. I felt that I was able to answer the questions pretty well by being able to think critically about topics we had discussed and less because of studying.”
Moving forward, Conley offered suggestions on how to succeed in her course. She emphasized talking through the different concepts in class and really thinking critically about the course. She also encouraged students to continue taking her class, even if it is more challenging, because it has a lot to offer.
“So many people when they take the course they really appreciate it but they say, ‘I gave you low scores because it was hard,’… and I feel like people should be tougher than that,” Conley said. “You got into Michigan, you’re smart and you’re accomplished and you should be able to be up for a challenge and not downgrade a course because it’s hard – that seems not completely fair. So I’d like people to appreciate that the course has things to offer them even if it’s not going to be an easy A.”