Puzzling Grades

I lead recitations for a Linear Algebra class at MIT. Sometimes my students are disappointed with their grades. The grades are based on the final score, which is calculated by the following formula: 15% for homework, 15% for each of the three midterms, and 40% for the final. After all the scores are calculated, we decide on the cutoffs for A, B, and other grades. Last semester, the first cutoff was unusually low. The top 50% got an A.

Some students who were above average on every exam assumed they would get an A, but nonetheless received a B. The average scores for the three midterm exams and for the final exam were made public, so everyone knew where they stood relative to the average.

The average scores for homework are not publicly available, but they didn’t have much relevance because everyone was close to 100%. However, a hypothetical person who is slightly above average on everything, including the homework, should not expect an A, even if half the class gets an A. There are two different effects that cause this. Can you figure them out?

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  1. Carnival of Mathematics #121 | Life Through A Mathematician's Eyes:

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