An interesting tidbit of pseudo-scientific news from nature.com:
Durham University researchers think that physics, chemistry and biology are a grade harder than drama and media studies and three-quarters of a grade harder than English at ‘A-level’, roughly equivalent to high school diplomas. (…)
“This research shows that science and technology subjects are much more severely graded than subjects like media studies and art,” says Robert Coe, author of the new report on the subject that’s stirred things up (press release).
To reach this conclusion Coe reviewed a host of previous attempts to determine the relative ‘difficulty’ of subjects and conducted his own analysis on examination data from 2006. His work found similar results from five different statistical methods, all of which are rather complicated (maths is hard remember).
These methods either compare the performance of the same candidate in different exams or compare exam grades between people of similar ability, as determined by a reference test of some kind. Science and maths subjects were all at the top of the difficulty range.
Just to stoke the fires a bit, Coe notes, “A student with a grade C in Biology will generally be more able than one with a B in Sociology, for example.”
Duh! No shit sherlock. That’s because science and math can only be graded objectively. You either get it or not. You either answer the question correctly, or incorrectly. There is a leeway for partial credit there, but in most cases to get it you still need to show understanding of the problem. Media studies and art on the other hand… Let’s face it, I don’t even know what media studies is.
Grading art is problematic, because we do not have a quantitative measure for creativity and originality. One art teacher may thing your work is brilliant and innovative, while another may consider it shallow and unimpressive. It is all matter of taste and opinion. And of course some people simply lack the talent or the spatial skills to actually create good art. Therefore most in class art projects are graded on how well students followed the directions, and how much work and effort they put into their work. Which again is a subjective measure.
In a lot of humanities classes, the grade reflects how good you are at bullshitting and not your mastery of the material. Let me tell you a little story. My senior year in college I took “Cultures of the Middle East” class because I needed to fulfill the “Non Western Perspectives” course requirement. The final exam was part general knowledge based multiple choice quiz, and par essay in which we would have to discuss one of the 6 short stories which I neglected to read. Before the test a friend who did read them primed me with basic plot outlines, and names of main characters. The test question was to compare and contrast the changing roles of women in the middle east as depicted in the stories. I got and A. Why?
I assume it’s because the grader was looking for specific set of issues, ideas – or key buzzwords to be mentioned in the paper. And I was able to hit all of them based on what I knew about social customs in the area, the brief plot outlines and the general direction of in-class discussions. In a very similar way many literature and sociology and philosophy students can cost through classes relying on nothing more than cliff notes and a decent writing style. More often than not your task when writing a paper for one of such classes is to interpret, analyze or express an opinion and argument using examples. Very often your thesis may be wrong and misguided but with a little creativity you can make up argumentation to support it and make it look like the text is supporting them and get away with it.
Science and math are really clean cut, formalized and no nonsense subjects. You can’t gloss over details. You can’t “creatively” interpret your data. It is due or die. You just have to learn it, and understand it – there is no room for bullshitting, hand waving and any of that stuff. So it’s not that science is inherently harder. It’s because science is inherently easier to test accurately. It is not very difficult to design a decent set of questions which will test ones knowledge of a given scientific subject – and it is fairly easy to grade. Here is the answer key – if the students write something else, mark it wrong. That’s it.
Art, sociology and literature on the other hand… It takes some skill and experience to make up questions that will show that students really “read” the assigned text, and really understood it.
But that’s just my opinion. Feel free to prove me wrong and argue in favor of your favorite subject in the comments.
[tags]science, math, art, subjects, grading, school[/tags]