# In Canada, 80% is an A-, in the States, it's a B-. Does that mean....

• Eric Recchia

#### Eric Recchia

Summary:: Comparing education systems from different countries.

..our education system is easier? Or does that mean our material is tougher and the grading system balances out? Or is just cultural differences.

The only exception is York. It doesn't like (-) so an 80 is just an A. 90+ is an A+.

I don't think that the education system is easier or that the material is tougher in Canada. I think it is a matter of calibration. Perhaps a PF member who has taught in both countries will have something to say on this. I have taught only in the US and I do not have experience with grading in Canada.

ohwilleke
kuruman said:
Whereas percentages are (more or less) absolute,
When I was teaching at a small undergraduate-only college in the US, I could in principle make the distribution of percentage grades on e.g. an exam come out to anything I wanted, by adjusting the difficulty of the questions and how much partial credit I gave for solutions that weren't completely satisfactory.

At the end of a semester, I reported grades to the college's registrar as A (excellent), B (good), C (fair), D (poor), F (failing). In some courses I used "+" and "-" variations. I was free to use whatever rule I chose for converting between percentages and letter grades, so long as I informed the students of it in the syllabus that I gave out at the beginning of the course. In practice, I always used A = 90 to 100, B = 80 to 90, C = 70 to 80, D = 60 to 70, F = 0 to 60, and assigned my numeric grades accordingly.

ohwilleke and symbolipoint
It depends on the exam, doesn't it?

You often can't even compare grades across different programs at the same university, so I don't see how yo could do it across countries.

DrClaude said:
It depends on the exam, doesn't it?

You often can't even compare grades across different programs at the same university, so I don't see how yo could do it across countries.
Would that depend on the regulation which the institution establishes, either campus-wide, or system-wide? The teacher or professor does not always have full control on this; does he/she?

symbolipoint said:
Would that depend on the regulation which the institution establishes, either campus-wide, or system-wide? The teacher or professor does not always have full control on this; does he/she?
The institutions where I've taught, three community colleges in the Seattle area, don't have any campus-wide or system-wide regulations on grading. I taught from '79 to '97 in one college, then changed careers to something very different from teaching, and after retiring from that career in 2013, took up teaching in CCs again.
Unless the instructor is seen as being very unfair in grading, and gets a lot of legitimate complaints by students, administrations don't step in. The situation might be different in grades K-12, based on a few stories I've heard.

Also worth noting: at my college at least (also the three other other colleges and universities where I studied and taught), only the final letter grade in a course appears on a student's official academic record. The numeric grade that the professor calculates and uses to determine the letter grade, is kept only in the professor's and student's personal records. Same for the components of the final grade (exams, homework, labs).

If a student were to "go over the professor's head" in disputing the final grade in a course, the department chair and/or the provost (academic dean) would probably want to see the professor's records. Fortunately, that never happened to me in 28 years of teaching.

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ohwilleke
symbolipoint said:
Would that depend on the regulation which the institution establishes, either campus-wide, or system-wide? The teacher or professor does not always have full control on this; does he/she?
Even in cases where the relation between numerical grades and letter grades is fixed (either in absolute value or used on the bell curve), I have seen professors use fudge factors to adjust for exams that were too hard/too easy.

ohwilleke and symbolipoint
I don't see what the problem is supposed to be.

Anybody in a position of judgemental authority (like uni application supervisors) would/should have the experience - andor references available - to know that school x's grades scale differently than school y's ; or county a's vs county b's... or state l's vs... you can see where I'm going with this, yes ? Not only school vs school comparisons but programme vs programme.

Your aunt lording it over your mum that her widdle pwecious is getting straight A's while your medley includes the odd B or two, isn't really an international issue.

DrClaude said:
I have seen professors use fudge factors to adjust for exams that were too hard/too easy.
I did that sometimes, in my early years. With experience, I became better at choosing exam questions/problems at a suitable level of difficulty.

A colleague and I were talking about a student whom we shared when I remarked, that he is a B student. The colleague, who was at the beginning of his teaching career, asked me how I knew this. This is what I told him.

Say a student comes to your office hours asking for help with a homework problem. During the course of the help session you scribble a few drawings and an equation or two on a piece of paper. Watch the student's behavior.
The A student will say, "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed."
The B student will say, "Can I have that piece of paper?"
The C student will leave without saying anything but will come back an hour later and say, "How was that again?"
The D student will not come to office hours.
The F student will not do homework problems.

I mention this to indicate that after a few years of teaching, one gets to develop a sense for evaluating independently of test scores where the student stands on the scale Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, Failure. One doesn't even need to meet the student face to face to rank him/her on this scale. Just look at the reactions of OPs to requesting homework help, count the number of posts needed to get to a resolution and examine the last post by the OP. Here is a suggested scale and please correct me if I'm wrong.

The A student will post twice, saying in the second post "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed. Sorry for wasting your time."
The B student will post a handful in which he/she provides constructive answers to the leading question "what do you think you should do next?" and in the last post says, "I can finish this on my own now. Thanks."
The C student will require a dozen or more posts and often needs to have the question "what do you think you should do next?" broken down into sub-questions and prods of the "Note that ..." variety. Nevertheless, the OP sticks around until the question is answered. The last post is something like "Thank you very much for your patience, I learned a lot."
The D student quits after a handful of posts with the question left unanswered.
The F student posts once and then disappears even though several posts with helpful suggestions from different perspectives have been posted.

Test scores are only one dimension contributing to a student's standing on the Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor or Failure scale. Native intelligence and attitude are additional dimensions, just as important, if one is to encapsulate a student's quality into a single letter grade. How to fold these dimensions equitably into the overall assessment of a student has been of some concern to me during my teaching career. My resolution of the issue was not the same as that of my colleagues at my institution and certainly not the same as other U.S. or Canadian institutions. Therefore, I agree with others on this thread that it is meaningless to attempt letter grade comparisons.

CalcNerd, ohwilleke, atyy and 1 other person
kuruman,
I do not know if I completely or a large bit agree but post #11 is interesting.

kuruman
When teaching college (in the U.S.), I and many teachers I knew graded "on the curve", which means using a normal distribution with standard deviation. In that case, the actual score meant little. Getting an A meant being on the (better) outside of the inner 65% or so of students.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_deviation#/media/File:Standard_deviation_diagram.svg

As for how many A's I gave out at the end of the course, I believe there was in fact grade inflation going on, because I was well aware of the cutoff for the program where I was teaching, and so giving out a grade below the acceptable cutoff had consequences. A student generally had to be pretty bad to get a grade below the cutoff, where I felt they had not applied themselves at all or would be unable to competent in the area taught if they ever needed to step up to the plate.

Of all things related to teaching, testing and assigning grades was something I found to be utterly miserable, and I deeply hated the aggressive stance of some students when demanding a better grade. I used to rely on my spouse to help me out: they would read an email wheedle with me, listen to my assessment of the student, and bolster me sometimes by saying "just say no".

symbolipoint
kuruman said:
Say a student comes to your office hours asking for help with a homework problem. During the course of the help session you scribble a few drawings and an equation or two on a piece of paper. Watch the student's behavior.
The A student will say, "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed."
The B student will say, "Can I have that piece of paper?"
The C student will leave without saying anything but will come back an hour later and say, "How was that again?"
The D student will not come to office hours.
The F student will not do homework problems.
I assume you only meant this is a way to predict where a student will end up and not a metric to overrule the student's actual work.

kuruman
Once, as a research postdoc, I asked a Fields medalist a question about moduli spaces of curves. He scribbled a few notes on a pad, which seemed inconclusive to me, and then stopped. Thinking he was stuck, I remarked that it was ok, as I didn't really need the result. He looked at me a bit oddly, so I asked for the pad and left. After about an hour of studying it in my office, I realized his scribblings completely answered my question. I looked for him to thank him but he was gone. This experience felt kind of like a D- or worse, so I am delighted that kuruman might have given me a B- (except for my remark of course).

atyy and etotheipi
kuruman said:
Say a student comes to your office hours asking for help with a homework problem. During the course of the help session you scribble a few drawings and an equation or two on a piece of paper. Watch the student's behavior.
The A student will say, "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed."
The B student will say, "Can I have that piece of paper?"
The C student will leave without saying anything but will come back an hour later and say, "How was that again?"
The D student will not come to office hours.
The F student will not do homework problems.

Once I went to office hours with a friend (an "A+" student) about a question on the homework we couldn't answer. I didn't understand a thing the professor was saying, but my friend nodded vigorously to everything, so I assumed she understood and I'd just ask her afterwards. After we left, and I asked her, she said she hadn't understood anything either, but decided to pretend to, as she had decided while in his office that she wanted to try solving the problem on her own again, so didn't want to hear the professor's explanations! It's a miracle I didn't strangle her.

kuruman
atyy said:
It's a miracle I didn't strangle her.

This is where you say, "I married her instead".

ohwilleke and atyy
In high school I took 'Physics for Poets' or it's equivalent junior year. The text was Paul G. Hewitt's Conceptual Physics. My teacher, a kindly old man, took me aside and advised me to drop the course as I was in danger of flunking. That talk somehow motivated me just enough and I ended up passing the course. Then, when I started junior college, I really got motivated. Later, when I transferred to the University of Illinois, I majored in physics. Then I went to grad school at U. of I. in physics. I can't believe I started as an 'F' student in Physics for Poets! A little motivation can go a long way.

kuruman said:
A colleague and I were talking about a student whom we shared when I remarked, that he is a B student. The colleague, who was at the beginning of his teaching career, asked me how I knew this. This is what I told him.

Say a student comes to your office hours asking for help with a homework problem. During the course of the help session you scribble a few drawings and an equation or two on a piece of paper. Watch the student's behavior.
The A student will say, "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed."
The B student will say, "Can I have that piece of paper?"
The C student will leave without saying anything but will come back an hour later and say, "How was that again?"
The D student will not come to office hours.
The F student will not do homework problems.

I mention this to indicate that after a few years of teaching, one gets to develop a sense for evaluating independently of test scores where the student stands on the scale Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, Failure. One doesn't even need to meet the student face to face to rank him/her on this scale. Just look at the reactions of OPs to requesting homework help, count the number of posts needed to get to a resolution and examine the last post by the OP. Here is a suggested scale and please correct me if I'm wrong.

The A student will post twice, saying in the second post "Oh, how silly of me not to have seen seen this. I feel embarrassed. Sorry for wasting your time."
The B student will post a handful in which he/she provides constructive answers to the leading question "what do you think you should do next?" and in the last post says, "I can finish this on my own now. Thanks."
The C student will require a dozen or more posts and often needs to have the question "what do you think you should do next?" broken down into sub-questions and prods of the "Note that ..." variety. Nevertheless, the OP sticks around until the question is answered. The last post is something like "Thank you very much for your patience, I learned a lot."
The D student quits after a handful of posts with the question left unanswered.
The F student posts once and then disappears even though several posts with helpful suggestions from different perspectives have been posted.

Test scores are only one dimension contributing to a student's standing on the Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor or Failure scale. Native intelligence and attitude are additional dimensions, just as important, if one is to encapsulate a student's quality into a single letter grade. How to fold these dimensions equitably into the overall assessment of a student has been of some concern to me during my teaching career. My resolution of the issue was not the same as that of my colleagues at my institution and certainly not the same as other U.S. or Canadian institutions. Therefore, I agree with others on this thread that it is meaningless to attempt letter grade comparisons.

Also I've noticed that A students will ask questions that help them generalize what they're learning and apply it to new problems and to make sure they understand the big picture. Most other students take a more narrow view.

Hi @Gocalc and welcome to PF.

Gocalc said:
Also I've noticed that A students will ask questions that help them generalize what they're learning and apply it to new problems and to make sure they understand the big picture. Most other students take a more narrow view.
Generalization cuts two ways and may result in a narrow view by a C student looking for shortcuts.

Instructor: "Since the force is in the same direction as the displacement, the work done by the force on the block is ##W=\vec F\cdot \vec s=Fs##."

Physbite internalized by C student: "Work is force times distance".

Gocalc
I recognized myself as the B student in post #11. Once in the office of famous mathematician whom I had just asked a question, I thought he had become stumped when he stopped writing and speaking. But when I said "That's ok, I didn't need it anyway", he looked at me oddly. So I asked for the piece of paper. An hour later I understood he had completely solved my problem.

No wait, maybe that is closer to the C- student. anyway, it definitely rang a bell, and I did dodge a D.

mathwonk said:
I recognized myself as the B student in post #11. Once in the office of famous mathematician whom I had just asked a question, I thought he had become stumped when he stopped writing and speaking. But when I said "That's ok, I didn't need it anyway", he looked at me oddly. So I asked for the piece of paper. An hour later I understood he had completely solved my problem.

No wait, maybe that is closer to the C- student. anyway, it definitely rang a bell, and I did dodge a D.

I think I remember this meeting, it was about moduli spaces of curves, right?

(Or I just read post #15)

In New Zealand, an A is 60% (on the national bursary exams which used both for college admissions and for government funded merit based scholarships, or were as of the late 1980s).

A's are just about as rare there are they are in the U.S. (and to compare meaningfully, Canada and the U.S. you need to know how many A's and B's are given, and the relative academic ability of the students getting those grades, both of which varies from institution to institution).

What the New Zealand system means is that it rewards someone much more for becoming a true expert in a subject and getting much more than a mere A, even if that means sacrificing a perfect A in every other subject.

If you get an 80 in physics (i.e an A+++++), you can afford to get a 50 (i.e. a low B) in English and French, and still have a straight A average of 60%.

Similarly, if you are a native speaker of a non-English language in New Zealand, that can bolster your overall average relative to school taught foreign language learners in New Zealand, since your foreign language bursary exam score will typically be well over 60% which is calibrated to the best of the non-native speakers of that language who were taught it in school.

In contrast, in the U.S., our GPA system with a 90% being typical for an A, rewards people for being very solidly competent jacks of all trades, but penalizes people who are excellent in one subject but less so in one or more other subjects relative to the all 'rounders. In the U.S., being excellent in a subject is a plus factor that will get you into Ivy League schools out of a pool of similar valedictorians, if you already have the necessary, but not sufficient, nearly perfect GPA, but is only really considered late in the admissions process.

My suspicion is that the the 80% = A in Canada reflects a compromise between the U.S. approach and the New Zealand approach (which I suspect was in turn heavily influenced by the U.K. system).

Also, in the U.S., the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) contextualizes institutional undergraduate GPAs in law school admissions by providing data to law schools about how inflated the grades are at particular undergraduate schools that is juxtaposed immediately against the law school applicants undergraduate GPA. I don't know if this is done in other disciplines.

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This is where you say, "I married her instead".

I married someone that I tutored in math and in economics in college. :)

Re: post #22. Ouch. So my forgetting time on my own posts is now down to 6 months. I recall now that many ridiculous posts occur when I don't actually read the whole thread I am responding to. apologies.

mathwonk said:
Re: post #22. Ouch. So my forgetting time on my own posts is now down to 6 months. I recall now that many ridiculous posts occur when I don't actually read the whole thread I am responding to. apologies.

I was just having some fun. I was kind of wondering if I just used enough details from your first post if I could convince you that I actually was that person lol.

well i always suspected you were a fields medalist.

Eric Recchia said:
Summary:: Comparing education systems from different countries.

..our education system is easier? Or does that mean our material is tougher and the grading system balances out? Or is just cultural differences.

The only exception is York. It doesn't like (-) so an 80 is just an A. 90+ is an A+.
This is a poor way of assigning grades. A much better way is for the instructor to write an exam with some idea of what he/she should represent what the average student in the class should know and set that as an average score. After grading the papers, make a histogram of the numerical grades, possibly adjust expectations a little and then look for natural divisions between clusters of scores that can be used to differentiate, say, an A- from a B+, where the numerical score itself is not relevant other than to place the scores into bins. The scores WILL fall into clusters (which may seem surprising, but try it and see).

If you decide that the average score should be 50% and that represents a B or a C or whatever, then simply placing cutoffs between clusters will do the rest. This also allows you to use the entire numerical range from 0-100% meaningfully instead of being restricted to artificially predetermined percentages, grading on a curve or other rather arbitrary ways of assigning grades.

bobob, in post #28, most of what you describe must be what some teachers or instructors do; maybe even most of them. I believe the idea of "rubric" comes into that.

I recall in my first year of open studies at the University of Calgary, one of the engineering calculus courses had a passing grade of about 40%. I found it incredulous that people were going onto to become engineers with such a limited understanding of math.

The fellow that told me this only learned how to integrate by parts in his final year. His classmates forced him to learn how to do it.

ohwilleke
bobob said:
This is a poor way of assigning grades. A much better way is for the instructor to write an exam with some idea of what he/she should represent what the average student in the class should know and set that as an average score. After grading the papers, make a histogram of the numerical grades, possibly adjust expectations a little and then look for natural divisions between clusters of scores that can be used to differentiate, say, an A- from a B+, where the numerical score itself is not relevant other than to place the scores into bins. The scores WILL fall into clusters (which may seem surprising, but try it and see).

If you decide that the average score should be 50% and that represents a B or a C or whatever, then simply placing cutoffs between clusters will do the rest. This also allows you to use the entire numerical range from 0-100% meaningfully instead of being restricted to artificially predetermined percentages, grading on a curve or other rather arbitrary ways of assigning grades.

And then you apply a piece-wise linear transformation so that the grade boundaries follow those prescribed by the institution.

In my opinion, there is no objective meaning to a cutoff of 70%, 80%, 90% for an A, B or C. Depending on how questions are designed, getting less than 100% might indicate you don’t understand the material. Or maybe getting anything right at all might indicate you have learned the material.

For an example from elementary school, showing that you can add fractions with different denominators. If you understand it, you will get close to 100%. Anything significantly less than 100% means you don’t understand the concepts.

ohwilleke