I was recently asked by the campus newspaper to comment on a new Facebook application called CampusBuddy. Utilizing grading records from 250 public colleges and universities nationwide (public schools generally are legally obligated to release their grades upon request), CampusBuddy provides grade histograms for individual institutions, departments, courses, and even professors. Students can also chat with other students who are taking the same sort of classes, provide further ratings of their professors, and so on.
Here, for example, is the aggregate data provided for UW-Milwaukee (click to zoom):
Based on over 105,000 grades from over 4,300 courses, it appears that 65% of UW-M students earned a B or higher. You can then click through to view particular departments, particular courses, and particular professors.
I was asked what I thought about CampusBuddy, and whether it might be “useful for students” or rather simply “a waste of time”. My reply:
The presumed usefulness to students is obvious: help identify the grade distribution of various schools, departments, or individual instructors. Students would likely want to use that data to seek out easy classes/instructors, and avoid difficult ones.
The problem, however, is that merely looking at grade distribution is not a sufficient indicator of the relative ease/difficulty of a course, or whether a particular instructor is a hard/easy grader. Too many unaccounted variables exist:
- are the number of grades included a sufficient and representative sample to draw conclusions?
- has the course been redesigned?
- has the instructor changed her grading procedures?
- perhaps the quality of students has changed over time?
- perhaps the professor historically taught an easy subject, but now teaches a more difficult one.
Simply put, past grading behavior doesn’t predict future grading (or student) performance.
As such, my personal views on the application are that while the data is (generally) publicly available, and it seems to be providing a service to students, I fear that students might rely too heavily on simply a chart of grading data to determine their curriculum. Instead, they should be focusing on the combination of factors, including subject matter, pedagogical method & style, the instructor’s background, as well as the perceived difficulty of a course.
A histogram of grades is not a good way to determine one’s academic future.
What I do find unique about CampusBuddy is that it doesn’t even have its own website. If you go to www.campusbuddy.com, you simply get directed to the Facebook application page. It is leveraging on the captive audience of students already on Facebook, rather than trying to drive traffic to some outside website. That’s much more interesting to me than a bunch of decontextualized statistical data on course grades.
UPDATE: The UW-M Post story on CampusBuddy can be viewed here.
UPDATE: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has obtained more current grading data, and has a story about grading trends at UW-M here.