Skewed grade distribution by last name

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Over the last few semesters I have noticed that one half of the alphabet typically does much worse grade wise than the other half of the class.  Typically it is the second half of the names that do much worse than the first half of the names.  When I initially identified this trend I had some panic that I was doing something that was hurting the grades of half my class.  I started grading in random or reverse alphabetical order to make sure if wasn’t grading fatigue on my part causing the difference in grades.  I still noticed the disparity in the top half of students alphabetically in my grade book after this change.   After some more freaking out on my part I discussed this with a colleague who looked over my grade books for a couple of semesters and pointed out that the students who were doing poorly simply weren’t handing assignments in and that I wasn’t giving lower grades for work handed in.  I couldn’t believe I had overlooked something so simple but felt much better afterward.  Fast forward several semesters and I am still seeing almost the exact same trend every time I teach this course (I only teach 1-2 sections of the same course each semester). 

Has anyone noticed similar trends in grade distribution or any thoughts on what might be going on?

How weird.

Here is the breakdown of my current class of 20 students

First 10 names
A - 3
B - 6
F - 1

Second 10 names
A - 2
B - 1
C - 1
D - 2
F - 5

Yes, I have noticed this in past -- including that the first half of the alphabet did better.

I also have seen studies on this (years ago, so I do not have them at hand), attributing it to a dozen K12 years of teachers calling on students alphabetically, starting with the A's, so that those students know that they have to be prepared, while students in the second half of the alphabet know the odds that time will run out before they are called.  I remember being instructed (my first degree was in Education) to reverse and start with the Z's at times, as well as to also start with the middle group by alphabetical order (i.e., the J's to P's, say).

This also came to mind recently for me, in watching the participation (written weekly assignments) rates in my large online class of hundreds this semester and wondering whether I am seeing the effects of that instruction to K12 teachers to reverse alphabetical order, because I am seeing the reverse of what you see.  The N's to Z's are doing much better in my class in terms of doing assignments at all, doing them well, and thus being much better prepared to do well on the tests, too.

I haven't checked last names, but I've checked first names.  I've had something like 15 students named Brittany (or Britney or Brtny or some such misspelling) and only one has earned higher than a C.  I've never had a Rachel (or Rachael) get below a C.  Kates do well too. 


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