Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Psychological Cause of Grade Inflation?

Yesterday, my colleague Matt Pianalto and I were having a brief discussion in the hallway about grading. Something I've wondered about in the past, and which we discussed, is whether a particular psychological cause sometimes contributes to grade inflation.

Those of us who become professors value academic excellence, and have worked hard to achieve it. Presumably, we achieved it as undergrads to some degree, and then to a greater degree as graduate students. I recall in graduate school being told by a grad student working on her dissertation that a B+ in grad school is like a C or D at the undergraduate level. I was driven to get an A in each of my courses, because, rightly or wrongly, I saw this as a necessary but not sufficient condition for future academic employment.

How does this relate to grade inflation? I would suggest that some of us project our own psychology onto our undergraduate students. For the most part, I don't have much difficulty giving a B, but I do find it difficult at times to give a student a C or lower, because getting such a grade would have been hard for me to handle as a student. Yet many students are happy with a C, because they don't have the same approach to their education that we did. This is just a bit of armchair psychology, I suppose, but it is worth thinking about, because I suspect that for myself and some others, it is an occasional cause of grade inflation.


  1. Mike -

    Perhaps that's part of it. However, with grade inflating, I think it's mostly determined by the levels at which one determines that the complaints drop off. I don't think it's projection that the number of complaints about Bs is low whereas the number of complaints about Cs is much higher. Of course that doesn't mean that some students aren't perfectly happy with Cs - they are. But I still think the amount of complaints drops off considerably at the B level.

    In addition, you might have to factor in the truth that even to students who don't care about getting Cs, they realize that the world around them thinks that Cs are not good, and that Bs are acceptable. So some students who would be happy with Cs are still going to complain for that reason. I don't think this happens as often with other grade difference levels.

  2. I had to struggle with this while teaching logic. The solution was to have a clear "C" option on my final exams... that is, when a student only masters the basic proofs, they can earn a C and know they are done with the course. I came to this realization when it struck me that not everyone was like me and Lisa Simposon -- always needing an A.

  3. Maybe I'm strange here, but I think I have the opposite attitudes: Because I was a strong student and recognize the amount of work it takes to earn a bona fide A, I'm less likely to give students A's when I'm the slightest bit skeptical that they've earned it. More of a curmudgeonly gatekeeper type I guess!

  4. I think you are on to something. Though this also accounts for why so many academics find teaching frustrating. If you expect students to be like you were as a student, you are bound to be disappointed.

    But Patty's comment also highlights the importance of thinking through what you expect at each grade level. Communicating that to the students can help with the complaints issue because there are some students who work really hard at the wrong things and are genuinely baffled with their low grade.

    Clarifying what the basics are (and that mastering just the basics gets you a C) and then moving out from there makes marking papers easier for the prof, and also makes it easier for students to figure out what exactly they are supposed to be learning.

  5. A very good point that some students just don't have the desire to get an A or B. This is something that it takes a bit to learn.

    Personally, I always feel a sense of failure if I have a student (or several students) earning grades of C or D. I go into the class feeling like everyone could get an A and I see my job as a teacher to provide them with the opportunity to achieve that A. If they fall short, I feel like I must have let them down somewhere along the way.

  6. Mike -- to what the others have said, I'd like to add that although I recognize the feelings and thoughts that you describe, I'm not sure that they help explain grade inflation (i.e., a process occurring over time). Can you say more about that part of your discussion with your colleague?

  7. Sometimes I have the same experience as Michael, in that I want an A in my courses to really mean something. At other times, I am aware of the psychological phenomena I referred to in the post. Vance, here is how it would contribute to grade inflation. A student might be really close to an A, or a B, and then what I talk about in the post kicks in and I give them the benefit of the doubt. This would inflate individual grades, and perhaps, if it is a pattern, result in higher grades over time.

    One other thing I'd like to mention is that in my experience the most difficult students to deal with are not the ones on the border between a C and B, but rather those who are on line between an A and a B. They can be the most insistent and aggressive when trying to lobby for a grade. Generally, the ones below that don't seem to care as much.


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