Monday, June 18, 2012

Reflections off Lake Wobegon: What faculty see about grade inflation when we look in the mirror

I'm utterly fascinated by this study on how faculty perceive grade inflation. The researchers interviewed 25 faculty members about grade inflation. The main findings:

  • "faculty thought grade inflation was more of a problem at their institution than in their department, and only two reported that grade inflation was a problem in their courses. Those perceptions aren’t particularly surprising, but then it starts to get really interesting. More than three-fourths of the faculty in this cohort reported that they were tougher graders than colleagues in their department. The researchers note that although it is possible that some in the cohort might be tougher graders, given criteria used to select participants “there is no reason to believe that the interviewees as a group actually were ‘tougher’ than others in their own department.”
  • The explanation for this discrepancy is that faculty routinely think they assign lower grades than they in fact do: "Nearly all of the interviewed professors believe their grades were lower than they actually were: they underestimated the number of A’s and overestimated the number of lower grades in their classes. In the most extreme case a professor estimated grades equivalent to a 2.31 GPA when in fact the actual GPA was 3.53.”
Hmmm. So the students live in Lake Wobegon, where most everyone is above average. But the faculty don't see themselves as responsible for this state of affairs!

Now I have to say that in some ways I'm not surprised: My guess is that many faculty have a set of abstract grading standards in their heads, but then when they sit down and evaluate actual students, those standards turn out to be pretty malleable and tend to bend in students' favor.

I (of course!) am mostly immune to this. For the past several years, I've seen my department's data on grade distribution by instructor, and I'm pretty much in the middle. (You can see a little about average grades in my courses here.) I don't have any way of knowing about the rest of the university of course. One interesting feature of my own grading is that while it's tough to get an A in my courses (about 7% of students historically), it's not especially hard to get a decent grade in my course. About 65% of my students get a B- or better, which (in my estimation) is as it should be. For one, I intentionally design my courses and my grading schemes so that students who make a concerted effort (turning everything in on time, etc.) are unlikely to be unsatisfied with their grade for the course. As I like to tell them, it's very rare that a student who attends class, pays attention, takes minimal care to study for exams, etc., ends up with a grade below a B-. 

Second — and this is a point that I think is not often noticed in grade inflation discussions — even though a 'C' is often thought to be an average grade, at the institution where I teach (and I'm under the impression this is typical) there's a de facto expectation that students have at least a 'C' average. Students whose GPA's persist below 2.0 for more than a quarter are put on academic probation, the first step toward disqualification. Moreover, students have to have a 2.0+ GPA in their major courses in order to graduate. I propose, then, simultaneous to the onset of grade inflation has been an onset of expectation inflation, and that the latter might be part of the explanation of grade inflation. In other words, the days of getting by on "gentlemen's C's" have gone by the wayside, and institutions have adjusted to this by inflating grades. The old gentleman's C is the new gentle-individual's B-. And I see this creep into my own grading behavior. I've had many students who I might think deserve D's but rethought the matter on the grounds that even with D-level work, I didn't think they deserve to be put on the road to being kicked out of the university.

How are your grades — and does expectation inflation play a role in grade inflation?


  1. It time to drop the Grade models. Adopt a new model, where its only pass or fail. No grade. How anyone can judge between an A- and B+, be consistent year over year I'll never understand

  2. 11:17, aren't you worried that dropping the grade model might lead to lower academic standards? If students only need to aim for a D in order to get top marks, how will we be able to stop students from graduating when they can barely put two thoughts together and
    a) randomly capitalize words in the middle of sentences;
    b) can't distinguish a singular from a plural;
    c) can't distinguish between and ;
    d) can't distinguish a sentence from a two-word sentence fragment;
    e) misunderstand basic comma use;
    f) neglect to use words like 'and' when they are needed; and
    g) fail to realize that all sentences require final punctuation?

    Seems like a serious problem to me.

  3. Computer glitch: c) should read "can't distinguish between "its" and "it's"

  4. Well most pass/fail programs, such as the University of Calgary Medical School, are designed to be slightly more complex than stick to D's and let them through.

    Almost universally pass/fail has a higher lower bound, the only one that matters, to ensure that we don't end up in your alphabetized prescription.

    As stated in the article, the *real* lower bound isn't a D, its a C. If you run too many semesters in most undergrad institutions at below C, you get turfed. So its unlikely that we would shift back down to a D standard in a move to pass/fail.

    Frankly I think its more likely to cause the weaker students to be weeded out quicker if there was a concerted move towards pass/fail.

    1. Adil, you say "its unlikely", "its more likely", etc. Sounds like the point Anonymous was making!


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