grade inflation comes home to roost

We’ve had so much discussion about grade inflation in higher education lately, I think it is becoming part of me just by osmosis. The first 7 or 8 years I was at Notre Dame, I was one of the tougher graders in the department. The last two years, not so much. And through some discussions with people who are considered some of the best teachers (at an a reputedly excellent teaching school), I have become considerably less enamored with the whole grading enterprise. I don’t think it is a good way to motivate students to actually engage with the material and in fact, I think it distracts them from what we really want to happen in a course and focuses them on grade grubbing instead. I hate that and have tried a variety of ways of reducing their attention to the grade and increasing it to the material.

This semester, I am looking at a very high grade distribution in my Peace Studies class. I’m not done with everything yet, but I’d say 90% of the class is going to get an A or an A-. That seems EXTREMELY high to me at first glance, but there is no way around it and I’m not going to artificially deflate the grades just to fit an administrator’s notion of an appropriate grade distribution. I would seriously challenge anyone to read the students’ work in this course and tell me it is not A material. As I’m reading these final papers, I am not exactly astonished, but I guess I would say extremely pleased, with the quality of the papers. It is impossible to read a couple of these without cheering and/or thinking this must be a first or second year graduate student, to be quite frank.

Part of it, of course, is the approach I took to grading, which was very contract oriented. About 50% of the course grade was based on performing some activities, which, if engaged properly, couldn’t help but produce full credit. And fully engage they did.

Another part has to do with the motivation of the students. Students who sign up for peace studies have a stronger level of commitment than we get in most introductory classes, which produces some pretty spectacular work–regardless of their concern about the grade. Several of these people knew (because of feedback I had given them) that they had A’s completely locked in, but they still did more and pushed harder to make their work even better.

A third part has to do with the structure of feedback. If the professor examines interim work and gives detailed feedback on it (which I did) and meets with students to discuss their projects in detail along the way to completion, then in 90% of cases, if the student genuinely tries to follow the feedback, there is going to be an excellent outcome. This kind of process obviously elevates grades, but it is legitimate, isn’t it? They’ve done the work, they’ve produced the output, and they should get the grade.

I thought I would end this by saying that I hope I don’t always have a grade distribution like that, but actually, I hope I always have a grade distribution like that! This course and group of students has been one of best teaching experiences I have had as a professor, and I am, in fact, very proud of the grades these students earned.

3 thoughts on “grade inflation comes home to roost”

  1. Omar and I were talking about this the other day. Students in my Social Psych class do so well. I’m not sure how to make them do less well, or if I want to. I love reading their comments that say “This class is really easy. All you have to do is do all the reading, show up for class, take good notes, and study before the exam, and you’ll do well.” Is it my fault that they’re actually doing all that and succeeding at it, and thinking that doing all the work is easy?! With a few exceptions, Notre Dame students are really motivated (particularly the freshman I get) and I’m not sure how to make it so they won’t do well.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the Peace Studies class so much. It certainly sounds like a banner semester. :)


  2. As many have pointed out, a major source of “grade inflation” is just late drops; it is ridiculous to force a grade distribution to a curve at the end if the students who made low grades have dropped the course. (Our psych department does that in its intro classes, I’ve heard.) And even curve advocates have always recognized that grades tend to be high in small self-selected highly motivated classes. Apart from the self-selection issue, sampling theory tells us that when class sizes are small, they are going to be variable: some really good, and some less so. My idea is that you try to grade to absolute standards. If you realize that your standards always involve giving As to the large majority, semester after semester to class after class, then probably you need to raise your standards. But what the distribution should be in a selective college where all the students are good to get in is a contentious issue in itself. I don’t think anybody is grading to a C curve anywhere any more, not even Reed, Swarthmore, or Chicago (the last holdouts against grade inflation among the selective institutions). Hence the proliferation of +/- type grades so you get some variation in the B to A range, where most of the grades are falling these days.


  3. It is amazing the number of students at my university willing to complain about an A-

    My first response is always, “An A- is a good grade!’

    What can possibly be going on where students are uncomfortable with an A-? And, this means they are willing to say (as one did to me in an email last week), “I feel I did A work.” Oh, the hubris!

    I always ask the top student int eh class if I can copy their final paper, remove the name, and show it to students who think they deserve an A. That’s pretty effective.


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