Components of grade inflation

One of my recent posts centered on a possible link between student evaluations and grade inflation (see the post for Feb. 17, 2015, for example). While many studies suggest that evaluations may play some role, I would bet that the story is much more complex that that.

What other factors might influence grades and so lead to the grade inflation seen in higher education today?

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1. Student pressure

Grade inflation is worst at the colleges and universities that consider themselves “elite.” The schools with the reputations for attracting the cream of the crop of high school students compete for them voraciously. These students have the 4.0 (or even higher) GPA, were varsity athletes and editors of the school newspaper or yearbook. High achievers with big dreams of being a neurosurgeon or Supreme Court justice. These students have come to expect A’s and exert pressure on themselves and, wittingly or unwittingly, on us to continue to earn A’s in college. After receiving an initial exam or paper grade lower than an A or A-, these students often say things to us like, “I’ve never experienced a grade this low before.” Anguished students troop into office hours or send desperate emails in the middle of the night, asking how they can bring up their grades. Over time, these reactions to B’s take a toll. We dread returning papers and exams with grades B or lower. This is real pressure, whether we recognize it consciously or not. I wonder, might it affect how we grade?

2. Faculty desire to be liked

The period of time each semester before we hand back that first graded assignment is the honeymoon period. We are developing relationships with our students. It’s fun to go to class. We think that maybe we’ll get a good rating on “Rate Your Professor.” Then….as soon as we have the first exam or return the first assignment, the relationship changes. We become “them,” in the “us versus them.” Particularly for those students whose first grade is lower than an A-, we are no longer the “cool” prof. We become an obstacle to overcome. In office hours, we hear, “I just want to have a clearer sense of what you expect, so I can get an A on the next assignment.” Particularly for those of us who have taught for a while and been through this sea-change in the classroom attitude, we begin to dread the first assignment. This is pressure–might it affect how we grade?

3. Societal pressures: the importance of credentials

Students need good grades and high GPA’s in order to compete for those positions in medical or law school, or to land that rare right-out-of-college job. The competition is fierce, we are told. Students are given advice on how to succeed, “maintain a high GPA, get involved in extracurriculars that make you stand out from the rest.” Most feel enormous pressure to be the best. Students will drop courses after they receive their first “bad” grade on an assignment. Many of my advisees consider a B to be a bad grade. As soon as they receive that first “B,” it’s no longer about learning the material. It’s about figuring out a strategy that yields an A or A-. Some visit office hours every week. Some ask if they can “go over” a draft of a paper, “just to be sure I’m doing what you expect this time.”

Colleges and universities benefit from having their graduates succeed in the workplace and to gain admittance to the best graduate, medical and law schools. So, grade inflation is a tricky business. We want to have high standards, to grade rigorously. If everyone gets A’s, what kind of standards must we have? On the other hand, if our students can’t compete post-graduation because their grades are lower than students from other institutions, that’s not good either.

I wonder, might this kind of pressure influence our grading? We certainly don’t want to be responsible for our students not being able to fulfill their dreams.

4. More qualitative assignments

Many of us are developing different ways of assessing our students’ learning. The pedagogical literature is replete with examples and advice about how to design inquiry-driven, group-oriented, interactive assignments. There are many examples in this blog. Many of these assignments don’t lend themselves well to numerical scores. Instead, the assignments are more qualitative, assessing “ability to integrate” or “use of language” or “participation.” At the end of the semester, we have to convert these more qualitative measures into a grade. I wonder, do these conversions yield more A’s and B’s and fewer C’s? What is B-level “integrative ability”?

5. Fewer examinations

Exams with multiple-choice questions are easy to grade numerically and seem more objective than papers or group-based project assignments. With the increased emphasis on process rather than content across fields of study (except perhaps math and foreign language), there are fewer content-focused examinations. I wonder, does this decreased emphasis on “content” and exams contribute to grade inflation?

6. Different learning goals and expectations on the part of faculty

As we incorporate more process-oriented and student-inquiry-based work into our courses, our own expectations of student mastery are changing. Rather than wanting our students to memorize lists of facts, we want our students to work with content to arrive at deeper understandings of broad concepts. We want our students to demonstrate their ability to read and comprehend in our disciplines, to be able to solve problems, to work in groups, to write and speak using the language of our discipline. How do we assess “depth of knowledge” or “integrative ability”? What does a “C” in integrative ability look like? When we start having broad categories to evaluate, particularly categories that are more qualitative in nature, it becomes more difficult to assign a grade. I wonder, does this difficulty translate into a tendency to give two grades, A or B?

7. Better teaching strategies

Most of us had the college experience of the lecture hall and the midterm examinations. It was really up to us to put in the effort to learn and engage with the course material. Now, we teach differently. We create situations where students can’t skip class and can’t just sit in the back sleeping. Instead, students are put in groups and asked to work on projects or problems. Students are pretty much forced to participate, to interact, to engage with each other and with the course material. There’s lots of evidence that these interactive teaching methods are highly effective. I wonder, might better learning be contributing to grade inflation??

How do we distinguish grade inflation from learning inflation?