Take the A train

Jul 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, fellow blogger Dr. Isis was commenting about this graph in the New York times regarding the "problem" of grade inflation. It basically shows that since 80's the number of A's given in college courses has increased by about 50%, while the number of B's and C's has decreased. In the 80's it seems like A's made a total of about 30% of all grades, while now they make up a total of 45% of all grades. The article attributes this to higher education being more consumer oriented and to the pressure on faculty to give more A's, since this will improve their student's ratings and increase their chances for tenure.

I have to agree with the article that students do tend to expect A's. But mainly because they work hard, and the expectation is that if you work hard and learn the material, you should get an A. I don't really see this grade inflation as a problem. To me, an A grade means you learned the material and showed proficiency in it, not that you performed better than XX% of your classmates. Grades are not a ranking tool, but an indication of proficiency. I think that having a clear expectation of what you need to do to get an A makes it more likely that students will work harder to meet these requirements and learn the material better.

When I went to college, my school had a curriculum such that you had the option of taking any and all of your classes pass/fail. The idea was that you could explore parts of the curriculum that you might normally not otherwise do. Or challenge yourself without harder classes. Plus having no grades fosters cooperative learning where students become work together to learn the material rather than compete against each other. I liberally made use of this pass/fail policy and often found that I worked harder and learned more on the courses that I took pass/fail than those I took for a grade. Students will work hard when they know you are expecting them to do so, and learning becomes much more enjoyable when your peers aren't also your competitors. To grade on a curve is a disservice to the students, by making them compete against each other, rather than work cooperatively.

FInally, this idea that professors give more A's in order to get better student reviews for tenure is silly, and they show no evidence to support this. Is it true then that more difficult classes get worse reviews? I don't know. Also, at least in my school, students write their reviews before the final exam, so they don't know their grades yet. Furthermore, only a certain percent of courses will be taught by pre-tenure faculty, and it is probably unlikely that these account for the increase in the number of A's.

I give out quite a lot of A's, but that's because my students work pretty damn hard and are pretty fucking smart, and I wish administrators would give them credit for this, rather than think of grade inflation as a problem.

So, let's get on the A train:

3 responses so far

  • yosnowden says:

    Oh man, I wish I could wholeheartedly agree with you. But I know that at least one professor in at least one of their classes grade inflates horribly, since I was the TA. Students who had no business passing the class (i.e. their grades were less than 60%) got B-'s. And then they complained that they deserved A's! And the professor just shrugged their shoulders and said "what can you do?" I'm hoping that this was a singular case of a professor who just had no guts to speak of, because it was a horribly disheartening situation and terribly unfair to the students who knew their stuff and really had earned their A's and B's. Personally, when I'm in charge of the grades I never use a curve (except in the very rare cases where *nobody* in the class gets a problem; I will occasionally, with due consideration, drop that problem from the total point count at the end). I'm glad to hear that there are still teachers out there like you.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    Agree with you and love the Duke Ellington

  • I'm with you Namnezia. In my classes, I don't curve and I design the exams such that someone who has mastered the material should be able to get a 95 or better, while students who don't work don't do well. I lay out clear expectations for how to get an A on the first day of class. Yes, I give out a lot of A's, but I also end up with plenty of C's, D's, and F's. No one has ever pressured me to change my grades or the distribution of my grades.

    Students who master the material should get an A, period. I've taken classes as a student where the mean score on an exam was 35 (by design!) and I have NEVER understood the argument that exams should have some incredibly difficult problems that no one gets correct just in case a genius is in the class so that person can get the only A.

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