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: