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So I Should Give Students Grades They Don’t Deserve?

Two editorials (see here and here) in today’s The Dartmouth, our student-run newspaper, take great exception with the proposal that the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading Practices and Grade Inflation made to address the problems causing grade inflation.  Both editorials show that students do recognize these problems are severe, but both argue that nothing should be done to correct these problems.  

In fact, their explicit arguments are (1) extracurricular activities are more important than coursework to their education, and (2) students should receive grades they do not deserve.

Let me quote extensively from the editorials so that I am not taking anything out of context.

First, as to the importance of extracurricular activities to students:

In a May 28 story in The Dartmouth, computer science professor and committee member Thomas Cormen criticized students for putting their extracurriculars before their academics. In other words, he is accusing students of prioritizing the Dartmouth experience ahead of the quality of learning they take away from this place. This is a valid criticism, seeing as the College is known for its “Camp Dartmouth” vibe as much as it is for the quality of its undergraduate teaching. Yet Cormen misses the bigger picture. What defines the character of the Dartmouth student — and, by extension, Dartmouth College — is the energy with which students pursue an eclectic mix of interests, inside and outside the classroom. That professors can insinuate that students lack academic passion because they are committed to and passionate about their extracurriculars is, in my opinion, insulting.

Our committee talked to many student leaders in preparing our proposal, and these students told us that most of them were committed to at least four extracurricular activities, which typically required more than 35 hours per week of their time–the equivalent of full time jobs.  Our committee members feel that some extracurricular activities are essential for students’ educations.  However, not all extracurricular activities contribute to the education of students.  We strongly encourage every student to commit to an extracurricular activity that furthers and enhances their education: research in a faculty member’s laboratory if you are a science or social science major, scholarship with a humanities faculty member if you are a humanities major, a business exchange if you are an Economics major, a member of a choral or instrumental group if you are a Music major, acting in a play if you are a Theater major, working in the Dali lab if you are a Computer Science major.  For example, here, here and here are a few recent papers in top-tier peer-reviewed scientific journals I have authored with undergraduates who have worked with me on research in ecology and evolutionary biology.  

However, these are not the extracurricular activities that are eating up many students’ time, and these are not the extracurricular activities that Dr. Tom Cormen, a member of our committee and a Professor in our Computer Science Department, was discussing in the quote that they cite.  The Editorial Board acknowledges that he is making a “valid criticism” that students value the “Camp Dartmouth” extracurricular activities more than they value what they do in classes.  Why then do they find it “insulting” that he would actually say this out loud?

Also, the Editorial Board knows that grade inflation is “an undesirable phenomenon” and that a B is the “rightful place” where the median of all grades given at Dartmouth should be.  

Grade inflation is, without a doubt, an undesirable phenomenon. But doubling down on the traditional definitions of letter grades is a poor course of action. If the College chooses to pursue the measures recommended in this report in full, and the median grade drifts down to its rightful place at a B, fewer students will choose to spend their four undergraduate years in Hanover. Ultimately, it is naïve to think that high school applicants and their families will stomach the College’s high tuition if they can get a more fulfilling, well-rounded experience at our peer institutions – and a better transcript to boot. 

Despite their understanding of the problems, they seem to be saying that the faculty should do nothing to address the problems causing grade inflation because a “fulfilling and well-rounded experience” means everybody should get all As in every class and spend more than 35 hours a week at “Camp Dartmouth”.  Do I have that wrong?

Both editorials also recognize that low-performing students are receiving higher grades than they deserve in many classes.

Conventionally, a C is a passing average. Yet for many, a C would be a stain on their transcripts. While that is perhaps revealing of the mindset that the typical student has on camapus, there is nothing wrong with wanting a stellar academic record. It would be wrong to expect the best without giving your best, but the fact that “adequate knowledge” of a certain topic only warrants a C is a scary thought.

(Please excuse the misspelling in this quote, which is in the original.)


Yet the overall report is blinded by its insistence on preventing ™low-performing students∫ from getting grades that they do not deserve.

(Please excuse the weird punctuation in this quote, but those are in the original.)  

So, the explicit argument made in both editorials is that low-performing students in every class should receive grades they do not deserve.

Certainly, “there is nothing wrong with wanting a stellar academic record”.  This is a significant motivation every student has to excel at their studies.  However, this motivation is eliminated if students receive high grades regardless of their performance in a course.  That’s the problem!

Moreover, if it “would be wrong to expect the best without giving your best”, why then am I supposed to give high grades to low-performing students in a course?

Most importantly, why am I supposed to lie and engage in unethical behavior so that students will have a “better transcript” than they deserve?

Finally, these editorials recognize the same problem that we do. One ends with:

Before finding fault with students who are apparently undeserving of good grades, faculty and administrators should reflect on whether the bigger threat to academic rigor comes from the dropping quality of teaching and curriculum content in certain departments and courses.

If they would read our proposal again, they will clearly see that we find no fault with students whatsoever.  The problems that foster grade inflation are the result of faculty behavior completely (see the bottom of page 5 of our proposal for an explicit statement).  In fact, a major goal of our proposal is to ensure that faculty strongly and constructively engage with lower-performing students in every class (see page 15 of our proposal for an explicit discussion of how grade inflation is the result of faculty not engaging with lower-performing students).  Grade inflation is simply the symptom of the diminishing quality of education that is offered to all students.

If they would read it again, they will also clearly see that our proposal is directed squarely at correcting the “bigger threat to academic rigor” that “comes from the dropping quality of teaching and curriculum content in certain departments and courses” (see the top of page 5 of our proposal for a similarly worded statement of the primary motivation for our proposal).

What both of these editorials fail to provide are concrete proposals for how the Editorial Board of The Dartmouth would address these problems and substantive criticisms of what we actually do propose (see pages 6-13 of our proposal).  I am certain that our committee would be delighted to take forward any constructive proposals they have to the administration.  



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  1. Thomas Luxon

    I have two comments, Mark! 1. I’m often impressed when I hear of a computer science major who plays in the DSO or stars in student dramatic productions, or a government major who leads the DOC. It not only shows breadth of talent and interests, but sometimes reminds us that there are intellectual bonds between disciplines and activities that are less than obvious. Sometimes the ones we think are obvious (economics and business for example) can turn out to be clichéd and lame. 2. Students agree that Dartmouth has a quality-of-teaching problem; let’s not beat up on them for not noticing that your reports sees that, too. To be fair, except for your committee’s report, that is acknowledged nowhere else that I know of, and it’s not ALL about grading, though there is significant overlap. Every teacher should be able to offer a basic explanation of how human learning works and indicate how his/her practice aligns with that. Thank you for getting this conversation started, and keeping it well informed.

  2. Matt Nadler 1990

    Of course one of the time sucking extracurricular activities is a social life including binge drinking, and a resulting hangover. Students think nothing of missing a class here and there, or skipping studying to gab with friends.

    In the post-graduate world, few successful adults allocate their time that way. If they continued these social habits once in the workplace, they’d be fired for absenteeism and poor job performance.

    Students on the other hand think nothing of it since they are getting A and A- grades.

    The absence of negative feedback for their choices is not their fault. However, if we believe an academic education should be their primary vocation, then grading needs to reflect that.

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