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Tag: academic rigor

A Solution To Grade Inflation

I’ve been a university professor since 1991.  Being a university professor is a very weird job, because your performance is frequently measured in ways that don’t necessarily quantify whether you’re doing your job well.  This job essentially had three responsibilities: (1) teach effective classes in your discipline, (2) do world-class research that contributes new knowledge and insights to your discipline, and (3) help run the institution at which you are employed and help run the professional components of your scholarly discipline.  When I was being considered for promotions and every year when the size of my merit raise is being determined, my performances in these three areas (teaching, research, service) was supposedly what determined my success.  

At most universities, only research output is valued.  Dartmouth is different and quite possibly unique: I’ve written before about what it takes to get tenure at Dartmouth, where research and teaching are weighted equally in that evaluation, and your research is held to the standards of the best research universities, and your teaching is held to the standards of the best undergraduate teaching colleges.  However, the way my teaching effectiveness is evaluated is one of the primary causes of grade inflation.  In this post, I will explore how we might change the incentives of faculty to reduce the causes and consequences of grade inflation and thereby provide better educations to our students.  

The rationale presented here summarizes the conclusions made by the committee I was on that considered the causes, consequences and solutions to grade inflation.  You can see a description of our proposal at (click here for the pdf of our full proposal). 


Student Effort Declines When The Average Grade In A Classes Increases

If something is important to me, I would work like a dog to achieve it if I had to.  However, if I could achieve this important outcome without hard work, why would I work hard for it, even though I would accomplish much more by working hard for it?  That’s just simple human nature, and it encapsulates the major harm to our educational system done by grade inflation.

Students want high grades for many different reasons (e.g., admission to post-secondary professional schools, jobs, a sense of accomplishment).  When high grades are difficult to achieve, students will work exceptionally hard in their effort to achieve them.  However, why would students bust their butts studying in a class where everybody gets A’s regardless of their effort?  The answer is they won’t, and it turns out, that’s what’s happening.  

The most pernicious effect of grade inflation on education is to cause a substantial diminution of student effort in their coursework.  Students now get better grades for much less effort.  The corollary of this is that students are learning much less now from the same course material than when average grades were much lower.  And there’s data to prove this!!


But I Use The Latest Innovations In Teaching?

Teaching innovations are all the rage now.  Flipped classrooms, no-talking-heads, experiential learning, MOOCs – they all are ways that educators are trying to innovate ways of teaching students.  They each have their benefits, and they each have their disadvantages.  They each, therefore, work best in a different type of class.  However, if utilized properly, each can increase the learning and skill acquisition that students can achieve as compared to a classical classroom setting.  However, for some classes, the traditional big lecture/talking-heads format of the traditional classroom is also the best approach.  What an instructor should do in a particular class is to find the best teaching methods possible for the material being conveyed and the skills being exercised in a class.  


Are Entering Students Better Prepared For College?

Grades have been increasing at United States colleges and universities for at least 50 years. That’s simply a fact. Many want to argue that at their university this is because students have been getting better over those 50 years. However, if this is happening everywhere, the same set of causes must be largely contributing everywhere. It’s a very hard argument to make that grades are increasing for unique reasons at each university (essentially an argument of “my place is special”). So let’s consider the premise that students are getting better over the last 50 years.


What If Every Student At A University Truly Deserved To Get A’s In Every Class?

Grades are increasing everywhere – at colleges and universities and high schools across the country — despite the fact that we have been in a panic about the quality of our entire US educational system for at least the last 20 years.  Imagine the day, and it’s coming if we don’t do anything, when every student at every university in the USA gets an A in every class that she or he takes.  What should we do on that day?  Or before we get there?


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