Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Tag: grade inflation (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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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 dartblog.com (click here for the pdf of our full proposal). 

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Extracurricular Activities Should Be Just That – EXTRA

Over the last month, the committee I’m on that developed a proposal to address the causes and consequences of grade inflation talked with many students.  In these conversa—tions, many Dartmouth students reported to us that they committed 35-40 hours per week to their extracurricular activities–the equivalent of full-time jobs.  They are essentially people who have full-time jobs and go to school part-time!

Moreover, many of them described these extracurricular activities as being much more important to them than their coursework.  The current student Editorial Board of The Dartmouth student newspaper seems to agree with this sentiment.

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Helicopter Parents

I advise incoming freshmen at Dartmouth each year, and one of the first things I ask them is whether they are now children or adults.  Typically, half answer adults, and half answer children.  I tell them that every faculty member at Dartmouth now considers you an adult, so you’d better start acting like one in everything you do.

Too bad many of their parents don’t do the same!  Every Dartmouth faculty member could recount for you numerous incidents of parents calling them to complain about Johnny’s grade in their class, or Susie’s need to have outlandish accommodations for her work.  Let me recount for you just two interactions with these types of parents that I’ve had.

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Why Are Grades Higher In The Humanities Than In The Sciences?

In Academic Year 2013-14 the grades given in the Arts & Humanities Division at Dartmouth were on average 0.29 points higher than in the Science Division on a 4-point grading scale, and in 1977 the difference was 0.25 (you can see the data here).  The Social Sciences Division has always been sandwiched between the two, with grades about 0.05 points higher than the Sciences on average over the years. Finally, grades in our Interdisciplinary Programs show more variability over time, but are more similar to the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences and Social Sciences (again, see the data here).  

Discussions about grade inflation typically devolve into a shouting match between the Sciences and Humanities, which is completely wrong.  Grades in all Divisions and in all departments within them over the past 50 years have risen at nearly identical rates (again, see the data here).  Let me say that again: grades in every Science department at Dartmouth are increasing at the same rate as grades in every Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities department and in every Interdisciplinary Program over the past 50 years.  

Our committee believes that these differences in grade distributions among academic disciplines are natural.  Our effort is decidedly not to equalize grades across Departments or Divisions at all.  I think very good educational reasons exist why grades in the Arts & Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs are higher than in the Sciences and many areas of the Social Sciences. Let me outline some of them here, but in so doing challenge everyone in every discipline to return to more rigorous grading standards.  If we do, our students will be better and accomplish more.

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Tell Us About Your Grading Practices & How You Set Grading Standards In Your Class

I would like to invite you to join in our conversation, by posting a comment below about how you set grading standards in your class, and what you expect a student to do to meet each of those standards.  The primary focus of our proposal to increase academic rigor in Dartmouth courses is to hold faculty accountable for the standards to which they hold students.  By this we mean, what would a student have to do in your class to get each of the letter grades in the Dartmouth Scholarship Ratings.  These standards will then be used in their promotion, tenure and merit raise evaluations, along with the grade distributions they actually give to students.  In this way, faculty are held accountable for the rigor of their courses.

A very large part of our motivation is to simply spark the discussion of what do grades mean and how do you define them.  We want people to think very seriously about questions like: What techniques (e.g., exams, papers, discussion, projects) do you use to evaluate students and what goes into judging their performance in these various techniques?  What would a student have to do to fail your class, what would a student have to do to get a D or C or B or A in your class?  If you work at another school (high school, vocational school, college, university), what grading system does your institution use, and how does this factor into grading decisions?

 

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But Nobody Will Get Into Medical or Professional Schools?

I’ve been getting nasty e-mails from some Dartmouth alumni about our effort to stop the pernicious effects on grade inflation.  Their arguments are effectively that every Dartmouth student should receive all A’s so that all Dartmouth students look great when they apply for admission to Medical/Law/Graduate school.  

Their reasoning is that if Dartmouth students get lower grades, they will be at a disadvantage on paper, relative to students from all the other schools who give high grades to low performing students.  Apparently, they think we’re caught in some bizarre prisoner’s dilemma.  On it’s face, this position has absolutely no regard for the actual education that Dartmouth students receive.  

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Do We Really Have To Come Up With A Grading System That Faculty Can’t Game?

The first thing you hear from people about how to fix grade inflation is that we should change the grading system.  Give students their percentage rank in the class.  Go exclusively to Pass/Fail.  Redefine what the various letters mean.  Go to a numerical system.  Write evaluative essays about each student instead of trying to distill their performance to a single number or letter.  Get rid of grades altogether.  We heard them all over the course of the past month.

If you ask people why they want to change the grading system, the overt statement they’ll give is to prevent other faculty from cheating and gaming the system.  For a few, the undercurrent of their reasoning is to prevent themselves from gaming the system.  

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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!!

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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.  

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