Some Thoughts on Grade Inflation

Over the past couple of years, there has been growing attention to grade inflation in higher education. Grade inflation, as documented here, is a blanket term for the gradual increase in grades over time. Since university grading systems based on a 4 point system have remained relatively stable for almost 50 years, it is particularly easy to track these trends. The use of numbers (statistics!) to measure (assess!) student performance through time provides with a false sense of parity, of course, between student experience in the past and today, but there is probably a grain of truth in the idea that students get better grades today than before.

I have a couple of completely untested theories about why this is the case, or at least why I’ve taken to inflating grades over my academic career. These observations are the product of my decade of teaching in public universities that attract students with a wide range of preparation and aptitude.

1. Diversity. One of the more amusing claims that circulates in the current discussion on grade inflation is that grades were generally lower in 1930 than today. Of course, the university of the 1930s is so fundamentally different from the university today that it is impossible to compare the two places. The university of the 21st century is a much more diverse place, not only in social and economic terms, but more importantly for us here, in terms of student preparation. The wide range of student preparation in the classroom means that we have had to find ways to evaluate a wide range of achievements and have shifted our emphasis to progress and process over product. 

2. Process, not product. I assign writing assignments in my classes, and in my best semester, I think that I manage to assign “a lot” of writing. In many of my classes, writing involves producing thesis statements, outlines, drafts, more drafts, and then final papers. Each of these outlines, drafts, and final papers require a certain amount of feedback. Generally, this feedback is designed to encourage a student to understand certain key skills and concepts. For history, this generally involves producing a convincing argument by deploying evidence to argue (more or less successfully) an academic point successfully.

At its best, this process involves building on skills that students start to develop in high school, and we simply refine how students understand the arguments of others, structure arguments on their own, and use evidence. At its worst, this process involves a constant whiplash between remediation and substantial collegial critique. The iterative nature of this kind of academic work ensures that most students improve on whatever abilities they had entering my class. I think this method largely follows best practices.

This is very different from, say, a classes punctuated by multiple choice or other evaluation “objective” forms of classroom assessment or evaluation. I don’t give “multiple guess” exams, fill in the blanks, matching, true/false or whatever. Instead, I require students to demonstrate the knowledge and understanding of “factual” data by using it to support arguments. Because I find that the best way to teach students how to make an argument is through an iterative process, there tend to be plenty of opportunities to fix little factual issues that might arise over the course of writing a paper. In contrast, multiple guess tests, for example, are as unforgiving as a World War I battlefield and produce, academically speaking, the same results, with the butchered, bloodied, and mangled remains of students stretching off into the distance for as far as the eye can see. It’s easy to get factual information wrong. That’s why in real life, we revise, rewrite, revise, and rewrite, until we not only get our facts right, but also get them organized in a useful way.

3. Less time. I spend a good bit of time marking up student papers. In general, I spend more time on papers from students who require some remediation. To put it simply, a “C” paper requires a good bit more time and energy than an “A” paper. Asking students to submit drafts means that I see far more “C” papers than “A” papers over the course of a semester as first drafts of papers are almost always less perfect than final drafts. (And, yes, there are exceptions to this in upper level and graduate classes where truly exceptional students will push us to reassess how we understand our field, but, in my experiences, this is the exception rather than the rule.)

Every semester at the university, I’ve found myself with less and less time dedicated exclusively to teaching. As my experience at the university increases, I’m asked to take on more service responsibilities, my research responsibilities continue to grow, and I’m inexorably drawn to new adventures. My teaching, in the meantime, holds station, and I feel more and more pressure to move through stacks of drafts and make meaningful comments. I’d never say that my standards have slipped since my first semester teaching, but as my assignments have come increasingly to emphasize the time consuming reality of managing process, I’ve felt the time crunch. 

When pressed for time, most faculty give the student the benefit of the doubt. When scrutinizing a final draft of a paper and trying to determine whether it is an “C” or a “B”, if we feel the ticking clock of other obligations, most faculty will err on the side of generosity and assign a “B”. Grades creep.

4. More work. When faculty makes these decisions to award a “B” over a “C,” we do feel guilty! We often look at a good paper and know that with a bit of time on our part and the student’s part, it could be a great paper. Our justification for giving a grade on potential is tied both to an arbitrary decision on our part (we only have so much time that we can devote to grading) and a sense of confidence that the work done over the course of the semester represents a “B” effort.

An emphasis on process in a classroom with a diverse range of preparation requires us to create courses where effort and improvement is part of what we evaluate for a grade. The more work we assign, the easier it is to distinguish students who have earned a “B” from those who have earned a “C”. Of course, see Point 3. The more work we assign, the less time we have to treat it critically.

Complicating the issue of students and faculty workload, there exists a reading and writing arms race among a certain sect of faculty. Touting their “olde skool” values or coping with some kind of childhood trauma, these faculty assign massive quantities of writing (and reading) to their classes, and proudly declare their adherence to traditional values while bemoaning the hours of work required to finish their grading. Most of us are confident enough in our approach to the classroom that we can largely ignore these colleagues, but I suspect that their focus on writing more, reading more, and grading more has had an impact on what we all do in the classroom. The more writing there is to evaluate, the higher grades will creep as that work runs into the absolute limits of faculty time.

To wrap up this somewhat rambling piece, grade inflation has occurred, at least in my hardly scientific assessment, because students in our classrooms are less consistently prepared, and we have shifted our pedagogy to focus more on process than expecting the classroom to achieve a single common level of proficiency. As time pressure on faculty has increased in recent years and the focus on process has unleashed a strange arms race among faculty to increase the amount of work in each class, the tendency has been for grades to creep higher as increasing grading runs into the pressures associated with accelerated workplace.

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