This post is not directly related to the theme of the Blog, doing big research at a small university. Yet, I found that this nation-wide issue of grade inflation is important as it interacts with students’ engagement in learning, tenure, and harassment by students and parents. Most of you probably heard about the grade inflation issue and some may have better responses or solutions. This issue has been debated a few times since I came to Bucknell. But the discussion among faculty members is becoming very active right now.
Although I have only a few years of teaching experience at Bucknell, more than several students told me that my exams are hard, I am a tough grader, or the lowest grade they’ve ever received was from me. I am happy that students think I am a tough professor as my goal is to be a challenging and engaging professor. At the same time, I was baffled by a few of the student’s comments which may affect my tenure promotion, though probably not that much given a small number so far. But that was enough to make me wonder how other professors on campus and in the department grade students’ performance because I did not think I was unreasonably tough. Here’s what I found. “A” is the most common grade on campus (last semester, A = 53% and B = 36%) and in the department (last semester, A = 49 %, B = 36 %). The average Bucknell undergraduate GPA increased from 2.94 in 1977 to 3.4 in 2006 (probably higher now but I don’t have a number).
Disparity between me and the average of the rest became obvious to me. It turned out that this trend is not unique to Bucknell but common among all sorts of colleges across the nation (http://www.gradeinflation.com/). I was advised by a senior faculty member that staying within a departmental norm is a wise move for un-tenured faculty to take. I really think grade inflation is a problem (see below for why). I believe that I am not an unreasonable grader. And I will keep challenging students. But I do agree with the senior faculty member; we (un-tenured) should not be the ones who take an initiative in tackling this issue (i.e., giving tougher grades). We have enough agendas and are especially vulnerable to student evaluations. Some other faculty members on campus also shared how gender, age, and race can be important factors in inciting challenges and harassment from students. There were a few horrifying stories too.
What Is Wrong With Grade Inflation?
“A” does not mean superior achievement to students any more. “A” is something expected by most students (again campus-wide “A” was 53% last semester). When their expectation is different from our expectation, that creates friction, some of which sets afire. The department and university need to be fire fighters, not the faculty member. Some of our faculty experience that this indeed was the case, while others experienced otherwise. Regardless, it is best not to cause fire. One of the preventatives is to stay within the department norm.
Another issue is student engagement. While some attributes grade inflation to learning inflation, others (mainstream, I would say) feel that student learning has deflated. My experience is not long enough to judge this. And I personally think most students in my courses are hard-working students. Yet, it is hard to imagine that more than a half of students gain “A”. Without incentives, good students stop making efforts; they get “As” anyway. In fact, students calculate their grades for different courses and allocate their study efforts accordingly toward the end of the semester. Grade is one of the extrinsic rewards. True learning should be based on intrinsic curiosity. But it is hard to deny the practical function of grades; jobs, med school, grad school, all use GPAs as part of their evaluation. I can see how grade inflation can prevent learning.
Finally, the meaning of grade diminishes as grade inflates. Now it is impossible to discern truly engaged excellent students and mediocre ones based on GPAs as both receive “A”. In fact, our grading system is now based on only two letters; 89% of students received “A (53%)” or “B (36%)” last semester. We need “super A” to normalize the distribution, or we need to deflate the grade distribution so that the dead grades (C, D, and F) regain their original functions.
Grade information has profound effects on students’ learning, campus climate, and us. It requires an institutional action and implementation of a new policy. While the issues accompanying the grade inflation need to be solved, my local action right now is limited to fostering intrinsic motivation among students. I may be able to do more. But untenured faculty members have to deal with the issue wisely.