The Question on Grade Inflation

In a recent open comment, Anonymous (A studious student) had some pretty serious accusations (sorry, sorry, “questions”!) about grades and evaluations. I’d like to address those questions--not just in another comment, but in full postings. In my last post, I discussed the possible link between grades and teaching evaluations. This post addresses the third of several claims/questions/concerns.

Question: “What is your thought on grade inflation?”

To the extent it exists, it sucks. But I don’t know how prevalent it is. In talking to my colleagues, I’ve found sentiment is universally against it. But then, like I wrote in my last post, maybe we’re all doing it subconsciously anyway.

Claim: “it is getting more and more difficult for me to set myself apart from other students...By 4th year, ~20% of the class is expected to receive an A/A+”

Going to GFC policy on approved grade distributions, it is expected that in 4th year courses, 37% of students are expected to obtain a letter grade of A- or higher, and 20% are indeed expected to receive either an A or A+.

What is this, officially prescribed grade inflation? I can’t speak for GFC, but I’ll give you my view. By the 4th year, there has been some weeding out. Students who have not been able to handle the material have changed majors, or maybe have even left university. So the students who are left are, in general, more capable than those in, say, first year. Also, class sizes at the 400 level are smaller, giving you more access to the instructor, which (I would hope) impacts grades.

So yes, it is literally harder for you to set yourself apart from other students--in terms of grades. But there are other things you can do to differentiate yourself. Talk to your instructors; show interest in what they’re teaching. I’ve formed great relationships with students over the years in part because they did more than just show up to class. In fact, I’ve been privileged to be able to help some of them advance their academic careers, too. (It’s been great watching people go from being undergrads to being practicing psychologists, or holding other positions of importance in the real world!)

Concern: “salary is partially determined by these evaluations (I think), so professors/lecturers have greater incentive to give higher grades.”

Yes, you are correct. Even though evals are not supposed to be the sole determinant of teaching, sadly, those numbers may be the only representation of teaching on my yearly review. I am not a number! There is an incentive to give higher grades only if there is a belief that doing so will result in better evals and thus performance increments. I can’t give you any statistics on this one, and I wouldn’t want to. I don’t want to imply that my colleagues are so shallow. Rather, in working with them on the AASUA Teaching and Learning Committee and in other groups, going to teaching seminars put on by University Teaching Services, and in talking with them one-on-one, I find them--to a person--to be hardworking, dedicated, and committed to doing the best teaching job they possibly can. This is not puffery; I am not stoking anyone’s ego. If the University of Alberta were not seriously interested in the importance of teaching, I would have thrown in the towel and left.

Claim: “Even to this day, most believe that Harvard grades are meaningless.” I have no data on this, and cannot speak to this. Even if the grades are meaningless, I know for a fact that a degree from Harvard is not meaningless. In fact, it can be a ticket to more money than I’ll ever see. I know your University of Alberta degree has value; there are too many people working hard for the reputation of the whole university go down the drain. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

To be sure, the issues you have raised are important ones, and they are being discussed and considered on campus (and on other campuses, too). I hope I have not dismissed your valid comments, concerns, and criticism. Instead, I’ve tried to pull the curtain aside and let you hear my thoughts and ideas. I’m impressed that you have been considering these issues, and have brought them forward for discussion. That’s what I wanted in this blog, and boy did I get it--thanks!

Why aren’t you studying?

Update 3/21/2009: Just found out about the website Are instructors inflating grades, are students getting better, are teaching techniques improving, or is it something else?


Anonymous said...

Interesting website, Dr. Loepelmann!

To anybody interested, here's an article about the grade inflation that took place at Harvard: . It really puts things into perspective, or reality, for that matter. It's difficult to see the elephant in the room sometimes.

I don't think U of A, or Dr. Loepelmann for that matter, has had to deal with grade inflation to the extent of Harvard. But I think U of A as a whole is headed in that direction, partly because SU and administration place a heavy emphasis on, not only teaching evaluations, but providing everybody an equal opportunity to "succeed" in university. It makes sense though, right? Our parents pay tax dollars to a public institution, so they expect their kids to get stellar instructors, obtain high grades, pass their courses, and get a degree out of it. But what some people neglect to realize is that a university degree is NOT for those that do not work for it (or else that just defeats the purpose of university "education/training"), despite everybody paying tax dollars for it. If a person fails their courses but still passes them because of grade inflation and they end up graduating, we devalue the degree of those who earned it deservedly. We are also devaluing our education. As outlined by a student running for an SU position, some feel that the U of A is turning into a "degree mill".

Going back to the Harvard article, the professor indicates that grade inflation makes it harder and harder to differentiate between the quality of graduates if many students are clustered at the right end of the curve. Grade inflation, in my opinion, depends on where incentive is placed. For instance, if doctors are paid on a per patient, there would be a tendency for doctors to go quantity over quality of patient visits. Likewise, if good evaluations lead to higher pay for teaching staff (and given that higher grades is partially correlated with better evaluations), what would that encourage the professor to do in terms of setting course difficulty? Naturally, they may (or may not) give out higher grades...but there still is that incentive. And it's not the professor/doctor's to blame! I mean, I can already think of one psychology study (sorry I broke the rule!) that this is applicable to: when accuracy is rewarded, people will tend to go slower at a certain task while when speed is rewarded, people will tend go faster. It's where we place our incentive. It's the system.

Apparently, the chair of a department (or maybe the dean of the faculty?) will flag a professor/instructor if they perform "low" in areas of the evaluation (this is anecdotal: I don't have a source...sorry). In order to prevent grade inflation, I think it's important to maintain teaching quality and set rigid distributions for classes of a certain size. I think at U of T Science, the grade distributions are rigid and set at much lower than 2.7 (I think ~2.5...but don't quote me on this) for large first year classes. There is thus a grade quota...and if you think about it, if we didn't have a quota on anything, how would we ensure quality? That is one of the driving reasons for rigid quotas in competitive professional programs. By setting rigid grade distributions, we give back power to the instructors; and, in turn, they would feel less pressured to make a course less difficult / more grade-inflated. We can then ensure that courses are intellectually challenging, fruitful in content, and not driven by marks.

Anyways, I think Dr. Loepelmann has done a great job of bringing another side to the issue. Perhaps teaching has been getting better and better...perhaps we've gotten smarter and smarter. I'd definitely like to think of it that way, but I think I'm just too pessimistic. :(

Anybody else have some opinions on this? Feel free to disagree...

-A studious student

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