What Have We Done?

As a very wise professor (emeritus) said to me earlier today, ‘If everyone gets a first, then there is no such thing as a first.’ In other words, unless a low mark makes one stop and think about what could have been improved upon in the essay/performance in question, then marks are worth nothing at all. Some would argue that marks are worth nothing at all anyway, but that’s a separate post.

I’ve seen grade inflation at work, in various ways, throughout my education. I was lucky enough to attend a high school that didn’t inflate grades (THAT’S the Nichols Edge!), but I watched friends graduate from high school with a 4.0 GPA only to struggle through their first year at university for a barely average 2.0. At the university level, I’ve seen professors under pressure from students to give them better marks for various different reasons, most of which have seemed  invalid to me. True injustice aside, your mark is your mark; if you’re not happy with it, find out what went wrong, work hard, and do better next time. ‘If at first you don’t succeed’ and all that jazz.

An Austrian friend expressed the European view–particularly from countries that offer free or nearly-free university educations–that Americans can just purchase their degrees. I initially rejected this, claiming that, while parents could buy admission to top schools for their children, they couldn’t pull the money card all the way to graduation. Upon reflection, however, I saw how it might be possible. Unfortunately, the high cost of universities in America (and elsewhere) has contributed to a sense of entitlement among students (although it is by no means the only contributor!). Education becomes a commodity: I (or my parents, or my scholarship, or the government) pay so many thousands of dollars per year to be here, so I’d better get my money’s worth!

It’s a feeling that I can understand. Education is madly expensive, and costs continue to increase. I can blame tuition fees for a feeling of entitlement to a high mark, the perceived symbol of a ‘good education’; it’s not right, but I understand it. What I don’t understand is what I’ve noticed happening among students lately: the degree itself becomes a commodity. It’s one thing for a student to beg higher marks because he’s paid (or his parents have paid, or the government has paid) for the education; it’s another to go to school and pay the money simply to get the degree and not bother about the education. It’s a subtle difference, but one that substantially affects the way in which a student approaches learning. A student who goes to school for an education, typically, cares less about the actual mark and more about the overall learning experience. For this student, an overall trajectory of improvement and holistic learning are more important than whether the degree ends up being a merit or distinction. The student who goes to school in order to obtain a degree cares less about the overall learning experience; they are most easily spotted by their tendency to spout their long-held opinions in discussions as if they were facts and by their rejection of or resistance to new thoughts or ideas from any source. This student aggressively seeks the highest possible marks (usually not by hard work and careful study!). This student believes, genuinely, that he knows how to do things and that his ideas about his given subject are already fully formed; the degree, therefore, is just a formal recognition of his preexisting skills.  In this sense, I think that Americans (and possibly others) really do have the mindset of ‘buying a degree.’ We pay the money, do the time, and come out with a piece of paper that says we’re qualified. Since when did that become education?

This rant was inspired by an August 2011 post for insidehigered.com by Robert B. Archibald, which talks about the problem of grade inflation in far more detail than I could ever hope to. For your readerly convenience, I have re-posted it here:

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made headlines recently by announcing a plan to fight grade inflation: all grades received will be contextualized on student transcripts, allowing graduate schools and potential employers to see grade distributions for each course and thus to determine just how much value to attach to those ever-prevalent As and Bs. This move is the latest in a series of attacks on what is perceived by many (rightly) to be an epidemic in higher education today, particularly among those institutions that seem to do well in the national rankings.
Student anxiety about such policies is understandable. Graduating seniors are naturally concerned about their competitiveness during difficult economic times, while juniors and seniors worry that they may be passed up for fellowships, summer programs, or other academic opportunities on account of a lowered grade-point average.
Professors, too, have their concerns about grade deflation; we not only care about our students’ successes but also about the implications of anti-inflation policies on our own careers. While institutions are increasingly taking measures to combat grade inflation, there are several key pressures faculty members face when assigning grades, and these may cause us to feel uneasy or hesitant about immediately subscribing to a strict regimen of grade deflation. These pressures in no way excuse or minimize the ethical implications of grade inflation, nor do I seek to undermine the efforts of those striving to curtail what is indeed a significant and widespread problem in higher education today. My purpose is only to suggest some of the underlying causes of this epidemic from a faculty perspective; to point out some of the pressures faculty face as they assign their students grades. These pressures, as I see it, come from three primary sources:
Pressure from students: Most professors are experienced in the familiar end-of-semester scene in which a student comes to office hours to argue for a higher grade. Such discussions often involve a student’s disputation of minutiae from past exams, papers, and assignments, all in the hope of gaining a point or two here and there and thus retroactively improving his or her grade. Such discussions can be quite time-consuming, and they often come at the busiest time of the semester, thus bringing with them the temptation to do whatever it takes to close the matter and move along. There may also be a nagging fear that minor grading errors have indeed been made and that the student should be given the benefit of the doubt. With ever-increasing college costs and the inevitable sense of student entitlement and consumerism that follow, such discussions are becoming all too common. and are not always limited to the end of the semester. Even more important, many faculty members dread and even fear the negative classroom atmosphere that often results from giving students “bad” grades (i.e.. C or below, though even a B fits this category for many), particularly in courses dependent on student discussion and participation, such as a seminar or a foreign language class.
Pressure from administrators: Success with student evaluations is a career necessity, whether one is a young scholar seeking the elusive Elysium of tenure or one belongs to that now-majority of faculty members who teach part-time or on an adjunct basis and are dependent on positive student evaluations for reappointment. At teaching-intensive colleges and universities, in particular, student evaluations are often of paramount importance, and faculty members must do what they can to keep their customers happy. Many faculty members feel, and numerous studies seem to suggest, that generous grade distributions correspond to positive teaching evaluations, so many faculty members, under pressure from administrators to produce good evaluations, feel a temptation to inflate grades to secure their own livelihoods. Since administrators usually have neither the time nor the expertise to make independent evaluations of a professor’s teaching ability (imagine a dean with both the leisure and the proficiency to sit in on and evaluate in the same semester both a Russian literature course and an advanced macroeconomics course, without having done any of the previous coursework…) they must rely heavily on student descriptions of what goes on in the classroom, descriptions that are often contradictory and that unfortunately do not always cohere.
Pressure from colleagues: Some faculty who wish to curb grade inflation may feel that they are the only ones fighting the problem. If everyone else is giving out inflated grades, why should they be the ones to stand alone, only to incur the displeasure of students who may be confused by inconsistent standards? As college freshmen arrive on campus increasingly unprepared for college work, faculty members, inheriting a problem passed on to them by their colleagues in secondary education, often have the difficult task of trying to determine reasonable standards of achievement. It takes effort and planning for faculty to balance their professional responsibilities to both their respective disciplines and to their students’ positive academic experience. In an era where budget cuts affect most severely those departments and programs with low enrollments, no one wants to lose the bidding war for students, and many professors, particularly those in vulnerable fields, fear that a “strict constructionist” approach to grade deflation may cost them student interest and consequently much-needed institutional support, both of which risk being redistributed to more favored colleagues. Furthermore, the seemingly ubiquitous nature of grade inflation may simplify the ethical quandaries involved: if everyone understands that grades are being unfairly inflated, then there may, in fact, be no unfairness involved at all, since the very transparency of grade inflation thus removes any sense of deception that may linger in our minds.
There is a final pressure to grade inflate, and it comes from ourselves. It may be the disquieting feeling that our own efforts in the classroom have sometimes been inadequate, that poor student performance reflects poor preparation or teaching on our part, and that grades must be inflated to compensate for our failings. It may come from the difficulties inherent in assigning grades to elusive and ultimately unquantifiable phenomena such as class participation, essays, student presentations, and the like. In such cases, grade inflation ceases to function as a lazy or disinterested tool for maintaining steady waters; it becomes, instead, a corrective measure seeking to make restitution for our own perceived shortcomings.
If we are honest with ourselves about the pressures we face as we engage in what is one of our profession’s most unavoidable and routine tasks — assigning grades — we can begin to think seriously about the part all of us play in inflating grades. Examining the underlying causes of why we grade-inflate is the beginning of doing something serious about it.”

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/focus/teaching_and_learning/views/essay_on_why_faculty_members_participate_in_grade_inflation#.TrqdfbwX8Kg.email#ixzz1dFbEVaTP
Inside Higher Ed

So now the question is: what are we going to do about it?


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