Friday, August 19, 2011

Grade Inflation Day

With the fall semester rapidly approaching (yes, I should be getting real work done rather than blogging, but I am awaiting a dataset), the thoughts of students turns to orientation and meeting new folks.  The thoughts of everyone else inevitably turns to grade inflation.  The Beast has a great series of graphics here.  I tend to give more B's than A's and only a hefty number of C's in my big intro class.  So, I still have a bell-ish curve usually, just higher at the one end. 

Actually, some of the other stats in the graphic are more disturbing: that hefty number of students think that showing up should be sufficient.  I did have a conversation with a grad student (not one of mine) in my previous job who said--if you are here long enough, you deserve the degree.  Oy, I hit the roof.  Education is more than just about endurance.

Why less than 20 pages of writing required?  In my case, I blame .. the unions.  The teaching assistant unions to be specific.  We have a strict limit on the number of hours they can work, and those hours include showing up at lectures, email contact hours, hours in discussion sections (called conferences up here), weekly meetings (necessary for my big class where I have eight or so TAs to keep on the same page), and so on.  So, either I cut back on how much grading they do or I cut back on how much contact they have with the students, more or less.  So, my intro students get about 15-18 pages of writing (two papers and a final).  My advanced students get just a bit more than 20, with one big research paper, one shorter paper and sometimes a final.  Of course, I could just do more grading myself, but the incentives certainly do not point that way.  Plus I hate grading. 

My students very much do have to read more than 40 pages a week to get by.  Of course, such a stat is deceptive since some courses are not as reading intensive as others.  Math?  Hmmm.  But social sciences are reading heavy.  I guess I average (if I am thinking real hard about the numbers) about 100-150 pages of reading a week, depending on the level of the class.  I am sure my students are willing to do the math to prove I assign more.  But some of those pages will be Zombie-related, so they can moan all they want to.

What is worse than grade inflation?  That lower standards are most common in programs that focus on educating educators.  I observed early in my career and often since that students who are majoring in Education generally have the worst performance.  Not all, but I used to guess pretty accurately the majors of students who were getting low C's and D's in my courses.

It is important to note Canada and especially McGill do not suffer as much from grade inflation.  Indeed, a few of my colleagues systematically engage in grade deflation.  I don't get that much whining about grades here because my colleagues have beaten down their expectations.  This is good for me, as I am probably easier than most of them but still more demanding, I think, than the average in the US (if the numbers in the article cited up above are correct). 

However, it is BAD for our students who want to get into grad programs in the US.  After linking to the grade inflation pieces on twitter this morning, I got a twitter reply back from a prof at George Washington University (Dan Nexon) who noted that Canadians suffer in comparison to Americans due to grade deflation up here.  I assumed this might be a problem--nice to know for sure.  So, I include text in my recommendation letters addressing the grading differences--although that may or may not help that much.

As Dan noted, what we really need is some sort of solution to the collective action problem since those folks who are tough grades face all kinds of problems, including lower teaching evals, flack from parents, hurting the students relative to others in jobs and grad school applications, and so on. 

But I am skeptical. Profs are hard enough to herd when their numbers are small.  Getting all of us to agree to anything?  Ha! 

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