I came across this Slate article, "Confessions of a Grade Inflator", which I imagine is now making the rounds on educators' Twitter and facebook feeds, and I started thinking about both how I deal with grade inflation, as well as about how it might be ameliorated.
The basic premise of the Slate article is that college instructors inflate grades because, quite literally, our jobs depend on it. If we get low teaching evaluations or poor enrollment for grading too harshly, we may easily be out of a job. This is especially true, obviously, of part-time faculty and other non-tenured faculty -- but really, we all face it. And because there is so much pressure -- and because students basically expect A's -- average grades in college courses are now absurdly high: often at least in the B+/A- range. I've even heard of courses where 24 out of 25 student received a perfect A. No joke.
But now how should we deal with this? One way is to just cave in and be a grade-inflator. Be entertaining, put on a show, give good grades, get evals. Apparently, some people do this. Me? I tried to get creative. Early on in my career, I just graded harshly...and I got absolutely brutal teaching reviews. "That won't work", I decided -- but I also didn't want to give into the pressure to be a mere entertainer; so I tried to think creatively about how I might turn grade inflation to my advantage.
Here, in brief, is how I've done it. I've continued to be an absolutely brutal grader. Early on in my courses -- really, at least halfway through them -- I have students going absolutely nuts because of how low their grades are. However, I tell them, I have a "no student left behind" policy. First, I have daily reading response and in-class group assignments, so that they get several types of daily feedback on how they're screwing up. Second, I allow (and encourage) them to rewrite all of their term-papers as many times as they want (except for the final ones), again giving them detailed comments on how they messed up and how to improve their work. Long story short, although I'm really tough on them, since most of them don't want low grades, they tend to put the work in, revise their papers multiple times, and come out the other end with decent grades (and demonstrable improvement they can see and be proud of). I imagine that some of you might think I've just given in and am a grade-inflator (after all, most of my students do get pretty good grades in the end). But, I don't think this is right. I think my aim as a professor should be for the vast majority of my students to finish my courses successfully. The trick is actually getting them to put in the work and improve -- and, in my experience, it is possible; if not for all, then for many. Oh, and if you doubt that I am tough on them, here are a few comments from my recent student evals and ratemyprofessors page:
- Took this last semester and it was by far the most challenging class I've ever taken. But Dr. Arvan is also the best professor I've had at UT.
- One of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken, but I was motivated.
- Although I liked his personality, his class was rough. He expected you to understand and refute philosophical readings before each class with no assistance and graded on correctness. Hard essays to write but he grades very fairly. Not an easy A.. or B.
- Was a hard professor, but great as well. Challenged students.
- Very challenging course.
- High expectations helped immensely.
- Very challenging work and held to a very high standard. However, it was all meant to improve thought and performance and was very helpful.
- He set the bar then moved it up so you would continue to improve.
- Very challenging but immensely helpful.
- At first it was very hard but it got better. :)
- He held us to a higher standard and encouraged us to achieve.
So, that's one way to go. However, I want to also suggest another possibility: that grade-grubbing should be against university policy. I mean it. As the author of the Slate article points out, students put a great deal of pressure on instructors to go easy on them. They ask things like, "Can I do extra work?", "I know I missed the exam, but can I take a make-up?"; they send panicked emails after their final grades are posted in attempt to get them changed, etc. And of course instructors have self-interested reasons to give in. They may well think to themselves, "Shoot, if I don't accede to this student's request, they may give me a bad eval." I've confronted this myself -- and I don't think we should have to. The power should not be in students' hands to pressure their instructors to give them better grades and unfair opportunities. It should be against university rules for students to engage in any kind of grade-grubbing behavior. It's high time that college instructors have their authority to assign grades defended by university policy.
Or so say I. What say you?