A = Average ?

In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten a number of students who come to me and say something like “I didn’t get an A? What did I do wrong?” The A is the obvious grade, and a B means, to their mind, that they missed some significant requirement of the assignment. The idea that an A means going above and beyond the assignment is foreign to them. I am very close to giving up on my anachronistic view of the C, or even the low-B, as an average. Though the chair of the department is trying to encourage “full spectrum grading,” it is a distributed prisoners dilemma: no one wants to be caught holding the bag and being the lowest average grade in the department.

As an indicator, my last exam in the media law class had a total of 180 points available, when it was scheduled to have 150. Anything over 130 would be an A. I haven’t graded it completely yet, but I suspect I will have more As and A-s than any other grade.

The newsletter for my teachers union recently reprinted an essay that appeared in the Washington Post entitled Where All Grades Are Above Average. Honestly, if grades are moving upward, and everyone understands them to be, I don’t have a problem with that. The problem is that this allows someone with absolutely no effort to graduate with a B average. Moreover, we have students applying for grad school who have 3.5 GPAs and no ability whatsoever to engage in graduate work.

Given the continuing grade inflation, one wonders whether a simple translation mapping might work. Right now, a 2.5 is needed to graduate in our program. Perhaps it is not as strange as it sounds to move everything to the standard graduate scale, where anything below a B is failing.

I know of instructors (not at UB) who give a “reported grade” and a “real grade.” I might try this, though I suspect that it would be irrelevant. Much of this stems from my lack of understanding: how can someone spend so much time aimed at getting a grade? How is this a worthwhile pursuit? By the time they get to college, many of these students are so reliant on external validation that the process of learning is just a means to a grade, rather than the other way around.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted 3/25/2003 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I thought you might find this article intereting, it’s by a friend of mine in the Math Dept:
    Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation
    http://slate.msn.com/id/2071759

  2. Jeff
    Posted 3/25/2003 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Ain’t that the truth. I think the majority of kids in college approach school with a “grades only mindset”. What’s that?

    1) Memorize all the material
    2) Take the test and get an “A”
    3) Forget everything you learned and start
    memorizing for the next test.
    4) ****Most important**** If it’s not on the test
    don’t even bother to learn it.

    When getting an “A” takes precedence over getting a solid education, the student gets an “F” in the long run. This creates students that enter the work force with little knowledge, and only the ability to memorize tasks in the interim.

    Granted there are students that do get the “A” and are highly functioning when they leave. If you find one, introduce me to him/her…..I haven’t met one in a while.

  3. Jenn
    Posted 3/25/2003 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    I was just going to comment that Jeff is the opposite because he once said, “I would still come to lecture even if there weren’t any tests.” And I’m not surprised that he already commented on this!

  4. Alex
    Posted 3/26/2003 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Eszter: Interesting article. I largely agree with the point. BUT, the assumption he doesn’t defend is that the standard deviation indicates a difference in competence among subjects, rather than the reliability of grades. How reliable are the grades you give? How about across your department? Moreover, I think this is a systematic error. In many cases, I can predict the average in a Comm Theory course taught by a colleague will be higher than my average grade, and so can the students. Secondly, he assumes that every university uses the same scale. In fact, the averages are likely to be higher in schools like the University of Washington, where you can get tenths of a grade point in a class (4.0, 3.9, etc.) and schools (U Mich?) that grade on a flat A, B, C, with no + or -, since profs will be more likely to err on the side of awarding too high a grade than too low. (Oh, and I’ll try to make the email optional on the form!)

    J & J: I should note that you are not the only two who feel this way. I think there are a (gratifyingly) large minority of students who are in class to learn and are invested in their education. I wish we could serve them better! But because they remain a minority, I think that profs–including myself–often forget how many of you there are.

  5. Posted 3/26/2003 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Another (sad) perspective that I frequently see: that teachers “give out” grades, as opposed to students “earning” them by demonstrating a mastery of skill and/or knowledge.

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