Intellectual Challenge vs. Grade Inflation

What are your thoughts on course evaluations? I find them to be a great motivator for reflecting on course content and delivery. My latest project is to increase my ratings on the item: “The course challenged me intellectually.” I feel I have been too lenient at times, not challenging our students enough and falling victim to grade inflation.

Just yesterday, I looked at a student’s draft of a slideshow for an upcoming presentation. The students are graded on their draft but can gain half the subtracted points back if they revise their drafts and their final slideshow is effective. The student had handed in a draft that was below par and, as a result had lost quite a few points . . . and promptly e-mailed me, saying how disappointed he was. It broke my heart.

I am struggling with a balance between challenging students, motivating them, and grading them effectively. How do you strike that balance?

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8 Responses to Intellectual Challenge vs. Grade Inflation

  1. glenn petersen says:

    I’ve long been dubious about the relevance of the “grade inflation” term. It’s not clear to me why we should think the grading standards of our ancestors were any more rigorous, or less attuned to their own zeitgeist, than those of today. There probably were a few giants in those days, but there were plenty of dwarves to stand on their shoulders as well.* If (and that’s a big if) we grade differently today, it’s because we’re often operating within quite different contexts than our predecessors.

    What is more, the notion of grade inflation rests in part on an assumption that we haven’t learned new things about effective teaching in the intervening years. Stop and think about it. We put enormous effort into devising better ways of teaching. Why wouldn’t our students be learning more? I tell my students, when I return their first essays, that it’s extremely difficult—-a near impossibility—-to flunk my course, because I’m going to teach them what they need to know. I’ll make them do it till they do it right, if I have to. I’m a good teacher. I teach them what I want them to know. They learn it, and get good grades. Why should I penalize them by trying to impose some ancient, arbitrary standard or normal curve on my evaluations of their performances? To my way of thinking, it is possible that a teacher who’s flunking more than the bare minimum of students—-the ones who aren’t applying themselves—-isn’t teaching them very well (and I realize that this will draw protests—-of course there are exceptions, but not many, I don’t think).

    More specific to the struggle Elisabeth is grappling with, I like to use the analogy of taxes (no, not as in death and taxes). On the face of it, taxes are about raising revenue. But if we look at how tax policies are formulated and imposed, we can see that taxation is at least as much about shaping social behavior as it is about raising money. We heavily tax practices we want to minimize, and provide enormous tax breaks for behaviors we want to encourage (yes, I know that industry lobbyists write tax codes meant solely to provide benefits to the industries that pay the lobbyists and fund the campaigns of the politicians, but you get the point). I think grading can be viewed in the same light. Nominally, it’s about assigning a value to a student’s performance. But we can in fact use grading to shape individual students’ behavior. Put none too artfully, with a lower grade I can kick the ass of a student who needs impetus to rise to the challenge. But by the same token, I can also use a better grade to reward a student who’s working as hard as possible. Why should I allow some arbitrary numerical system to override my task as an educator to respond to the individual needs of my students?

    I also have many thoughts about student evaluations, but I’m putting them in a separate post. Stay tuned.

    *For those of you unfamiliar with the reference, it’s via Isaac Newton, who said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There’s a long history to the phrase, though, classically recounted in Robert Merton’s 1965 On the Shoulders of Giants.

  2. Amy Trautwein says:

    While I haven’t been at Baruch long enough to know if grades here have been inflating over the years, I do know that grades seem highly inflated in comparison to several other schools. While I agree with Glenn that professors should have leeway to assess their students, that we should not be subject to an ‘arbitrary numerical system,’ I also believe that recommended (but flexible) grading curves set by the college can go a long way toward making sure that students leave courses with a reasonable sense of their own accomplishments and what room there is for improvements. Baruch students are generally a smart bunch, but I’ve found that their basic skills are generally much lower than those of students I’ve taught at other colleges. Nevertheless, I am giving higher grades here than I have elsewhere. This is not because my teaching has greatly improved, though I like to think I’m getting better and better. It’s because my students responded with fear and loathing when I applied my normal grade distribution at the end of my first semester here. Telling them that ‘C’ indicates average work, and that ‘A’ represents exceptional accomplishment just doesn’t wash here. After I filed my first semester grades, I received at least 20 e-mails (I had taught a jumbo section) from students complaining that they were going to lose scholarships, or that they had never received anything less than an A in their lives. They truly believed that they had turned in A work, despite the poor quality of work I saw. Grade inflation had clearly been at work somewhere, and they had no sense of how low the standards were that they had been held to. The issue of scholarship pressure is subject for a separate rant (having excellent students say they won’t take courses whose difficulty might endanger their scholarship makes my blood boil). But the point remains that while I have lowered my standards considerably, I wish I had a better sense of whether I am fitting in with the Baruch ethos – or just caving. I’d love a recommended curve, not so I could slavishly follow it but so I could have some sense of whether at Baruch, we’re in our own little Woebegone and all the kids really are considered above average.

  3. Dennis Slavin says:

    I’ve been resistant to the idea of a recommended curve because the accomplishments of our students vary considerably: in a given semester I’ve taught multiple sections of the same course and often ended up with radically different distributions of grades. That said, I wish members of the faculty would feel far freer to discuss these issues with their colleagues. 20 complaining emails in a jumbo class seems high, but it might mean little more than students had perceived the instructor as being open to changing their grades. Nevertheless, “C” as an indication of “average” work is not the norm at most colleges today — again, conversations with colleagues could be quite helpful.

  4. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    Discussions among colleagues (e.g., those teaching sections of the same course) would indeed be helpful in clarifying discipline-specific standards. On a larger scale, I also feel that we should set college-wide standards in areas where such “universal” standards can be set . . . and where they seem to be too low. Oral and written communication, for example, have been the focus of various iniatives over the years, but we still regularly see seniors with significant problems in these areas. I suggest that the oral and written threshholds in the respective required courses (COM 1010 and ENG 2100?) be tightened and that transfer students be tested upon arrival or that they have to retake the threshhold courses. I would also welcome standards related to intellectual challenge. A student in one of my fall courses mentioned that many of her assignments at Baruch were “remedial and redundant.” I have the feeling that some/many of us are not certain what level of intellectual challenge is appropriate. How can it be defined?

  5. Dennis Slavin says:

    I wish we could ask transfer students to retake courses that they have passed elsewhere. This would regularly happen in both English and Math. But we can’t: we have articulation agreements with CUNY colleges, and, in general, it’s considered unethical to ask students to take an “equivalent” course a second time if they’ve passed it. (I suppose one could do it if the course were free.)

    For the record, there is a fair amount of discussion among faculty who teach English 2100 (and 2150) about grading, and in Math courses there is a departmental exam

    I’m curious, Elisabeth, about your complaining student. Did the quality of her work for you substantiate her perception that it involved remediation that she didn’t need?

  6. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    The student did well in my course. She made the comment in reference to an ethnographic research project, involving an observation, an interview, a literature review, and a presentation on a culture of the students’ choosing. When we discussed the assignment after the completion of one of its elements in class, the student said that she was pleasantly surprised, in that the project was educational and fun, and not another redundant and remedial project, like so many. It made me wonder how one can define intellectual challenge and whether our standards are too low. What is your take, Dennis?

  7. Dennis says:

    I suppose this is a cop out, but my take is that good teachers (and good students) make assignments meaningful by what they do with them — that this usually is not an issue of the assignment per se. That said, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone characterizing the assignment you’ve described (“an ethnographic research project, involving an observation, an interview, a literature review, and a presentation on a culture of the students’ choosing”) as remedial; seems more like what scholars do all the time. When we stop pushing ourselves and our students — that’s when our standards become too low.

  8. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    This discussion has been very interesting. I’m starting to think that the “intellectual challenge” item on the course evaluation forms should be reworded or augmented. When I think back to my college days, I found the great majority of my courses stimulating and educational, but I would not have ranked them high on an “intellectual challenge” scale. To me, challenge implies struggle. I wasn’t struggling, I was exhilarated. I wonder what thoughts lie behind the scores that our students give us on this item.

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