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This month, all over the country, thousands upon thousands of college instructors are losing sleep over grade inflation. They've worked hard all semester to make their students better thinkers and writers with a wider base of knowledge. They've done their level best to assess their students' performance in class fairly and accurately. They've devoted many hours to choosing the most appropriate assessment criteria for the their classes' objectives. And yet, staring at a long list of A's, A-minuses, and B-pluses, these otherwise confident and self-assured teachers feel real guilt at adding to what is surely the scourge of American education.
If you're among those beleaguered and stressed out by your too-high grades, I'm here to tell you not to worry.
Grade inflation is one of those things that sounds much worse than it is. It does certainly sound bad. Did you hear about the high school with 34 valedictorians? Maybe you read the (shocking!) news that the median grade at Harvard is an A-? Or perhaps you've visited gradeinflation.com, with its detailed graphs showing just how pervasive the phenomenon is, and its ominous conclusions about grade inflation's connection to declining literacy rates.
Vitae's own Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate last week, confessed that she is a chronic grade inflator. Tough grading, she says, is not worth the barrage of student emails that is a C's inevitable consequence. She convincingly argues that grade inflation is a natural outgrowth of the consumer model of education that seems to be more and more present on American campuses. Considering the outraged and alarmed tone of much of the writing about the subject, one could be forgiven for thinking that grade inflation is the cause of the consumer model of education. Either way, the consensus seems to be that grade inflation is a very bad thing indeed. Hence the thousands of guilty teachers.
But the fact of the matter is that grade inflation is probably a victimless crime. There have been no convincing studies that demonstrate that higher grades lead to poorer learning outcomes for students. Some argue that giving better grades to more students does a disservice to those students who are truly exceptional, who deserve to stand head-and-shoulders above their peers. But a professor's job is to educate all of her students—to help as many of them as possible to thrive in their studies—not to foster competition between them to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let employers and graduate schools come up with their own ways to evaluate students; you've got more important things to do.
Others point out that grades can provide powerful motivation to students: If everyone gets an A, why do students even need to try? But such arguments ignore the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Remember, our goal should be to get students to want to excel in our classes because they genuinely want to master the material. Ken Bain, in his What the Best College Teachers Do, summarizes a number of experimental studies suggesting that a focus on extrinsic motivation can actually decrease students' natural curiosity about their studies, making it less likely that what they learn will stay with them beyond the final exam. As Alfie Kohn pointed out in his 2002 demolition of "The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation," "a focus on grades creates, or at least perpetuates, an extrinsic orientation that is likely to undermine the love of learning we are presumably seeking to promote."
Please don't get me wrong: I am not advocating giving everyone an A and calling it a day. I do not think that grade inflation is something we should be actively pursuing as a goal. We should aim to provide assessment to our students that gives an honest accounting of their work.
But if you put in a good faith effort to grade your students fairly, do your best to remain objective when evaluating their course work, and still end up with more A's and A-minuses than anything else? Don't sweat it. Your set of final marks is not the straw that will finally break the back of American education, and you are not responsible for the dumbing down of the next generation. Your top-heavy grade book is not the ultimate and damning consequence of a permissive culture of degraded standards and thin-skinned student-customers. I bet your students earned those A's.