June 13th, 2012

Faculty Say Grade Inflation is a Problem, but Not in Their Classroom



The June/July issue of The Teaching Professor contains highlights from an article that makes an important point about grade inflation. Not all grade inflation is bad. When grades are higher than they used to be and there’s no corresponding increase in student performance, then grade inflation is a problem. But as Mostrom and Blumberg point out, some teaching motivates students to work hard and achieve more. This “grade improvement,” as Mostrom and Blumberg call it, is good. It’s what all teachers should aspire to promote. We want our students to learn more and when they do, their grades should show it. This important distinction should be part of our thinking about grade inflation.

The Mostrom and Blumberg article reminded me of my favorite work on grade inflation. It’s one of those studies where you read it and wonder how you would have done. Using a qualitative design (which explains and justifies the small n), the researchers interviewed 25 faculty members. The interviews were lengthy (mostly between 60 and 90 minutes) and covered the following grade inflation topics:

  1. Is grade inflation a problem at your institution, in your department, in your classes?
  2. To what do you attribute the problem?
  3. What’s the relationship between grades and student evaluations?
  4. What would an ideal grade distribution look like?
  5. What role should institutional policies play in addressing grade inflation problems?

Answers to all of these questions are illuminating but it’s the responses to number one that are most revealing. These faculty thought grade inflation was more of a problem at their institution than in their department, and only two reported that grade inflation was a problem in their courses. Those perceptions aren’t particularly surprising, but then it starts to get really interesting. More than three-fourths of the faculty in this cohort reported that they were tougher graders than colleagues in their department. The researchers note that although it is possible that some in the cohort might be tougher graders, given criteria used to select participants “there is no reason to believe that the interviewees as a group actually were ‘tougher’ than others in their own department.” (p. 200)

But do most faculty have accurate information about the grading practices of their colleagues? Would this tendency to “self-enhance” their grading practices continue under other conditions? The researchers devised a simple but effective way to answer that question. They gave participants a sheet of paper which listed the letter grades and then asked them to estimate the percentage of A’s, B’s, C’s and so on they give in a typical class. Course grade distributions are publicly available at this university, which made it possible for researchers to compare the estimated grade distributions with the actual ones.

“Nearly all of the interviewed professors believe their grades were lower than they actually were: they underestimated the number of A’s and overestimated the number of lower grades in their classes. In the most extreme case a professor estimated grades equivalent to a 2.31 GPA when in fact the actual GPA was 3.53.” Most faculty members were not this far off, but 92% of the cohort did miscalculate and all of them in the direction of estimating lower grades than they were actually giving students.

So among this group, grade inflation is considered a problem, just not in their classes. My hunch is that these views are quite common, and are not unique to this cohort. We could debate that, but it would be more profitable if this approach was used to test the accuracy of grading perceptions. With the academic year now over and grades submitted, you could take one of your classes, estimate your grade distribution and then compare it with the actual distribution. Making sure there’s consistency between what we say we do and what we actually do is important. Sometimes our grade inflation conversations are not as specific or well informed as they could be. Here’s something that would improve them.

References: Mostrom, A. M. and Blumberg, P. (2012). Does learner-centered teaching promote grade inflation? Innovative Higher Education, 12 (February), published online.

McCabe, J. and Powell, B. “In my class? No.” Professors’ accounts of grade inflation. In Becker, W. E. and Andrews, M. L. (eds.), The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Contributions of Research Universities. Bloomington: IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

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9 comments on “Faculty Say Grade Inflation is a Problem, but Not in Their Classroom

  1. I don't know about other institutions, but at mine (34 years) the primary method of evaluating 'teaching' has been student 'opinion polls' mislabeled 'teaching evaluations'. Regardless of the political correct speeches to the public (parents and legislators) administrators rarely carefully evaluate professors' teaching. One reason is that most administrators are not educators, nor do they know or understand the principles of good teaching. Another reason is the movement 15-20 years ago when administrators determined that 'students are our customers'….. leading to the unspoken admonition that 'the customer is always right'. In reality, students are our products and to produce a good produce, one must distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' raw material. With the emphasis now on 'recruit and retain' with little or no regard to quality or potential, added to the pressure to 'graduate them all', it is no wonder that grade inflation is here and probably here to stay.

    • Honestly, I think degree inflation is at the core of much of this problem. The fact that you can get a Doctorate in Nursing is absolutely insane. There are more idiot degree programs that award PhD's for no more value or work than what should have been expected for a high school diploma than there are students in real college programs. The "liberal education" system has run away with itself and the real reason for boomerang kids is that these deluded extended adolescents wasted 4-10 years of the most productive years of their lives piddling around learning useless crap that has no relation to occupation or basis in reality. Is it really a surprise that studying one's own navel would result in no real accomplishment?

  2. This seems similar to the statistic where 40% of the professors consider themselves to be in the best 1% of college instructors. I read, somewhere, that 40% of all college class grades are A's. If that isn't grade inflation in a culture where we all know the majority of students are poor performers and lethargic, I can't imagine what your definition would be.

  3. The response to "What would an ideal grade distribution look like?" should be dependent on the class composition. A large freshman survey course should have a very different grade distribution than that of a small, senior seminar. One-size-fits-all does not work in this situation.

  4. Grade inflation is highly dependent on the type of students, level of the course, and most importantly, the instructor. I usually tell my higher ed students that out of 15 students I expect 3 As, 7 Bs, 4 Cs, and a D. I'm usually close if not correct each time. Instructors who have taught the same course repeatedly know what to expect out of their students, can align course objectives with learner differences, and grade appropriately. I had a student who told me my class was the first course she had not made an A. She thanked me and told me she now knew what it meant to have the bar raised. Giving everyone a "good" grade is doing no one a favor.

    • That's great if most students are excelling. That's bad if they aren't.

      At my college there is a focus on graduating students. It is a shame that the emphasis is not on educating students.

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