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.