Sunday, May 3, 2015

Grade Inflation: Rescuing Students from Unrealistic Expectations

Grade inflation has been a drag on the quality of education for sometime and sets students up for future failure. The artificial, and often accidental, inflation of grades persists and doesn’t appear to have an immediate resolution. Professors feel pressure to continue providing high grades despite its long-term damage to the student, the university, and future employers. Looking out for students requires holding the line on grade pressure.

Its easy to give high grades when the benefits significantly outweigh the costs of holding students accountable for learning. Professors mentioned that grade inflation is a result of poor student evaluations, poor student-teacher relationships, financial aid requirements, and excessively high student expectations (Caruth & Caruth, 2013). Giving accurate grades comes with internal and external pressure to lower the standards.

On the first day, students walk/ log into a class with preconceived expectations of what grade they should have regardless of their actual performance. Based upon studies of undergraduate and graduate students the average undergraduate student expects a B- while graduate students expect a B+ (Schwartz, 2009). This expectation sometimes leads to disappointment and anger if they do not get what they thought they should.

Perception vs. Market Performance

One problem with giving into student demands is that eventually reality will hit the student in ways they don’t foresee. At some point, they will need to show their mastery of the material and will experience serious disappointment from job loss, lack of forthcoming opportunities, and inability to overcome challenges. Today’s false perception of their performance can lead to serious job market consequences tomorrow.

An employer may consider the merits of hiring a student on the honor roll but will become disappointed with the value of the degree if the student has lower performance than expected. The problem of high grades with low performance becomes a detriment that can take students years to figure out once they reflect on their failures. The costs to the employer and the student can be substantial.

Reserving the Independence of Faculty

There is no doubt there are good and bad faculty. Faculty should be held accountable when they are miserably not engaged in the educational process but should not be held accountable for student misperceptions of grades. Faculty evaluations should have only a limited amount of performance influence as they can at times be conduits to express anger stemming from disappointment than an actual reflection of teaching quality.

Peer reviews should weigh higher on these evaluations as they offer a better reflection of performance. This doesn’t mean that student evaluations are not important but that they sometimes don’t reflect accurately the job that high performing professors are doing. Peer reviews offer a method of seeing if the professor is actively engaged in the learning process from the perspective of people with industry knowledge.

It is better to use a battery of measurements that include peer reviews, student evaluations, basic class metrics (i.e. postings, engagement, etc...), and quality of content to evaluate professors. If the goal is to create more accurate assessments than a well-rounded report with multiple measurements may get a better total picture. Each university will need to determine if that "accurate picture" is worth the time and cost.

Setting the Tone Right From the First Day

Universities should stand by their commitment to high quality learning to create relevance in the modern market which will be the truest judge of performance. Student disappointment is often a result of misperceptions fed by grade inflating, misinterpretation of the value of grades, and the overall academic culture. Students should consistently be told they need to earn their grades and must challenge their existing assumptions to move to higher states of adaptive learning.

Forcing students to reach higher levels of performance should be a fundamental goal. A’s should be difficult to obtain and a valid measure of actual performance. The average student should be in the C and B range with areas of improvement apparent. Continually pushing students to get better may create frustration but often leads to higher long-term performance. If the student see where they can improve it is up to the professor to show them. Rescuing students from drowning themselves in the misperceptions of what is needed to be successful in life may be one of the most valuable higher education lessons.

Caruth, D. & Caruth, G. (2013). Grade inflation: an issue for higher education? Journal of Distance Education, 14 (1).

Schwartz, D. (2009). The impact of more rigorous grading on instructor evaluations: a longitudinal study, 2 (1). 

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