Monday, March 13, 2006

Grade Inflation and the 'gentleman's C'

Tony Palmeri attempted to start a discussion last week about the need for the university to re-establish the C as a viable grade here on campus. He noted that he gave a large number of students Cs for a speech in his class. This generated great anger and anxiety among the students, even more than from those who received lower grades.

He points out that this did not always used to be the case and perhaps we should rehabilitate the grade. We could call it the "Bush/Kerry C," in honor of the last election.

There were only two responses to his post. Alice Kyberg wondered if it would force more students to drop out and David Jones suggested not.

Tony's post seems worthy of discussion, as we have all thought about both grade inflation and student quality during our teaching careers.

One way to really make this into a more substantial discussion would be to have some statistics. Is there any public record of grade point by department or even by faculty member? I am sure people know, but have we seen any real comparisons?

At one college where I taught, everyone's individual grade point (i.e. average grade for your classes) was distributed to the rest of the faculty. Thus, you always knew how your grading policy related to the rest of the institution. I think that the point was to keep grade points in check. If so, it seemed to work. No one was way out of line in terms of averages.

One might argue that class composition can change dramatically, but over time, I would have to imagine that this kind of data would help us have a serious discussion about grade inflation.

We all can think of the stereotypes of science versus humanities grades, but it would make our discussion better if we knew if it was true here.

Personally, I have capitulated on the C front myself, giving large numbers of BCs in my classes. I think that it does have a lot to do with what Tony has suggested: the additional grief generated by giving Cs is not really worth it. My over-all average would be just about that--I would guess about an 82.

What would happen if I changed my grading policy? Individually, I imagine my enrollments might be hurt. Institutionally, would it encourage students to work harder or change the intellectual atmosphere? Would we lose more students who are only skating by now? Would the administration stand for that?

I think it would be more reflective of the work many of my students do to give more Cs. It would increase the pressure on students who plan to on for more education, or get into Nursing/Business/Education. It would also give more space to differentiate between students. Maybe I should toughen up. Anyone want to join me?


Arfanser said...

My school uses a mandatory mean in every class. It causes the students much grief, but those who want it bad enough work harder, and the slackers drop out. And we have never had trouble filling a class.

Janine said...

I'm a non-traditional student at UW-O, so I don't know how much my input counts. I would think that using a mandatory mean would mean tougher grading, however, it would also mean that a "B" or an "A" came from the appropriate amount of work.

With the lower grading standard, in my opinion, comes less effort. Those of us who work tremendously hard for the A's and B's are often frustrated by those who do very little work and still get by with a BC. The easier grading causes everyone to loose interest in trying their best, because those that aren't doing their best still get BC's.


tony palmeri said...

Lake Winneblogo,
Thanks for picking up on this topic. Here is the original post I sent to the College of Letters and Science discussion list:

There's been discussion lately about the wisdom of a policy that will prevent students who earned a "C" or higher in a class from retaking it. Here I don't want to discuss the policy, but instead how students perceive the "C" grade. I've noticed over the years that, especially for serious students, the "C" has come to be perceived as a BAD grade even if they don't need a higher grade to progress in or gain entry into a program.

I teach a course that is a prerequisite for students who want to become speech communication majors or minors. There are 37 students in the class this semester, each of whom recently delivered a 7-10 minute speech. Thirteen of them earned a "C" grade, and I found that they were more upset than the "D" students. They were upset mostly because they felt they had met the requirements of the assignment, and for many students simply meeting the requirements of an assignment is an "A." (Last semester I had a student who told me he deserved a C simply because he had perfect attendance!). My own view, which I suspect is shared by most teachers, is that meeting the requirements of an assignment is a "C." But I also believe that if an assignment is rigorous and demanding, a "C" grade is not something that should be looked at as "bad."

Maybe the problem of grade inflation could be solved if we resuscitate the "C" grade? I'm not saying we should tell students to be happy with a "C" or only work toward earning that grade, but that if they do earn a "C" at something that is difficult and challenging they ought to feel a sense of accomplishment instead of "I'm just getting by."

Anonymous said...

Grade statistics are available, but are restricted. Each semester the Office of Institutional Research creates a Distribution of Grades (DOG) report. It is sent to academic leaders who may or may not share it with faculty. I am unaware of anyone ever filing a Records Request, but you could surely get the stats from your dean if you asked.

Lammers said...

Here are data compiled from the last three years of my teaching a lecture section of Biol 105, a pit class of 210 students, which is not only the first bio major course but also required for nursing and kinesiology majors as a prereq for human physiology and human anatomy. It is also part of a two-course lab science sequence.

16% made 90% or better (A)
29% made 80-89% (B & AB)
30% made 70-79% (C & BC)
17% made 60-69% (D & CD)
8% failed

The mean for the course was 77%, a high C. I think this is an accurate reflection of their knowledge. Those who attend class and study do well, those with poor academic habits sink.

Those going on to human phys & anatomy need a C minimum in this course to be allowed to enroll. Note that 25% of the students don't do that well. So I get a lot of begging and pleading from the D and CD students, but I tell them that if they can't make a *B* in my 105, the next two courses will eat them alive. Besides, I add, I do not want a nurse or physical therapist working on me who can't honestly make a C in a basic course like this!

Lake Winneblogo said...

Thanks for the statistics, Tom! I'll put some together myself. I haven't broken down the data by grade for awhile.

I was sure there were real statistics out there -- thanks anonymous! Someone will have to ask Michael if we can get more numbers for the entire college.

Do you think he responds to anonymous requests?

Frank J Doster said...

I find it odd that there is a problem with C's, Most classes that I have been in the profs. have been generous with me regarding grades. I personally only care whether I pass or not, most of the time I spend doing school work as an afterthought. I find the classes i take usually take me in directions of interest away from what the prof. wants me to know.

JRS said...

The "average" grade here at UW-O is a B not a C (2.95 Spring 2005). In COLS, Departmental GPA averages range from 2.28 in Anthropology to 3.44 Art with an overall of 2.78. GPAs in the other colleges are still higher with CON and COEHS well over 3. The trend has been for GPAs to rise over time.