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More McPeek on Grade Inflation

Mark McPeek.jpgBio Professor Mark McPeek — an ecologist and evolutionary biologist — seems on his way to becoming a grade inflationist as well. On his blog Mind Games 2.0, he is teasing out the effects of higher grades on Dartmouth students and on the overall environment at the College, and by extension, on all schools. He has six posts up now, all of which look in greater detail at points that he made during his half-hour presentation to the faculty last week. His theme is that grade inflation needs to be stopped in its tracks, lest it have ever-more-deleterious effects on student life.

At the Yale Law School we enjoyed an Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail grading system. People worked hard, and an Honors grade was a reward for extra effort. Word was that 10-15% of the grades awarded were Honors; about 85% of grades were Pass; and you’d get a Low Pass if you sold crack to your professor’s daughter. We’d laugh at the transgressions required to earn a failing grade.

Yet I think that we can agree that Dartmouth undergrads are not Yale Law students, or so it seems to me. However in Hanover there exists a contingent of faculty members who believe that there is no need for grades at all. What a curious kind of academic utopianism. Next these folks will argue that we should all equally share the wealth that the national economy produces. But rather than speculate in a void about such things, Professor McPeek has summarized the findings of the academic research and his own study of the effect of high grades on student effort. His blog post on this topic is entitled: Student Effort Declines When The Average Grade In A Classes Increases. An excerpt:

[Researcher Philip Babcock’s] regression analyses indicate that students in classes where they expect to get an A study half as much as students in classes where they expected to receive a C. Thus, simply based on the grades that the average student receives in the class, the work effort on the material for all students in the class could double depending on how easy or hard a grader you are.

Let’s say you went into a class one year, and on the first day you said, “I am going to set the average grade for this class to a C” and then you simply teach the class as you always do but grade assignments to a C average. Then in the next semester, you teach the identical class, but on the first day you say “I am going to set the average grade for this class to an A”, and then teach exactly the same class but grade all assignments to an A average. Which class do you think students would get a better education in, and by “get a better education” I mean know more, be better able to apply what they learned in the class to new situations, and have more skill with the material in the class? Based on human nature alone, the answer is obvious.

I see the same relationship in analyses I have done of the self-reported data from Dartmouth students when they complete their course evaluations at the end of each term.

Makes sense to me, but then I live in the real world where I observe the effects of market incentives every day — and where I pay a high price if I mis-read them. Certain professors at Dartmouth see the world as they want it to be, without asking if people will actually act as the profs dream that they will.

Addendum: McPeek’s other posts on grade inflation are worth reading:

But Nobody Will Get Into Medical or Professional Schools?

Do We Really Have To Come Up With A Grading System That Faculty Can’t Game?

But I Use The Latest Innovations In Teaching?

Are Entering Students Better Prepared For College?

What If Every Student At A University Truly Deserved To Get A’s In Every Class?

Addendum: I am quite enjoying the current discussion on grade inflation. Our debate will bring about interesting changes at the College — ones that could have us actually leading higher education in an area (rather than just saying that we are doing so).


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