I once had a student in a class I was teaching tell me that although he found my course interesting, he was dropping it so that he could instead take another he thought would be easier. He was concerned that my class, being offered by the Faculty of Mathematics, would lower his overall average, and might affect his chances of getting into a pharmacy school after he graduates. His decision was made after only my second lecture in the first week of the semester, and I am still wondering to what extent he made the right choice.
Courses offered by different academic departments can have very different grade distributions. It may not be surprising that some research has found that these variations can have an affect on undergraduate course enrollment patterns. But how could these differences affect the quality of post-secondary education?
It turns out that much of the research on these grading disparities can be found in the grade inflation literature. I define grade inflation as an increase of student grades over time (although there doesnt seem to be any consensus on which definition should be used).
Research on grade inflation has traditionally focused on measuring how much and where grades have increased, estimating its impact, debates on its possible origins, and proposing solutions to mitigate any negative impact that it may have.
While numerous papers on grade inflation in the US can be found, very little hard evidence of this phenomenon in Canadian universities can be found. Some evidence of grade inflation at the University of Waterloo is described in an article I presented earlier in the December issue of the Faculty Association of UW Forum. The online version may not be up yet, so for this post, I included a new graph (many thanks for our Institutional Analysis and Planning Office), which shows the percent of final grades that were at least 80% in each faculty for various years. Notice that grades have increased significantly over the past 20 years (by various amounts) and grades in science and math tend to be lower than grades in other faculties.
I find that a number of interesting questions on what grades are and what function they have at UW can be brought out from these findings. But one problem which I have with my own results, which is a problem encountered with most of the research in this area, is that the source of the grade inflation is unknown. A rise in the average grade in one department may be due to completely legitimate reasons: students may be simply be getting smarter.
But this problem opens the door to another interesting debate (discussed throughout a recent book on grade inflation). Even if grades in a given department have increased due only to an increase in student performance, and most of the grades have become As, then do students still benefit by having such a grade distribution? Are there any drawbacks to having a majority of the grades compressed at the top of the scale? What would happen if everyone got an A?
The egalitarian approach would be to maintain the same grading standards every year, regardless of how many students are receiving As. But then some researchers argue that changing the standards to grade more stringently could help provide better feedback to students by providing a better distinction between good and outstanding students. And by grading more stringently, students who are motivated by grades would push themselves to become more engaged in their studies.
It turns out that some post-secondary institutions have decided that stricter grading standards are the way to go. Consider this example: Princeton adopted an institution-wide system in 2004 where only 35 percent of the grades given in any department or program can be As, specifically to bring grade inflation under reasonable control. Their policy doesnt mean that all courses have to meet this standard, but each department or program as a whole, should.
What if UW had a similar system? Perhaps that student of mine who switched out of my class would have stayed in my class, knowing that the number of As handed out in any course was going to be somehow limited by some institution-wide policy. But either way, it seems that students not only choose their courses based on what interests them and what is required to complete their degree, but also on what course they think might earn them the highest grade. And I am willing to bet that grade inflation at UW over the past 20 years could only have exacerbated this effect.