Is Grade Inflation at UW Affecting How Our Students Choose Their Courses? – Greg Mayer

gradeinflationI 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.

grade-inflationWhile 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.

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

6 thoughts on “Is Grade Inflation at UW Affecting How Our Students Choose Their Courses? – Greg Mayer”

  1. Thank you Danielle for your wonderful feedback! Indeed, competition to obtain a placement into a professional schools can certainly be enough for students working on their dreams to seek out courses based on what marks they hope they will get, rather than what they want to learn or what will benefit them the most. This is unfortunate, but is difficult to address.

    But I too am thankful that this is an issue with some faculty members. The problem we have at UW is that there is no way for our faculty to watch these trends, as grade data isn’t distributed to our instructors. So there is no way for faculty (and students) to know precisely how grades have changed over the years, so most people are not (and can not be) eve aware of the problems we face.

    Moreover, I agree that the institution should challenge its students and that students should challenge themselves to get the most out of their educational experience. One of the functions grades can have is to provide motivation for students to challenge themselves. If everyone is given A grades throughout the term, then there is less incentive for some students to learn.

    And grades have other functions as well. They help give students feedback on their work, they help weed students out of programs they shouldn’t be in, as well as give potential employers, scholarship committees, graduate admissions committees, and professional admissions committees valuable information. The efficacy of all these functions are also jeopardized when student grades are inflated and compressed at the top of the scale.

  2. Speaking from a student’s perspective, I can’t respond on inflation over the years, but I can say that I know numerous people that take courses only to what will give them a good grade. It is unfortunate. There are many difficult courses that students are missing out on which would give them an academic advantage.
    In a world ruled by grade point average, I can see where these students are coming from. Whether trying to get into med school, pharmacy, or applying for a scholarship, you are judged first on your grades. It is hard to get past the difficulty of a course, when it could hurt your chances at your dream.
    I am happy to see that this is actually an issue with faculty members. My grades have increased every year, and while I know that it is related to my increased interest and involvement in my classes, how proud should I really be? Is 90 the new 80? and 80 the new 70? I feel it is important to watch these trends because after all, a university degree is supposed to be a distinguished accomplishment. It should not be easy and it should not be given away so easily. University should be about expanding your knowledge as well as preparing for your future career. This does not mean getting the highest grade, it means actively learning and challenging yourself.

  3. Thank you for your great response, John! I agree with a lot of what you are saying.

    Temporal changes in grade distributions varies by department. In some departments, grades have stayed relatively constant, or even decreased over 88/89 to 06/07. And in the departments where grades have increased, the increase may have been only at particular levels, or certain years. It’s a complicated problem, no doubt.

    So yes, I can see how in your department or in the courses you have taught over the past thirty years there may have been no significant level of inflation. But then there are other departments where grades have dramatically increased over the last 20 years.

    Actually, there are some departments at UW where grades have started to decrease since the 03/04 double cohort year, especially at the 100 and 200 level. But this is a separate – and perhaps unfortunate – problem altogether.

    And I agree, there will always be people attempting to find their way into easier courses. I was proposing that increasing disparities in grading patterns across different faculties is only encouraging students to do so. Perhaps the students that do don’t get into professional schools, but we have no way of knowing this.

    And I agree, I wouldn’t necessarily want an administrator telling me that I needed to decrease my final grades either. But a system where only a particular fraction of A’s can be distributed is a system that I believe might work, but can be implemented in numerous ways. It is a fairly controversial policy that indeed may not do anything to stop grade inflation, and could introduce new problems, if not carefully implemented. And so I hope that we would not see any institution-wide policy addressing grade inflation before an informed discussion of grade inflation were to be held.

    The policy introduced at Princeton to address grade inflation was introduced after years of debate. As far as I know, UW hasn’t had a very much (or any?) formal discussion on grade distributions and how they are changing at the faculty or institution level recently. And unfortunately, I don’t know how anyone at UW even could have an informed discussion on historical grading patterns because grade distributions at UW are not published anywhere. I can’t see how more than a handful of people could know precisely how grade distributions are changing on our campus at the department or faculty level.

    Actually, I think addressing this lack of transparency within our institution takes a much higher priority than proposing any solutions to grade inflation at UW. But that’s another (perhaps more relevant) problem altogether.

    Sorry for my long response! But thank you again for your feedback. I hope others take the time to write down their thoughts as well!

  4. Having taught several courses at UW for over three decades, I know that in those there has been no grade inflation. Some years I get a group of exceptional students and many more A grades than normal. I would not want some Admin level imposed rule to force me to not give students in that particular year all the A grades that had been earned. A rule that applies only on average will not solve the problem. Some professors who are easier markers will continue to be easier markers and others will be forced to be harder to compensate. Perhaps a better solution would be to have a more realistic admissions policy that indicates a students real abilities rather than the best they could do on a small number of courses. Also, there have always been students who weave their way the courses finding ones that will be easier to pass. Fortunately, many of these never get into medical, dental or other professional schools.

Leave a Reply