It had to be one of the most shocking letters that I had received as a professor. The sender was a student who was in the armed services (his name and service will be withheld to protect the guilty). He had been given a “C” in a class of mine that he was taking, and “given a ‘C’ is the proper terminology.”
After the semester was over and grades were posted, I went to my box one day to find a letter from him. The essence of the letter was “if I don’t get a better grade in your class I will lose my funding and be forced to drop out of school. Please change my grade to at least a ‘B’.” While I have, like any other professor, had students who were unhappy with their grades, most are willing to listen to reason and give in when the basis of the grade is clearly explained to them. This was the first time that I had encountered a student who simply wanted a grade changed with little or no regard for what had been earned.
So I ask you, those who are teachers, those who have been students, and those who are students, what would you have done?
I was clearly being placed in a very difficult situation. Of course I did not want anyone to be forced to leave school on account of funds, particularly a member of the armed forces. The simple answer would have been to help him to find funds elsewhere, but because he was in the military, if his funding failed so did his allowance of time for schooling. I won’t reveal what I finally did, but will say that it was not without a great deal of internal conflict.
So we come to the final guest blog about Patrick Allitt’s book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom. The issue of grade inflation is one of the most significant in higher education. The problem is at least two-fold. For the professor it becomes a matter of intellectual integrity as well as fairness to all students. Is it honest or fair to give the same grade to a student who is not as gifted/hard-working as some other student? How does one judge the “hard work” quotient for a student who is not as gifted, but seems to be trying much harder than most other students?
On the other hand the problem is not just one for the professors but also for the students. Any student who wants to go on to graduate school will be judged, at least partially, by their grades. A professor who refuses to engage in the (now almost universal) practice of grade inflation may keep that student out of grad school even though she may be more qualified than other students who get in. This sometimes leads to pressure upon faculty from the administration. What is a teacher or student to do? Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Allitt.
First, lay out the criteria for the final grade carefully in the syllabus and then stick to it. This allows the students to concentrate on what is important in the class and circumvents the age-old “I studied all the wrong things for the test” excuse. By putting the objectives for the course up front the student can use these as a grid for determining what is really important in the class.
Second, realize that different kinds of exams test different kinds of skills (obviously). The oral exam will reward those students who are verbally skilled, but this kind of test requires a great deal of time and concentration on the part of the professor. It may also penalize that student who is nervous or who does not speak well under pressure. In general this kind of test favors those who speak better than they write. The opposite is true for the essay exam, though unlike the oral, the written essay does allow time for some review.
Third, never trust your memory as to class participation. Allitt suggests carrying a small pocket notebook and noting the participation after each class. This gives the professor a written record of what went on in the class should there be any question later. The practice of “cold-calling” on students is also a good one for the professor to engage in. Calling on only volunteers or in a set pattern will allow the students to speak about that part of the conversation with which they are familiar (often the first part of the required reading) rather than being asked specific questions about different parts of the class for the day.
On a philosophical level, the problem of grade inflation, I believe, comes from the problems inherent in living in a democracy. If everyone really is equal, then shouldn’t everyone get the same (high) grade? By giving some students low grades the teacher is saying that the student is average or below average in this particular skill. In today’s world no one wants to be thought of as average (a statistical impossibility of course, but part of the modern ethos nonetheless).
At the end of the day, the title of Allitt’s book is really the answer to the question of grade inflation. The teacher must give a grade that is fair, honest, and if it errs a little, errs on the side of grace (in my view). I try always to remind students that grades are not the reason that they are in seminary and that their salvation does not depend upon how they might perform on the test.
So I ask you, if you are a teacher have you ever been pressured to inflate grades? If you are a student have you ever pressured a teacher? What is the difference between a legitimate question about a grade and an attempt to pressure a teacher to change the grade?
In closing let me say that it has been a great privilege to write for Scot’s blog and I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks to Scot for asking me to write and to you for reading. Happy studying, happy teaching, and never forget that God loves you no matter what your grades might be.