Should Teachers Befriend Students? 3 (Sam Lamerson)

GRADE INFLATION

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 ClassroomThe 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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://pleaforcommunity.blogspot.com/ Stephen S.

    I, once, had a professor say he was going to have to lower my grade because of my attendance issues (I was struggling with depression and was just generally sick), but he ended up giving me an “A” anyway!

  • Timothy

    I once went to a lecturer and asked him why the B he had given me for an essay he said was ‘good’was not an A. I was not asking for the A; I just wanted to know what the extra something was that my paper lacked. He didn’t know which I found discouraging.

  • Fred

    “First, lay out the criteria for the final grade carefully in the syllabus and then stick to it.”

    It would probably be a good idea to revisit the syllabus at certain points during the semester as well. That way, there would be no questions about your expectations. If nothing else, they would learn the syllabus.

    I teach martial arts at a school where the requirements are very high. This is especially an issue where all age groups and physical abilities are lumped together or a mom or dad work and test alongside one of their children who don’t really want to be there. It becomes a challenge to take into account these differences and, at the same time, require the same things of everyone.

    This may be a bit off-topic but, why is it that we don’t require people to produce in church? Understandably we can’t charge tuition, but maybe we should, just to show people we are serious about them learning.

  • daniel

    I have been confronted with the situation described. I try to set up my classes so that if one blows it in the quizzes they can recover in some other area.

    I try to consider why the student performed poorly in whatever area of the class and see if I can extend grace. Usually I wrestle with being fair to the rest of the class if I extend grace.

    Fighting over grades really is the downside of teaching for me.

  • rjs

    There is a difference between “inflation” which defines the average grade on an impartial scale – moving everyone up, and the kind of situation with specific individual pressure and experience mentioned at the beginning of the post.

    The specific plea is pretty common – sometimes it works a little, more often not at all.

    I once allowed a student who was ill at the final, made the poor decision to take the exam anyway, and was not going to graduate because of his performance, to take a second final to prove that he actually did know the material (he did very well on the second attempt and was given an average of the two – which meant passing).

    On the other hand … most special pleas get little patience because they are simply excuses. Fairness that errs, if it errs, on the side of grace is a good rule.

  • Shane

    I think grades are both objective and subjective. The professor has a certain criteria that is factored into getting a letter grade. It is also subjective as to what the student has going on in their lives.It is also subjective to learning. I will finish my MDiv this year and it will be mostly with C’s an B’s. I have never had high grades. I have also never killed myself to make high grades. I have learned a lot though from being in the classroom and participating in assignments. My grades are not a reflection of what i have learned. Unfortunately in this country everything academic is grade based.My wife is a professor and high school teacher and they teach to have students pass a standardized test so it looks good for the school. Learning should be the objective not grades!

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    There are students who try to do the minimum necessary and those who work very hard. Unfortunately, the latter are not always rewarded for effort nor are the former always punished for sloth. Life is unfair, as my mother used to say, and grade standards vary all over the map. Students would be greatly helped if they were given specific criteria going into a course on the grade standards.

    A friend tells the story of a college course where most of the grade was based on a single final essay. He disagreed with many of his professor’s conclusions and used the course material to write an essay arguing against the professor’s beliefs. When the course grades were posted, he’d been given an F. He left campus angry, but turned around and went back to see the professor about his grade. He says he politely made the argument to the prof that even though he knew he wouldn’t agree with his conclusions, he had written a very complete and well-researched essay and deserved a better grade. The prof asked for his name, looked up his grade and changed the F to an A. He explained, I never change grades once I’ve awarded them. I gave you an F to see if you had the courage of your convictions. If you hadn’t come see me, it would have remained an F.

    Grade games are played on both sides of the lectern. The academy is no less corrupted by sin than anyplace else. Students are blessed when they are treated fairly and with integrity by their teachers, and teachers do students a favor by holding them to high standards, applied with grace, of course.

  • Michael

    As someone who has spent the last ten years earning degrees, I’m just glad to hear professors talk about these issues and know they are thinking about them.

    I’ve had too many profs who thought that they were in an adversarial relationship with the students or who took pride when their students failed because their course was “so tough”!

    I’ve had other profs who saw that they were there to help their students learn the material and who could show grace when necessary (and be tough on you when necessary). Those are the profs from whom I have learned the most and whose opinions and input I value long after I am finished with their courses.

  • Dan

    I’m a professor of chemical engineering at a Big 10 school. Yesterday I got my student evaluations back from the fall semester. I taught a sophomore-level required class. This class is the students’ first real taste of the chemical engineering curriculum, so it’s quite a shock to some of them.

    In response to the question “Comment on the grading procedures” I got this response from one student: “Stupid. What’s the point of making the average a C? What purpose does that serve?”

    Well, son, that’s the definition of a C. A=excellent, B=good, C=average.

    I realize that engineering is perhaps a bit different than seminary. But I have no problem giving my students exactly the grade they earned, whether that is an A, a C, or an F. If the student performed below average, then I owe it to his/her future employer to give the student a C or worse.

    The way I look at it is that if a chemical engineer does a poor job designing or operating a reactor, it may just blow up, at best costing the company a lot of money and at worst killing somebody. The reactor doesn’t care how hard the engineer tried. The reactor doesn’t know or care if the engineer has one or two X chromosomes or what color his/her skin is (this opens another can of worms, I know).

    So, Scot, regarding your question about the student in the military, if we’re talking about an engineer, I would have stayed with the C.

  • smcknight

    Dan, remember the post was by Sam Lamerson … not Scot.

  • Dan

    My bad. Apologies to both Sam and Scot.

  • rjs

    Dan,

    But this is where grade inflation comes in… or does it?

    C=average is a myth in most distributions.

    Even in the lower level intro courses the peak of the bell curve is generally B to B-. It is never C … with a substantial portion (33% or so) of the students getting C- or D’s (unacceptable grades deemed unworthy of continuing in the major). We’d be crucified these days if 33% or so of the students in effect failed out.

    But there are standards and the standards are important … I’ve had many aspiring doctors sit in my office and beg for a better grade. I often think that there is no way I want this student treating my kids… it helps temper any potential urge for mercy.

  • http://www.evangelicalmonk.com/apps/blog/show/5982719-conversations-6 Bill

    This is sad I think – that we have come to this. My daughter is starting out, doing TA in lab at UM, and our conversations were about the people coming to her about a quarter point on the lab reports, and the lab grades given at the end (her field is almost a foreign language to me yet even I have a clue as to some of the questions). My closest friend from SIU has been a professor for years now, and email is hard as he tells me he is inundated with complaints, etc., about grading. Grades are about the quality of the work with effort being the shading and allowance for grace to enter.

  • Dan

    RJS, you’re pretty much right. In our department, though, we’ve set a policy to keep the inflation in check. The average is the B/C border. So the distribution ends up being ~15% A, 25% B, ~40% C, 10% D/F. F is defined as two standard deviations below the average.

    Having a policy not only prevents the tendency toward inflation, but it gives us (the faculty) a way out of those difficult situations when a student is in my office begging for a better grade. I can just say, “Look, I’d love to give you a higher grade. But the policy says…”

  • Steve

    I teach theology, but I’m also in agreement with Dan’s comments on chemical engineering. The stakes are too high to certify competency where it does not exist. More than once I have said to myself, “I cannot in good conscience certify to the institution that employs me and, even more, to the church communities that this person may someday serve that they have mastered this material when in fact they have not.” A reactor may not blow up, but a congregation might.

  • Phillip

    Yes, I have been asked by students simply to raise a grade so they can get into a program, keep a scholarship, etc. In most cases, the requests came from students who did not take the class seriously until it was too late (often, a week or two before the end of the term). Or they ask for extra credit assignments, which I don’t do because I see it as rewarding them for not doing the work they should have done.

    I lay out my requirements in detail in the syllabus, but find many students never bother to read it. So I struggle with how much to hold their hand, and how much to let experience teach them. At times there are complaints that I am unfair, but usually that means I am unfair (1) because I hold them to the syllabus, or (2) because I won’t treat them differently than everyone else. I do take into consideration extenuating circumstances, but now so many students claim such circumstances that it is hard to distinguish.

    I have a chapter called “Grades Do and Don’t Matter” in my book “Finding Your Way: A Guide to Seminary Life and Beyond,” where I suggest that giving the lower grade can be a gracious act for the student (who needs to learn that there are consequences to their choices) and for those who will one day employ them.

  • Phillip

    This post reminded me of the first day in an Advanced Greek Readings class with Paul Achtemeier. He said, “If you get a bad grade in this class, it does not mean that you are a bad person. It just means you can’t read Greek.”

  • Robert A

    Grade inflation is such a hard subject. In the example from the post, I think it is rather unfair of the student to leverage his service credentials as a means to attempt to solicit a better grade.

    In my survey courses I lay out the requirements for assignments (usually simple written things, not complex research papers) and tests. There are 1,000 points available to students. In a historical survey you are fairly able to grade objectively.

    In my specialized courses I let me students (usually a smaller course) know that there is a mid-term and final and a research paper or two. All written works starts at a C and they then can go up (or down) depending on their actual research and work.

    I too have had students try to leverage their “obligations” at home or “influence” of their parents to try to get a better grade. At certain times the Dean has come knocking to talk about a student or two. I’ve found (maybe I’m in a good place) the Deans will back up a reasonable response for a grade.

    I’ve also seen grade inflation from an institutional standpoint. They want higher graduation rates to attract more students. To this I simply an discouraged about the state of “higher” education in the western world.

  • Jeff L

    I’ve had retired faculty colleagues tell me that serious grade inflation began during the Vietnam War when there was a student deferment from the military draft. Several said they were reluctant to give male students poor grades that might lead to academic expulsion, because the men would then lose their student deferment and thereby be eligible for the draft.

    Has anyone else heard that?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I feel sorry for you all. In my engineering (Mech) BS we were graded on a strict curve and the average was really a C. I also think they started with over 3,000 in engineering but graduated less than 500. I think in M.E. we graduated 100.

    In some of the classes (the big weedout ones), they graded on a straight percentage of the total, so you needed 90% correct to get an A etc. Some had the average in the 60′s so that meant the average person got a D.

    Ah, the good old days.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Oh, and i forgot to answer Scot’s question. I did go to teachers once and ask for some lienincy since I missed a couple of mid-terms. The Prof said, “you know how to play the game at this point, just play the game”. That meant he was not going to cut a break, but he would not fail me for missing the midterm either.

  • Scot McKnight

    Jeff L, yes, I’ve heard that a number of times.

  • jim

    Sam,

    I teach at one of our military academies. Our students have a similar pressure as yours– if they don’t maintain good standing in their academic performance, physical fitness, and military performance, they lose can’t stay in school and have to leave. And they *have* to graduate in 4 years. So they don’t have much chance to retake class where they do poorly. So all of my students are, in some fashion, in the same boat as the student you had wanting you to change the grade. We definitely take seriously the implications that grades have on the careers of our students and in fact at times there is subtle pressure to keep students in school.

    I have had students question the grades that I give because of the negative consequences that will come from that. What this causes me to do is to reflect and ask myself if I was fair to start with and if perhaps I missed something. And sometimes I go to other faculty and ask them to review the case. But if I feel that the student got the grade that s/he deserved, then the grade stands, unless there is some very unusual circumstance.

    The fact that your student is in the military and asked you to change the grade troubles me greatly. This person is asking you to be dishonorable and say something that is simply not true about him/her. We have a very strong honor code here and at my institution, this person probably would have been brought up on honor charges. And in addition to the honor problems this request creates, it also is unfair to the other students in the course who got the grade they deserved. If you change the grade, you create two different standards. In the long run, this hurts the student. And this very much goes against the military culture where standards and fairness and the others on the team are very, very important.

    So if I feel that I was fair and there were no unusual circumstances (i.e. death in the family, etc.), then the grade stands for me.

    jim

  • jim

    Sam,

    I just checked with some of the military members of the faculty at my institution and here’s the feedback I got. “If the student was a ROTC student and his/her ROTC commander knew of this request, they would immediately be dismissed.” In other words, the act of asking you to do something lacking integrity is worse than the C that they earned. Apparently, ROTC students are not automatically kicked out due to grades. They usually have some chance to remedy their situation.

    The immediate response of the military members of my faculty were “this person should not be in the military if this is how they are going to act.”

    jim

  • rjs

    Bill (#13),

    There are many UM’s … but at mine, one of my favorite stories is the student who argued at length that I needed to give him partial credit on a true-false question because he answered it wrong for the right reason.

    And then…

  • rjs

    Dan #14,

    In the large lower division classes the average will be around B-, maybe B-/C+ border. In the upper division classes it will move to B or often even B/B+.

    But – we are not encouraged to “curve” the class to ensure such a distribution. The party line from the beginning is that if everyone does A work, everyone gets an A. It never ever happens in the large classes though.

  • daniel

    Rid@25, lol. I think I had that student too!


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