We need honest grading

As a 26-year teaching veteran, I agree with those who claim that there is a grade inflation problem in academia today. Across the country, many college classrooms are filled with students who know that regardless of participation, they’ll “earn” an A or B if they just make it to the end of the term.

Nearly every student at Emerson has completed the College’s Instructor Evaluation Form. While all categories on the form are important to me, each semester, I think item 10 sticks out: “The Instructor presented material at an appropriate level of difficulty.”

Though some may quibble about the weight I place on this category, this evaluative item best reflects student perceptions of classroom rigor. As I look at the responses to this category from last fall (62.5% of my students rated me “in the middle”), and as I review my final grade distribution, I wonder if I challenged my students sufficiently.

We can all agree there are many measures of classroom rigor. But what you may not agree with is my belief that rigor is associated with grade distribution. On several occasions, students have written in the Beacon about grade inflation and classroom rigor. But so far, I’ve read nothing from a faculty perspective regarding these critical areas in education.

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A few weeks ago, I overheard the following in the Little Building dining hall: “I have a friend at Harvard who told me that she slept during her class almost every Tuesday morning, and she still got a B in the class” (repeated here verbatim).

My next-door neighbor is the HR Director for a large financial institution in Boston. She told me the other day that she pretty much disregards graduating seniors’ grade points (unless they’re terrible) since it’s “common knowledge” in the corporate world that colleges are giving out undeserved As and Bs.

Grade inflation is what I call a transactional problem. Both professors and students co-create a situation whereby high grades are being passed out to undeserving students. At times, some professors give sub-par students high grades and at other times, some students aim low and work toward achieving the minimum level expected of them in the class.

Teaching and learning need to be so much more.

Here’s what I know: First, I realize that the vast majority of professors and students are doing their best to ensure academic integrity on the Emerson campus. Yet, despite Emerson being a school with a rather selective admission process, scores of students have received a higher grade than they deserved. Heck, I’m sure I’m guilty of this practice myself. There are some courses on this campus where students receive As and Bs because they’ve acquired the necessary competencies (e.g., internships, directed studies, etc.). But what about other courses?

Colleagues: If you are not doing it now, you should consciously ensure that learning standards are met for each of your students. And, as I try to do on a regular basis, grading should be done with discernment. There is a difference between awarding an A to a student who is meeting the course objectives and a student who is excelling in them. When we grade more strictly, it’s likely that students will rise to the standards set. Finally, as my colleague ­— a dean at a private school in the Midwest ­— contends, no professor should distribute high grades because students are paying high tuition. We might as well toss in the teaching towel if we operate with this assumption.

Students: What exactly do you hope to get out of a class if you’re simply sitting in the course absorbing the atmosphere without contributing to it? The classroom is a shared experience between you and the professor. If you complain about the lack of rigor and the “easy A,” you should also figure out if you’ve done anything to make the class a more challenging experience. What standards of excellence do you bring into a course? Submit your best work with each assignment. And, when you receive a grade—other than an A—take it as a learning opportunity.

Clearly, I don’t believe that high grades in a class must mean it was a blow off for students. But, despite the various views on this topic, every compelling discussion of education addresses the interplay between grades and a class that stretches the mind and engages the academic soul.

While teachers may become more honest graders and students become more attentive learners, all of us on this campus need to begin a candid dialogue about what is happening with grades around here and the various levels of interpretation surrounding them.

As I continue to focus on improving my teaching, I must also continue to think about my grades and student perceptions of the difficulty of my class. I refuse to be a teacher who teaches classes where students simply regurgitate back facts from a yellow-highlighted textbook. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a teacher where students look confused or disengaged because the material is beyond their grasp or the content has little resonance.-

I want to be someone whom students view as accessible, interesting, and yes, challenging. I aspire to provide students the grades they deserve, hoping that those grades reflect a course and an instructor with appropriate classroom standards.