A solution to grade inflation?

A study of an approach at addressing grade inflation has been getting quite a bit of news of late.  Wellesley College seems to have achieved what they set out to do: bring down the college’s overall GPA and better align the use of certain grades between departments on campus.

While grade inflation certainly does not rank among the leading issues confronting Guilford College at the moment, the results have attracted a good bit of conversation and attention.

What are the reactions of other faculty on campus?  Is this too blunt an approach to a problem that surely has multiple complex causes?  In an era of increasing scrutiny on colleges and universities, might such a policy seek to begin to address such criticism?  Or does such a policy really stand-out as a mere shell game in which the labels we use for assessment and learning become ends in themselves and more difficult conversations about promoting and communicating the real value of the liberal arts is ignored?


  1. Really interesting efforts at Wellesley. I would not have expected the grades to have such an impact on the number of majors. It would be neat to see if those are correlated at Guilford at all. I know we usually comment on this in our review letters, but I am not aware of any systematic study or effort to change.

    Harvard has changed a great deal since I was there in this regard. I don’t think Guilford has followed that trend, which is a good thing.

  2. I saw that article about Wellesley, and found it thought-provoking. I have not tried to do anything systematic (and to really do it well would require data across the college to which I do not have access), but I have one anecdote and one thought.

    The anecdote is that I have heard several times from our Physics majors that their friends think they “are crazy for majoring in something hard like Physics; they should major in something easy, like [censored].” I don’t want to denigrate the program they mentioned, but in the light of this article, is it a coincidence that it has one of the largest number of majors? Again, totally anecdotal, but if the desire for high GPAs is driving people away from “harder” majors, this is what you would expect to see.

    The thought is that it would be difficult, just thinking about my experiences with my classes, for me to make a sensible study. What I often (not always) see in the small, upper level classes is that most of the students who make it that far are talented, hard working, and motivated, and it’s not uncommon for me to give (for example), four As out of the five students in the class. That’s not grade inflation — they’re all just that good. There’s no way I’m going to artificially impose a normal curve on five students, when they have all performed impressively and clearly learned the required material. So I am troubled by the conclusion that a high average grade *necessarily* means grade inflation and/or that the class is easy. Perhaps the social scientists could tell me how to correct for that.

    Finally, this ties in with a concern I have had for a while about grades in general. Part of this is simply another manifestation of credentialism — when getting the certification that one has mastered a skill becomes more important than actually getting the skill. As long as we have credentials at all, I’m not sure how to avoid that one, but even more problematic is that we have a contradiction at the core of how we’ve structured this whole enterprise. We all know that to truly learn and grow, you need to be challenged, to be pushed, to fail and put yourself back together again. Without this, there is no real growth. Worldviews are never changed. However, we tie all our “carrots and sticks” to the GPA. If your GPA drops, you lose scholarship money, you lose the ability to be in certain programs, and of course there’s the long term fear of not being able to achieve whatever post-graduate goal you have. So the entire structure is set up to push students away from taking the risks that could lead to worse grades but the most learning. I might blame the lazy student, seeking the path of least effort, but I can’t really blame even the bright student who chooses not to push him/herself, because as much as we might *say* they should take a class that blows their mind and pushes them beyond what they thought they could do, our whole incentive structure sends the message that if you do that, you could lose everything. There ought to be a way to distinguish between the failure of doing badly (i.e. not trying) and the failure of reaching beyond your limits. When I was at the University of Michigan, just before I came to Guilford, they were experimenting with putting the average grade of a class on a student’s transcript as well as the student’s grade. That way, an A in a class where the average grade was an A would not impress much, and a C in a class where the average grade was a D would look properly impressive. That wouldn’t help in my hypothetical five-person class of high-achieving upper-level students, but I thought it was an interesting stab at the problem. Since I left shortly after that, I have not followed whether they thought it was a success or not.

    So, not sure if those thoughts are helpful, but I do think there are many issues tangled up here.

  3. UNC-CH has just decided to include course and other information on student transcripts.

    (Article link) http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/30/4106626/at-unc-chapel-hill-the-truth-about.html