A reader sends the following query:
I’ve only recently begun teaching in a big state university, maybe tier C in the field I’m in. I’m in a quandary as to how to manage pressure to pass students who are under performing. The first semester, I had to lower the passing to a basically ridiculous level and the college still inquired why so many failed (10 %). Now, I’m again feeling pressure to pass students who do not deserve to pass. I’m getting very disillusioned by this type of practice. Grade inflation seems to be so common that I even have students who think that a 60 is a B. I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding this, and would appreciate any suggestions you might have.
How to grade fairly is one of those perennial questions with which academics struggle, and it would be sufficiently challenging even without pressure from students or administrative types. However, as my correspondent notes, there is also pressure from students and administrative types who want academics to change their grading methodology, so that they will get the grade they want for the amount of effort they are willing to put in, or so that the department or college will pass “enough” of the student population to satisfy the powers that be.
Let’s start with the question of how to properly calibrate a grading scheme and then move on to the related question of how to defend that grading scheme.
There are, of course, different philosophies of grading. Some academics are wedded to the standard distribution, assigning grades in terms of how many standard deviations above or below the mean you score, regardless of how well the class did as a whole. Others prefer to assign grades on the basis of how well student work instantiates the Platonic form of mastering the material — which means that if everyone in the class masters it really well, they all earn A’s.
I myself favor the system of grading based on mastery of material, rather than on how much better or worse students do relative to the performance of their classmates. Your milage may vary.
When you decide to base grades on mastery of the material, there are two big things you need to figure out. One is how you are going to assess mastery of the material — in other words, what kinds of assignments or tests are going to give you reasonably accurate information on what the students understand and what they don’t. The other is how you are going to communicate to your students what they are responsible for mastering (in terms of concepts and skills) in order to get good grades in the course. Optimally, you communicate your expectations to the students up front, else they may spend time trying to master what they imagine you want them to master — which can make the assessment part of the process more painful for all involved.
Thus, I think a good place to start from the very start (when you are designing your course and writing the syllabus) is an explicit statement about what students will know by the end of the course, and a detailing of the big concepts and skills for which they will need to demonstrate a minimal level of mastery even to pass. If they demonstrate at least that minimal level of mastery, they pass. If they don’t, they fail.
(Note here that blowing off homework assignments, lab reports, and exams is, arguably, opting out of opportunities to demonstrate your mastery of those essential concepts and skills. Opt out of enough such opportunities and you shouldn’t be surprised at failing.)
Now, there are some courses out there with fairly standard content — Algebra II or first semester Organic Chemistry, to name just two — where it’s reasonably easy to enumerate the concepts and skills a student who has passed the course should have picked up. There are other courses that are less standardized where it may fall to the professor or the department to work out the list of competencies a student ought to gain (and be able to demonstrate) by the end of the course. Sometimes, the professor and the department don’t agree about this. If you think that your classroom is your castle, and you should get to teach all and only the course content you want to teach in a particular course, that may put you into conflict with the vision your department has about what students in that course need to know before they move on to the next course in the sequence. Or it may create a situation where the course as you teach it is delivering something very different from what its description in the course catalogue seems to promise. Or it may create a weird competition between you and a colleague who teaches the “same” course with a focus on completely different concepts and skills.
What does any of this have to do with my correspondent’s efforts to resist grade inflation?
The center of the tug of war between my correspondent and my correspondent’s college seems to be a dispute about expectations on the students. My correspondent, in assigning these grades, is effectively saying, “The students who are failing are not living up to my expectations in this course.” The college, in saying “You’re failing too many students,” seems also to be saying “You are holding these students to inappropriately high expectations.”
Making the expectations the students must meet explicit at least shifts the discussion to the particular question of whether the bar is being set too high, too low, or just right. It also has the advantage of removing the mystery for the students — if they cannot demonstrate mastery of X, Y, and Z (which the syllabus says they must master to pass), then their failing grades are to be expected.
Now, maybe my correspondent’s department typically sets the bar much lower for passing grades than my correspondent does. If the department has a principled reason for setting it where they do — perhaps that students meeting these lower expectations still acquire enough mastery to do well in the next course in the sequence, or in graduate or professional school programs, or on standardized exams for graduate of professional school admissions, or in jobs that assume the coursework in question — then a professor whose own personal preference might be to set the bar higher might want to consider recalibrating to the department’s expectations. If, on the other hand, a professor thinks there are good reasons for the department to raise its standards for a particular course (e.g., because students leaving the course without a certain level of skills will crash and burn on the standardized tests they’re going to take, or employers hiring people who have passed the course but haven’t mastered the skill set will conclude that the department’s coursework is a joke), the professor ought to make that case to the department.
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with making that same case to the students on a course syllabus. Laying out the target competencies with an explanation of why they matter in the educational and career trajectories on which students are likely to be lets the students know that more than a letter grade hangs in the balance. And even if the department prevails on the professor to shift the line for passing a bit lower, the professor can still communicate to students that just passing may not be enough if they plan to put what they learned in the course to use.
Discussions of standards within a department usually have some hope of uncovering common ground, whether about what a particular course ought to cover or about what your aspirations are for the students who take that course. What about when the administrators who are just tracking the grade distributions get involved?
In these cases, having clearly stated expectation for students in your course — expectations whose reasonableness your department is willing to back — makes it easier to defend your grade distribution. Here are the competencies they had to demonstrate to pass; the F’s went to those who didn’t demonstrate those competencies.
However, if a substantial number of students are failing the class, you may need to have a more detailed discussion than this about why they failed.
Did they come to your course with the skills and preparation you expected? If not, can that be tied to lax expectations in another course at the university? Inadequate preparation at the high school level? Identifying the weak link is the first step to finding a way to address it — a task that the college or university ought to be ready to take on, rather than shifting it to the professor whose grade distribution is being questioned.
Are the students adequately prepared but missing in action when it comes to lectures, homework assignments, and other pieces of the course that could help them master the concepts and skills they’re supposed to master? Some of that may come down to students making irresponsible choices, but maybe some of it is connected to elements of university culture (like how many social events are scheduled on school nights, or how many hours a week students are working in addition to going to school, or how much class time traveling sports teams end up missing).
Are there resources (beyond class time and office hours) to help the students with their academic work and their study skills? Do the students know how to access these resources?
And, of course, part of the discussion may involve how well the professor is teaching the class. It’s possible that the teaching may not be communicating the essential material clearly enough for the students to master what they are supposed to, or that the assessments aren’t giving the most accurate information about what concepts and skills the students have actually mastered. It’s a good idea to be reflective about this end of the process (and to seek out feedback and advice from colleagues in one’s department) before laying all the blame for poor performance at the students’ feet.
But, if the students know what they need to do to pass, if their professor is making every effort to make the material accessible and the assessments fair, if the target competencies are appropriate for the course description, and if the students are aware of the resources available to assist them, I think you can make a reasonable claim that the grades you assign are accurately valued, rather than inflated or deflated.