Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    April 12, 2010

    I generally agree with what you say here, but there is an important detail missing: how the course in question fits into the university’s scheme. Is it a general education course, a lower-division major and/or service course, or an upper-division major course?

    For an upper-division major course, a 10% failure rate probably is too high. The students who wouldn’t have been able to do the work should have been eased out of the program sooner. Your correspondent probably should check with his colleagues to see if his expectations are too high. And if it’s in a department where most professors grade on a curve, students may be reasonable to believe that 60 rates a B (I have even heard of departments where the curve is so steep that 30 can rate an A).

    Lower-division major and service courses are a bit trickier, because some such courses are legitimately used as weed-out courses. A 10% failure rate in one of these courses may not be the least bit unreasonable. Making expectations explicit should help.

    General education courses are probably the trickiest of all, because many of these students are only there to check off a box on a subject they aren’t even majoring in. Administrator demands for a high passing rate are superficially reasonable but may be in conflict with reality. I don’t have any suggestions for how to deal with this case.

  2. #2 Rebecca
    April 12, 2010

    How about getting rid of grades altogether?

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    April 12, 2010

    How about getting rid of grades altogether?

    That depends on your objectives. Are you taking this as a terminal enrichment class — something comparable to a municipal Parks & Recreation program? Doing without grades is a fine idea.

    On the other hand, if you’re trying to give both the students and the school an idea of how well the students have actually mastered the material for purposes of continuous improvement (either of study practices, career planning, etc. or of curriculum design) then some reasonably granular quantifiable metrics are essential.

  4. #4 Mu
    April 12, 2010

    I did part of my undergraduate work at a university that had done away with grades, other than pass/fail. They had also done away with curves, you either made 50% or you didn’t. And the exams were mandatory, as were the classes you had to take. Their goal was to get people to actually get their chemistry diploma exams in 8 semesters, and they got pretty close by dropping 50% of the starting class within those 4 years (admittedly most of them in the first 2 years).
    Of course, they published their fast average graduation time as the big plus of their program; the graduation rate was something you found about later. But then, low graduation rates were considered a sign of academic rigor, not program failure.

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    April 12, 2010

    I rarely see cases where the instructor sets the bar too high but I do see cases where the opposite occurs. Some of my colleagues in advanced courses are famous for giving almost everyone an A in their course. Sometimes these are students who are barely passing other senior-level courses in the Department.

    There are very few student complaints about these easy courses but there are lots of complaints about the other courses where students perceive the grading to be “unfair.” Funny how this never works the other way around. :-)

    We have developed some “rules of thumb” about grade distribution in order to handle professor abuses at both ends of the spectrum. They apply to all large courses in the first three years. I don’t see anything wrong with such guidelines. Where you get into trouble is when there’s inconsistency between one course and another. That’s what’s unfair and it won’t be solved by laying out your expectations at the beginning of class.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    April 12, 2010

    Where you get into trouble is when there’s inconsistency between one course and another.

    As noted elsewhere, this applies longitudinally too.

    I’ve heard suggestions that part of instructor evaluations should be from the instructors in later classes who are in a position to say how well-prepared students are by their prerequisites. Presumably this works both ways, and could be somewhat blinded with the later classes rating students on a “well-prepared, adequately prepared, ill-prepared” scale and the Department comparing that to the grades received.

  7. #7 JFC
    April 12, 2010

    There’s not enough information here to say that the pressure being put on this instructor is the result of grade inflation. Has this person taught before? These classes? It makes a difference for evaluating the claim.

    I have seen new teachers inadvertently demoralize a class full of students by setting the bar too high. More than once I’ve been accused of trying to water down the course for untalented students when I commented (usually after a class observation). I think the problem is a conflation of what a student needs to know and what, in an ideal world, you would like them to know. Eager beginners tend to teach for the class/students they wish they had, not the one they have.

    I guess my advice would be to have someone (2-3 if possible) observe your class and look at your tests, then, take their advice to heart. It may well be “keep it up” , 10% failure is not that bad in mathematics. (my area)

  8. #8 Jason
    April 13, 2010

    Clear expectations along with clear communication. Outlining your expectations in the syllabus is not really enough. They should understand how they’re progressing towards your expectations on an ongoing basis. It’d be good to find out how many of those 10% were surprised they failed.

  9. #9 Pinko Punko
    April 13, 2010

    The bar is never too high. The question has more to do with what college is for (access to employment) and what is truly required for that access to employment. In this case, the University education is somewhat of a sham because you can’t keep your consumers happy if you fail them and thus fail at providing them with supposed access to a job with a degree. I am quite cynical about higher education problems being tackled at the higher education level. K-12 is the wound from which all education pain flows. I went to college with a kid taking 2nd semester O-chem who had yet to master molarity. That is quite a few semesters of passing where he should have failed.

  10. #10 Joan
    April 13, 2010

    Let me tell you what happens when you give these people a passing grade. I used to console myself by saying that they would never get jobs anyway – not meaningful jobs that mattered. Then one day I found out that a student I should have failed had managed to get a job with a federal agency, and not only was this not a meaningless job, but this woman who not only should have failed my course but who was uneducated generally, couldn’t research, write, or think, and who was essentially dumber than a bag of hair, would work her way up through the agency. It was a gut-wrenching moment. I personally contributed to the deterioration of this agency. Now obviously this won’t happen in the case of most of your should-have-faileds but it will happen to enough of them. That’s how we got Sarah Palin, folks. Yes, you could be creating the next Sarah Palin.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    April 13, 2010

    Most of the advice given above would be useful to a tenured person. However, if you continue on your present path, your university may perceive you as an unsuccessful teacher and decide not to tenure you. You are in a very challenging situation. Unfortunately it is by no means unique.

  12. #12 Craig Motbey
    April 14, 2010

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned so far, but probably should be, is the typical difference between the students who go on to become academics and the “average” student.

    When I started teaching, the contrast between what I thought of as a personally acceptable standard and the actual standard of Pass-level work was something of a shock. To be blunt, the papers that get Passes and Credits are generally of a standard that I would have been ashamed to submit in high school.

    With the subjects that I teach (undergraduate behavioural neuroscience), generally the only way to get a Fail is to blatantly not even bother at making an serious attempt (although there are also substantial numbers of students who submit barely acceptable work that is then kicked into the Fail range by late penalties). So long as there is some evidence of the student making an honest effort at understanding the material, they get a Pass; if there are any redeeming features at all, they get a Credit; if it’s good but flawed, a Distinction; and if it’s genuinely good throughout then they get a High Distinction [1]. Marking that way generally provides for a relatively normal distribution without requiring too much manipulation.

    It’s a safe bet that anyone who ends up as a professional academic was likely to have been a fairly exceptional student. You won’t get into many Phd programs without fairly shiny academic results, and the sorts of people who get those Phd-worthy results tend to set their personal bar of “acceptable standard” a lot higher than the students who are just hoping to scrape through university before moving onto a professional career.

    This was the case for me, and for a lot of the people that I work with. When I was an undergrad, anything less than a Distinction felt like a failure. On the rare occasions when I submitted sub-Distinction work, I knew that I wasn’t performing as well as I could or should. From the beginning of my undergraduate career, I knew that anything less than first-class honours would indicate that I’d stuffed up.

    It’s just an inevitable feature of the way that academia is structured; if our personal standards weren’t significantly higher than that of the average student, then we wouldn’t have ended up in the positions we have.

    [1] I’m Australian, so I don’t know exactly how these translate to USAdian terms, but the marking ranks here are Fail/Pass/Credit/Distinction/High Distinction, with the highest grade generally going to no more than 15% of the class, and the majority of students falling into the Credit range.

  13. #13 Lab Lemming
    April 15, 2010

    Re #9:
    The bar is too high if the professor’s expectation is to teach a bunch of 19-year-olds everything she learned about a field over the course of 6 years of grad school and seven years of post-docs.

    One of the problems with the eternal post-doc is that researchers start taking for granted the huge knowledge base that they accumulate over years of research; it is easy to forget just how little normal people know. All that knowledge has to be taught. And not all in a single class.

    For an upper level undergraduate class, what level of competency do you expect?
    Textbook regurgitation?
    The ability to read review papers?
    The ability to read primary research papers?
    The tools necessary to step intro a lab in the field?
    Understanding of how the field has historically contributed to the big picture?
    Critical discussion of active areas of current research?
    The ability to explain the field to the guy on the bus?

  14. #14 nankay
    April 15, 2010

    Just to make you feel worse:

    I faced the same thing as a middle school teacher. I had a grade book full of zeroes and incompletes (read that as kids who didn’t even bother to try) and I failed those students accordingly. My principal pulled me in said (basically) I couldn’t fail anyone because we couldn’t hold anyone back anyway, confiscated my grade book and changed the grades. I haven’t taught since.

  15. #15 Peter R.
    April 15, 2010

    I am at a “selective” liberal arts school, and although I haven’t had the problem of being asked to inflate grades, I have been struck by the generally low quality of the work that gets turned in. Papers, for example, are clearly often first drafts that aren’t revised, and exam essays are superficial at best. I struggle to award grades that truly reflect their knowledge of the subject, while always taking into account that this is the first time they are learning the material. But when students can’t even pull out one or two basic names or dates or ideas from class or text, it’s really frustrating.

    I teach both science and history, and I have this problem in both subjects. I certainly get a few students who really get it, but its clear that many of them just aren’t putting in any time. They have too many classes and too many outside activities to focus on academics.

  16. #16 chris
    July 11, 2010

    The professor should also honestly evaluate his or her own performance,
    as teacher and student performance are inextricably linked.
    I recently went back to college and while some of the professors have been inspirational, and some have been acceptable, there are a good number that are shockingly incompetent.

    I am highly motivated, experienced, and have the ability to teach myself, so I am able to survive a class with a poor teacher, but I pity the 18 years old kids that were expected to describe cellular respiration and action potentials without receiving a single lecture on the topic! My anatomy teacher also skipped the ENTIRE chapter on joints (pretty important stuff) – joints were not mentioned even once in lecture- yet we were tested on the chapter in detail. In these cases student knowledge is pretty thin at the end of the course, but with good reason. (In this particular class, the professor skipped chapters saying there was no time to cover them, yet she dismissed the class 75 minutes early every lecture- we were tested on all skipped chapters)

    Sliding student performance may be related to poor teacher performance in some cases, and then what is a teacher to do? It seems untruthful to award high grades to students when there is no mastery of the material, but it seems unfair to give low grades to students who showed up for every class ready to learn, but were not taught.

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