28 January 2003

Grade Deflation?!

I have just finished my first semester teaching at a large and well-known northeastern university that shall, as usual, remain nameless. Though I have only a semester of experience under my belt, this CNN article resonated with me. I was teaching a large, introductory history course and it became clear to me that most of my students lacked the most rudimentary study skills. This could be in part because, as the article put it "only 33.4 percent of college freshmen reported spending six hours per week or more studying or doing homework during their senior year in high school." I figure six hours is about the minimum a student would need to put into my class. Most of my students were putting in the time, but not using that time effectively. I imagine they didn't learn how in high school. Instead I had students traipsing into my office hours demanding lists of terms that might appear on the final and possible essay questions. One particularly clueless student wished to know what parts of the textbook he should "look at" prior to the exam. (I replied that he should look at the parts that were assigned. "But that's the whole book!" Duh.) Today's college freshmen are graduating from high schools where the task of teachers is apparently to make As as painless as possible, so that students may be assured of a place in my classroom. What they find with me is a rude awakening.

I make these observations as Harvard University, that bastion of grade inflation, reports lower overall grades for the second year in a row. "I think that moving grades more in the direction of the B-level will restore A as a recognition for truly outstanding work, in the context of Harvard students in Harvard courses," said Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz. Whatever happened to C's are average, B's are good, and A's excellent? Students who got C's, or even B's, on my papers generally presented themselves with stony faces at my next office hours, eager to parse with me paragraph by paragraph, footnote by footnote, for those few extra points that earn them a B+ or even an A-. Even if Ivy League universities are deflating their grades, it isn't changing the perception among students that grades are negotiable entities, not markers of their performance.

As a parting gem, this Duke University professor claims he gave no C's this semester. Well, at least I claim the distinction of having given five C's this semester, and no straight A's (only A-'s). That's a far cry from redeeming the C as an average grade. And it has been not-so-jokingly suggested in my presence by my elders that I could become one of the most hated and feared Teaching Fellows in the department.

Hurrah for me.


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