Understanding vs Grades

President Trump has recently given himself a grade of A+ for his handling of the corona virus epidemic in the US. This exercise in self-evaluation brings to mind the problem of grade inflation, though I would not like to focus on that alone here, in part because enough has been said about it already. I am also not much interested in it because grade inflation is a problem only within a certain set of assumptions about teaching, learning, grades and grading, and it is some of those assumptions that I find more interesting to think about.

            There seems to be a conflict, or maybe even a contradiction, between the goals we have in teaching and learning, on the one hand, and the principles that underscore the way we grade. When we teach, we aspire to reach all of our students and to make possible their successful learning. We would never say, at least I do not think that any of us would say, that we aspire to reach only a small percentage of our students. We want them all to do well, in the sense that we want them to leave our courses with a significant amount of knowledge and degree of understanding of the material on which the course has focused. We want this result for all of our students, and we tell them, typically, that we expect all of them to work toward that end. It may be true that at the beginning of a course, and as a matter of prediction, we might expect only a portion of the students to achieve this goal. But still, we aspire to have all of them reach it. We may be content in the end, on “realistic” grounds, if only a portion of them reach it, but we would never be content aspirationally, because we aspire to better results than that.

            Of course, we do not want merely to pretend that the students have achieved significant knowledge and understanding. We want the real thing, and to that end we establish and insist on reasonably rigorous criteria for evaluating the students’ accomplishments and for determining whether they have succeeded, and how, along the way, we may work with them to help ensure their success. We then grade our students’ work on the basis of those criteria, and we use the grades as a marker of whether they have achieved the knowledge and understanding to which we, and ideally they, have aspired. In principle, since we aspire to a situation in which all of our students achieve the best possible results in learning and understanding, and we grade them on the basis of their accomplishments in learning and understanding, it should follow that we also aspire to the highest possible grades for all of them.

            The problem, of course, and herein lies the conflict or contradiction, is that we become highly suspicious if too many students receive the highest levels of grades. We want all of our students to learn and understand at the highest levels, we want to grade their learning and understanding accordingly, but we do not want most or all of them to receive the highest grades. Something is not right here, and this is what I propose to think about for a bit.

            One common way to handle such a dilemma is to grab hold of one of its horns and dismiss the other. In this case, though, and herein lies the conflict or contradiction, we cannot simply endorse one horn of the dilemma and ignore the other because the logic of our approach to teaching and learning seems to require both of them. That’s why it is a dilemma, I suppose. We cannot aspire to success for only a small proportion of our students because that would undermine the very rationale of education as a good available to, and perhaps necessary for, the population as a whole. We also cannot, presumably, abandon the practice of evaluating our students’ achievements by measuring them against reasonably rigorous standards. If we were to apply mediocre standards, or abandon standards altogether, the likely result over time is that more of us, and almost surely more of our students, would adopt the Trump approach to evaluation. But if we continue to evaluate our students’ work and apply grades more or less as we do now, then on statistical grounds alone, a relatively small proportion of the students will achieve the aspirations we claim for all of them. We need to educate everyone, but when we apply rigorous standards in the process, and grade accordingly, we seem to expect that most students will not achieve the desired results, and we will fall short of our aspiration.

            The dilemma caused by the contradiction between teaching and learning on the one hand and grading on the other cannot be argued away, and it cannot be addressed by ignoring one side of it. What is to be done?

            Another possible approach, if we cannot argue away or ignore the contradiction, is to embrace it and make use of it in how we teach and evaluate our students. We may, to put the point slightly differently, let the contradiction drive the development of our pedagogy. The first point to note is that the only way this could be a reasonable approach is if we can find a way or ways to make grade inflation far less likely than it is currently suspected to be. Perhaps we should abandon grading altogether, but that is a conversation for another time. If we wish to continue to evaluate students’ work through grading, then we need to find ways to minimize the possibility of inflating the grades. If we do not, then any collection of grades that are uniformly high, in other than very small classes, will be suspicious, and perhaps rightly so. Somehow, our pedagogy has to change in order to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of grade inflation and still expect high achievement from all or at least most of our students.

            The next question, obviously, is what sort of change that might be. Honestly, I really do not know what would work. We philosophers are typically much better at identifying problems than solving them. There is also no reason to think that there is only one answer to the question. There are likely to be many ways that we can teach and our students learn that are conducive to more widespread success without minimizing expectations and inflating grades, and we need to be experimental about them before we can judge with any confidence which are likely to be effective in an given case. More mutual engagement between instructor and student is likely to be needed; multiple drafts of student work can help; more guided coaching in how to do the academic work we ask of the students can also help; structural experiments in classes, for example differing sorts of group work, are worthwhile, as are more elaborate structural changes in course organization, for example learning communities; service learning can generate meaning and value in learning in ways that classroom experience may not; and there are many more such possibilities.

            We note at this point that all of these pedagogical techniques are already practiced and have been for many years. The situation differs from classroom to classroom, university to university, and country to country, but all of it is available. This fact alone suggests that there is something more that is needed to handle the dilemma successfully. The “something more” almost certainly has to do with the degree to which there is agreement on departmental, college, and university levels about how to deal with the problem. No individual instructor or small set of instructors can handle this alone. If you try to go it alone, and the result is statistically abnormally high grades in your course, eyebrows will be raised. When I served as a dean or provost and reviewed grades at the end of semester, if I saw unusually high grades from a single instructor, or even an entire department, there were invariably conversations in my office, often unpleasant ones, about grade inflation. The solution has to be systematic, and undertaken in coordination with department chairs, deans, and provosts.

            This all probably sounds rather prosaic, and maybe even obvious. But in my 40+ years working in higher education, in several universities, countries, and continents, the only conversations I recall about the problem or possibility of grade inflation concerned how to minimize or eliminate it, which invariably meant how to maintain a statistically defensible distribution of grades. I do not recall any conversations about how to help all or most of our students achieve what we say we want them to achieve, without undermining the standards against which we measure their work. In retrospect, I wish I had made more of an effort to organize such conversations.

Be that as it may, it seems clear that we ought not to abandon the bulk of our students to second-rate accomplishments in their learning simply to achieve statistical norms, just as we ought not to dilute our expectations of them. We fail our students when we do either of these things. If we wish to offer our students what they deserve to receive from us, we need to engage seriously the pedagogical implications of dilemmas like this. This is not a simple process, of course, and it requires more than one or two committee meetings, not to mention a good deal of dedication and will on the part of both faculty and those administrators who are responsible for enabling the best in teaching and learning. But we ought to do it.

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A Plea for Equity

Que sera, sera, and we would be far better served by thinking about what it is we wish to accomplish in our teaching, and in education generally, regardless of the post-pandemic details. It is only then, assuming we can carve out opportunities to influence the future of higher education, that we will exert such influence toward justifiable ends, and that que sera will be something we value.


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  1. This is an interesting read John. Like you, I don’t know the solution. Jokingly I suggest we could introduce, as the UK has done with school qualifications, stars and plusses, so we have Astar or A* replacing a mere A, for the best grades. Perhaps soon we’ll have A****** . Personally I’m in favour of abandoning degree classifications. There is plenty of research indicating that one cannot compare the same degree classification, between different subjects in the same university, between the same subject in different universities, never mind between the same subject at different universities. Simply put, a 2:1 in one subject from one university is not comparable with that in another.

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