Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, 3/14/07 Edition:
Grade Inflation and Half-Assedness

I know I complain about this too much, but I think it's a serious problem. Many of my students expect 'A's and 'B's for work that does not even rise to the level of mediocrity. I'm not a terribly hard grader, but I'm not an easy grader, either. I tell students to explain points on exams as they would if they were explaining them to "an intelligent person who is interested in the subject but has not had a philosophy class." I get back some stellar answers, but many mediocre ones, and many just godawful ones.

Just as an example:
In discussing a particular version of the cosmolgical argument for the existence of God, we discuss "dependent beings." Now, a dependent being is just an ordinary old being of the kind we ordinarily encounter in the world. The technical definition we use (following William Rowe) is as follows:

A dependent being is a being such that its existence is explained by the causal activity of another being.

Roughly, such beings exist because other beings brought them into existence. But on many exams, what I get back is something like this:

A dependent beings depends on something. [sic]

This is a half-assed answer at best. In what way are such beings dependent? Causally? Logically? Another way? On what do they depdend? Another being? Something else?

By itself such half-assedness is not a huge deal. But explaining what a dependent being is is just the most basic part of the answers in question. It's the basic "gimme" stuff that everybody should be able to get exactly right. I mean, it's straight from the reading, and I've probably said it in class about fifty or sixty times over the course of the two weeks it takes us to discuss the cosmological argument. Definitions like that form the foundation upon which they are supposed to be able to construct coherent answers about the argument.

Now, imagine the half-assed sentence above surrounded by even more half-assed--say, 1/4-assed or 1/8ths-assed--sentences, and you'll get some idea of what some of these answers look like. If they can't even get the simple definitions they've heard over and over again for two weeks right...well, then you might imagine what the more difficult stuff looks like.

Now add to this incredulity at the fact that they do not get 'A's for the answers composed of these half-and-rather-less-than-half-assed sentences and you'll get some idea of what it's like to be a professor in the contemporary university.

The students are partially to blame, but moreso the professors who are distorting their expectations by giving them 'A's and 'B's for this kind of crap. Why do professors give high grades for bad work? Some likely explanations: (1) It's easier to grade if you give high grades (students never question 'A's, and don't expect comments on 'A' papers); (2) Students like easy profs, hence classes are more enjoyable; (3) Many profs live or die with "student evaluation" scores, and easier classes and higher grades tend to produce higher scores; (4) Many profs just aren't that good at what they do, so they can't expect much from their students in return.

(Just to forestall any suspicions about sour grapes here, let me point out that my student evaluation scores tend to be high despite my non-easiness.)

Anyway, despite the generally unimpressive level of much student work, 75% of the students in our College of Arts and Letters get 'A's or 'B's in their general education courses. The GPA at my university has gone up over the last ten years, even as SAT scores of the freshmen have gone down somewhat, and (according to the folks over at our Office of Institutional Research) drinking has increased.

In my more depressed moods, I often think that college is little more than 13th-16th grades. Most students matriculate because it's just the next thing to's what their parents expect of them, it's what their friends are doing...and it's where the best parties are. Many of them aren't curious and aren't interested in learning, and their professors give them high grades for, basically, nothing. If they graduate any better-off than they were when they came here it's just a happy accident.

And, let me stress, this is a notably above-average school.

O.k., enough whining for now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was going to University, I had two professors in my area of study that were my favorites. One was a young, idealistic man interested in tenure, being published, and the personal sense of accomplishment in having helped develop uneducated minds. The other was an old, relaxed philosopher who enjoyed teaching but (Im assuming based on his conversations with me and his actions) knew what to expect.

The young professor went to Harvard and taught as a post grad there as well. I once asked him why he would go from an esteemed school to my lowly (and bargain-basement) University. He replied that the top 10% are the same everywhere and, besides, at Harvard he could rent an apartment on his salary. At my school he could buy a home to raise his family. This man later moved to Ontario to teach there. In an email to me he said, "up here I can find students that actually care about what they are learning."

The older professor likewise said that in every class, or every other class, there is a small pool that genuinely want to learn and he teaches for them. You pull what you want as a student from education. Being somewhat of an achiever, I had to agree. As for the rest of the students...well, they will move on and do whatever it is their decisions make them and the weight falls on their shoulders alone.

Looking back, I agree with the older professor. Though the younger one will always have my highest esteem.

I also keep in mind that the progression from high school to college is probably better off delayed a bit. The systematic design that asks our youth to move straight from home to university does not account for the zeitgeist of today's youth culture. Let them spend a few years pouring booze down their necks and making hamburgers. If they get sick of that--as I did--then they will realize what choice must be made.

1:05 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks, A. This was very interesting and helpful.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Aa said...

Just out of curiosity, the highest GPAs to be found at my current institution are in the College of Education, with an overall GPA for all courses of 3.84 (disclaimer: going off memory a bit but that's close).

I've met many teacher education students and not to dis them but the vast majority are not that good.

The lowest in terms of college wide grades given are Humanities and Public affairs (one college), and Natural and Applied sciences (one college).

But here also, grades and GPAs have trended upwards over the past ten years.

1:17 PM  

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