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Grades

This is the time that instructors throughout the campus submit their grades to the registrar for fall classes.

When I joined Georgetown, I learned that the faculty on the main campus had a resolution for a reform of grading practices on campus, in order to address a nationwide issue of grade inflation, or more properly “grade compression.” Later that year, the dean of the College, in his state of the College meeting, noted that very large proportions of College students were graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) because of the inflation of grade point averages (GPA’s).

Awhile ago I was on the Georgetown bus going to the Rosslyn Metro, impolitely overhearing a conversation between two students prior to the deadline on registration for courses: “So you’re missing one course…I’m telling you, you have to take Professor X’s class; you’re guaranteed an ‘A.'” Other student says, “What’s the course about?” Response: “Why do you care?” Students clearly feel the pressure to achieve high grades.

Further, some faculty believe (and there is evidence to support this) that high average grades lead to positive teaching evaluations, a key criterion in their own merit review and promotion decisions. Faculty feel the pressure to give high grades.

Some students switch majors from fields where they’re not getting high grades to other fields where they receive higher grades. If this reflected the students finding their true authentic identities as the basis of the higher grades, then there’s no apparent problem. If, on the other hand, the higher grades merely reflect different grading standards in the two fields, there may be a serious problem. Indeed, why should there be higher average grades in one field versus another, other things being equal?

There are some arguments forwarded justifying high average grades:
• Georgetown students are really intelligent and perform on average at very high levels (and they’re better than they used to be); they all deserve high grades
• Georgetown students are accustomed to excelling academically; giving low grades discourages them and reduces their motivation
• As directors of the assessment process of a class, why shouldn’t faculty be free to give all students high grades?
• Helping Georgetown students achieve high GPA’s helps them get into good graduate and professional schools.
• Students (or their families) are paying high tuitions and deserve high grades because of their large investment

We can all debate these alternative assertions, but I’ve heard all of them.

Since I’ve arrived at Georgetown, we have tried to improve the situation in two ways. First, we acted to bring some transparency to grading practices — on the fall, 2013, unofficial transcripts each student will see the grade they earned in a class, as well as the mean grade in the class. This will allow a more informed evaluative judgment of the relative performance in the class. A “B” (3.0) in a class denotes different relative performance if the mean grade is a 3.5 versus a 2.5.

Second, we altered the criterion for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude status for the entering class (Class of 2017). Starting with that class, these designations will be based on percentiles of seniors’ GPA distribution, not a fixed GPA value. Starting in 2017, about 5 percent of the graduating class will receive summa cum laude designations, with successively large percentages for the other two designations.

But more active intervention is possible. Some years ago, Princeton began to limit grade compression by specifying a constrained distribution of grades for each class. Similarly, at least one school at Georgetown has unilaterally mandated grade guidelines, limiting the percentage of students who earn an “A,” “B,” “C,” etc. This has the effect of lowering the mean GPA of students, but provides students clear information about their relative performance in the course.

Grades were instituted both to identify unsatisfactory performance and to rate relative performance. A student earning below a “D,” receives no academic credit for the course. The bulletin labels a “B” as “good” and a “C” as “adequate.” It’s obvious that the relative evaluative component of grades is threatened if almost all students get A’s. Indeed, if all students do perform at the uniformly high level, does it imply that the level of the material being presented is too simple for the students?

It seems that any grading policy will require some answers:
1. Should the mean grades of courses in different fields be different from one another?
2. Should different faculty teaching similar courses assign different grade distributions?
3. How can we help students reduce their fixation on grades?
4. How do we communicate our grading standards to postgraduate programs?
5. How can merit and promotion reviews move beyond student evaluations to deeper assessment of teaching, relieving faculty pressure to assign high grades?

What are your answers to these questions?

13 thoughts on “Grades

  1. Very interesting discussion . First i think that students ARE much smarter than lets say those of the 1968 era. Secondly i remember when the med school when i was there went from exact number grades to Honors High Pass Pass and Fail then later to just Pass Fail. Now i think they are most likely away from pass fail. Anyway it was a very complex issue which led to implications for residency applications. This is certainly a very complex issue. I wish you well in trying to address it. It did seem that whenever the students asked for a certain way to do things, the classes that followed had different ideas. Best of luck An important but very difficult issue. Overall i find the students to be very smart, very competitive but also mostly good young people who are in most accounts men and women for others. GOOD LUCK and happy holidays.

  2. Thank you for highlighting the issue. Grade inflation/compression does need to be addressed. It might not be a perfect solution but as you note even at Georgetown a school has addressed the issue by requiring a maximum GPA and grade distribution for courses. Its a pretty simple system, grades vary based on core versus elective courses, and undergraduate versus graduate courses. Students know what to expect, and even recruiters know exactly what is being done.

  3. 1) I think we should be aware that this policy could simply lead students to gravitate to easier graded courses now that average grade information becomes more available. This is what happened at Cornell (see Bar, Vrinda, & Zussman. 2009. Grade Information and Grade Inflation: The Cornell Experiment. Journal of Economic Perspectives 23: 93-108).

    2) A mechanism that does not reward the taking of easy courses is to adjust grades based not only on average grade in course, but also based on how good the students are (see Johnson, Valen. 1997. An Alternative to Traditional GPA for Evaluating
    Student Performance. Statistical Science 12: 257-278.). We have implemented this for all students at the University of Toronto and found differences across majors (with STEM majors typically grading harder, meaning students who take these courses have lower GPA’s despite evidence of equal or greater performance in classes they take together with students from other majors).

  4. Thank you, Bob, for bringing this up. It is a vexing question.

    However, I find that many solutions are worse than the problem. For example, at Carnegie Mellon, where I taught before I came to Georgetown, many professors in the sciences and in engineering graded on a curve. I found it absolutely horrible. It meant that somebody who received a 45 out of 100 on an exam might get an “A” simply because she received the highest score. Would you want this “A” student to build you a bridge if she scored less than half on the bridge-building exam?

    Obviously, I am exaggerating here. However, I find that Georgetown students are generally excellent and, even in this competitive environment, earn high grades on average. Why not reward those who really know? If I have taught successfully, my hope is that the grade point average will be high. (Of course, you need to trust my honesty in evaluating student achievement.)

    The other part is one of teaching philosophy and what it means to be an intellectual. If one creates a curve means that one of the main goals of my courses, that all students learn from each other, might be negated. It creates a zero-sum game that is, in its essence, anti-intellectual in that it creates incentives to hoard information rather than sharing it. It seems to me that our intellectual imperative is to teach students how to learn but also impart knowledge. I think teamwork rather than competition is also what works best in the private and public sectors. Do we want to teach our students that, to achieve, they need to do better than others or that they should work together in a common enterprise so that all may learn more? I think that, given our Jesuit and Catholic heritage, the answer is obvious. The question is how to accomplish that while still giving everybody the grade they really deserve.

    • Great comments by Erick . I like the “problem with the curve” ie do you want a 45 percent student to build YOUR bridge? Also i
      totally agree that if you TEACH well everyone should get a high grade. And right on that much learning should be from peers and not just from the teacher or the book. Excellent points to be considered. Happy holidays.

  5. i may have missed this but what is the average and mean grade of ALL undergrad courses at Georgetown for the last few years? Has that gone up over the years? I think you may have addressed some in your blog. I do remember that there was a survey of alums, employers, grad schools a number of years ago i think requested by the GU faculty who wanted to make Georgetown ” more academic”. I believe that that survey found that employers, grad schools etc. LOVED Georgetown students just the way they were: smart, very intellectually curious, well spoken, well versed in many areas but also with alot of very practical life experiences in college eg the Corp, Germs, Volunteering etc. Am i remembering that survey correctly? I think it would be important to also look at that in the search for the perfect evaluation system or in at least trying to improve on what we teach and how we evaluate what we do. Happy holidays to all.

  6. Thank you very much for the post. It has given me a lot to think about – especially concerning how I measure my own success as a student. I have one quick question. I think the idea of seeing the mean grade on the unofficial transcripts is a great one. However, they don’t seem to show up on mine. Am I missing something? Keep the great posts coming!

  7. Very interesting post. I graduated from an undergraduate program that used a bell curve for grading almost exclusively. While there, I took physics. That first semester, my end of the semester numeric grade was a 37. Out of 100. What letter grade did I get? A “B”. I also took a psychology class, in which my numeric grade was a 92. What letter grade did I get? A “B”. So, by the letter grade standard, by the end of the semester, I should have been equally as proficient at physics as I was at psychology. So, then should I have gone to graduate school for physics? Absolutely not. I should not, as Mr. Langer stated, be working on that bridge!

    My frustration with the grading curve is it teaches students that it’s now how well you do, it’s how much better you do than everyone else. While that does have some relevance in life, it is certainly not a pleasant life to live.

    I truly believe that students should know where the goal post is at the beginning of the semester; in other words, the syllabus should list what is expected to be covered AND what students have to do to achieve the grades they are working for. If professors provide adequately challenging material then the curve, in an ideal world, will work itself out. But that’s an ideal world. . .

    • Rebecca agree we SHOULD have the ideal world standard. Tell the students what you will teach and guide them thru, then have them learn it with your guidance and then grade on THAT. ie i do feel if some many students dont do well, i need to look at MY teaching. just a simple thought.

  8. I believe I have observed a change in grading norms at Georgetown since I first came here in 1992. At that time, students still perceived a “B” was as an acceptable grade, but a “B-” was a poor grade. I found that already a compression.

    Now it seems to me that “B+” has become the default grade.

    Yet I can also notice and admit that I’ve been acculturated to that change.

    The longer I have taught, the more problematic I find the grading process. This year, as a Doyle Fellow who works with colleagues on developing different kinds of assignments deliberately designed to engage students in going deeper and/or being willing to take a risk, I find the responsibility of “grading” their obvious efforts to do so becomes even more challenging.

    One of my own teaching habits is to review my grades at the end of each term to see if I notice any tendency to grade males and females differently–to see where Students of Color and/or underserved communities end up in my distribution–to see if I can recall concrete examples of assigning high grades to students whose perspectives differ from my own. (It would be great, of course, if it were possible to “run that review by” a magical colleague who knew all my students and their work for my classes. . . . )

    Then once in a great while, one encounters an extraordinary class, in which it seems that nearly every student does superb work–largely because they help set that climate. I won the lottery this past semester because I had three such classes. It was a sheer joy all term. But I found grading even harder.

  9. Students that have merit based scholarships feel an immense amount of pressure when it comes to letter grades. You feel like you must always get an A so that your overall GPA has “room” for failure in the event that you have a course that you do not perform well in. The fear of losing funds essential to being able to continue your education is enormous. A way to combat the grade obsession would be to perhaps institute a program to help students in danger of losing their merit based scholarship whether it is mandating office hours for those students or simply recognizing their need for assistance and helping them find remedial help. The knowledge that students have a sort of safety net (and that the University is invested in their success) would reduce the overall amount of stress and anxiety greatly. Students would be free to focus more fully on their overall education instead of engaging in “grade collecting”.

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