Are University Teachers Contributing to the Problem?

Ever since reading Rebekah Nathan’s book, I’ve been thinking about Pogo’s famous line: We have met the enemy and he is us! One of Nathan’s observations was that despite little effort students get decent grades, Bs or better. This wasn’t just her finding; she cites a similar point from the 2003 NSSE study. Could it be that one reason why intellectual pursuits play such a limited role in our students’ university experience is that we don’t require more than that? Are faculty enabling bad behavior on the part of our students?

I’ve never worried much about grade inflation. The grades in our department tend to average about C+, and the grades I give fit that pattern, so at first glance I don’t seem to be guilty of enabling. But perhaps that conclusion deserves a second glance.

In thinking about the results of my principles of economics experiment, I realized something. I typically curve the exam grades in that course. I originally thought that curving the grades wouldn’t have an adverse impact on incentives to participate in the metacognitive activities, since if those activities enhanced student learning and exam grades, as I believe they do, then those students who completed the activities would do well on the exams relative to the rest of the students, and curving the grades wouldn’t affect that. The overall average wouldn’t be affected very much. But given how few students participated, curving the grades may have been a strong disincentive for the others to do so. Since most students didn’t do the meta activities, the class average on the exams was depressed. This could have been an incentive for students to do the meta activities, but then I took that incentive away–my curving brought those grades up. The result may have been to convince students they didn’t need to do the meta activities to do “well enough.”

The solution to this would be to stop curving the exam grades. This would likely cause major angst since the average grade would likely be less than a C. Hopefully, this might induce students to do the meta activities from that point on.

Something to think about.

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2 Responses to Are University Teachers Contributing to the Problem?

  1. rrycroft says:

    I think there are a couple of related issues that are interesting.
    1. What do you mean by “curving” the grades. I think the original meaning of curving was insuring that the grades followed some statistical distribution–typically the normal distribution. This meant the top 10% got As, the next 20% got Bs, the next 40% got Cs, and so on. Grading this way would not necessarily reduce incentives because regardless how well you do, there is a chance that you will end up on the bottom and receive an F. Students need to study hard to improve their relative position and protect themselves against all the other students. The other meaning (and I think the one in general use in colleges and universities today) is simply raising the grades of students who do poorly. For example, in my Principles class I tell the students that if the class average is less than 75 I give everyone enough points to raise the class average to 75. This approach to curving may have the incentive effects you write about, although my experience has been that I have had to curve grades my way only a few times. Admitedly the first meaning of curving does not seem like a very practical approach because taken to extremes it implies that you might have to fail students whose overall performance was adequate. I think as a bare minimum your method of grading should never give more points to weak students than strong ones, but establishing an optimal grading scheme is obviously an extremelly difficult thing to do when you realize (as Rebekah Nathan realized) that all students are not grade maximzers, but are utility maximizers. Making grades easier to obtain may simply mean students opt for more leisure (income v substitution effects of a change in the “price” of grades).
    2. What is it that has caused professors to grade the way they do? Some would argue that society’s standards have fallen over time. Others would point to student evaluations. Regardless, I don’t think professors are necessarily independent agents in this little drama. We respond to incentives in the same way students do!

  2. Steve says:

    Response to Bob: The way I curve the grades in this course is your second meaning. Even though students may be utility maximizers, since grades factor in to utility, grade incentives should still matter, though perhaps not as directly. I suspect the utility function is a step function with respect to grades–There’s evidence that many students seek only to do “well enough,” say a grade of B. Doing better isn’t worth the effort in terms of additional utility. But the flip side of that is that students who don’t do “well enough, ” say a grade less than C, will receive negative marginal utility. I’m hoping that will provide an incentive to work harder.

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