Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Grade inflation(?)

Every semester at this time, I start questioning my evaluation and grading practices in my freshmen course. It's 4 credits (most classes are 3-credits here), general education, and fills a science lab requirement. As a result, I have 95% non-majors and of those 99% are non-science majors. I try to teach the course in a way that is accessible and allows students to earn decent grades, even if their exam scores are not stellar. The outcome is that I generally give a LOT of A's and a LOT of B's and a few C's. The only people with D's and F's are the ones that really try to fail- by never attending class (except for exams), missing labs, missing term paper deadlines, etc. This sounds similar to New Kid's policies and outcomes. I think that the students who make an effort, do get something out of the course and should receive a decent grade in return.

So why is it that I feel guilty or as if I have failed somehow as an instructor if very few of my students are earning C's and D's? I fear that my chair will look at my grade point average for the course and tell me that I should 'do something about it'. This semester is particularly skewed to the A-end. My mean grade is B+, with a median of A- (there are about 90 students in the course).* I agree this sounds high- and it is higher than in past semesters, but the exam scores were high this semester. Maybe my TA was too easy of a grader? Maybe my tests are too easy, now that students are covering more of this material in high school (due to my state's graduation test)? I mentioned to a current student that the exam scores were really high and he said 'well, you're a good teacher.' That is the absolute LAST thing that would even occur to me! That I prepared them so well that they excelled on exams? Why cannot feel like that is the cause?

Whatever the reason, I am feeling like I need to make the course more challenging next semester. The downside of that approach is that the students who truly struggled this semester will be even further down the grading spectrum next time. I feel like any student who shows up, does the work, comes to office hours or tutoring for help, makes the effort, and has a good attitude should earn at least a C in the course. The D's and F's should be reserved for students who really blow things off. At the same time, I don't want to be accused of grade inflation. So I am torn. Right now, my exams count for less than 20% each (for a total of less than 60% of the final grade). The rest of the grade is determined by labs, attendance, and the term paper. Should I weight the exams heavier? Make them more difficult? Only use attendance as a 'tie-breaker'? What are your philosophies on grading and grade-inflation? Do you worry if you have 'too many' A's in a given semester?

*For comparison, my upper level courses had means of B for both courses, and medians of B and B-



gwinne said...

Like you, I give a lot of Bs, very rarely a D or F. But also very few As. In one of my classes this semester, the scale was tipped to the B+ or higher, and my plan is to rework how heavily things are graded to knock it down just a bit (that class had too many "gimme" points, just for doing the work, not for competency).

I'm struggling because the university I work at grades on a 4.0 scale, with a 3.5 being a B+/A- (and, to my mind, there's a huge difference between a student who barely squeaks by with a B+ and a student who just misses an A).

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. I look at my grade distribution and wonder if I am being fair or too hard. I have a critical thinking class where only one students out of nine passed the course. I wonder if I am being too strict or should I keep my high standards?

Ianqui said...

I totally know what you mean. I think I only had about 4 Cs, 2 Ds, and then 2 Fs for a class of 40. But on the other hand, my classes are fairly objective (it's a class with problem sets and exam questions that have right answers), so if a class happens to be smart, what can you do? Congratulate yourself! You taught them all something this year! Good for you!

USJogger said...

Well, being too easy is not something I've ever had to worry about. I was just bemoaning to a colleague today that of 51 students who started my Discrete Math class (in two sections) six dropped, six more have stopped coming, and about six more have basically no shot of getting above a D. So that's close to 40% of the students who fail, if success is defined as a C or better.

My attitude is that if I'm not getting flak from above, I must be OK. I think you should take that attitude for your good grades. If no one is hassling you, consider yourself a successful teacher and leave it at that.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

For a 'normal' lecture class, I'd use attendance as a tie-breaker, but for a lab attendance is really important, so having it count toward the grade is important.

Also, it seems to me that papers tend to demonstrate a student's higher knowledge of a subject... or, at least they should. So perhaps where you should make the grading and assignments more demanding is at the paper level and see if they come up to the challenge.

Addy N. said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I can always rely on the blogosphere to give me some great feedback! I am teaching the course in question next semester (which starts in less than three weeks), so I am going to make some changes to my syllabus- I may weight the paper heavier, labs less, make attendance a tie-breaker (for the lecture), revise my exams. I am changing books, so I need to do some updating, anyway. Thanks again!

gwinne: It sounds like I have more As than you, so things are a bit more skewed!

ss: I think we have the opposite problem! That is so interesting how your school treats low grades as the instructor failing, but mine treats high grades as the instructor being too easy!

Ianqui: My situation is similar, since it is a science course. There is some subjectivity in interpreting short answer exam questions and grading their term papers (although I use a VERY detailed rubric to reduce that to a minimum). I think if my exams are more challenging it will calm things down a bit!

Jogger: I am not directly getting flak, but when it has come up before it was definitely not being encouraged!

ItPF: I agree with your lecture attendance tie-breaker policy. I think I will try it next semester. I also want to try more interactive 'lecture' classes, so that missing lecture, is more than just missing notes.

Anonymous said...

I knew an adjunct that gave low grades his first semester and was not-so-subtly told that he better not do it again if he valued his contact. Just be careful!

TenureTrackNewbie said...

I think that the grades in the GenEd classes are usually higher. I wouldn't be so concerned. It's different for a majors' class, where you have to weed out the weakest links, so the won't end up in more advanced classes without knowing the basics.