Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring

Grade inflation (i.e. an increase in grades without a simultaneous improvement in real performance) was discussed on The Last Word the other evening, sparked by Morgan Kelly’s foray into the education debate. Whatever about the property bubble, I think Prof. Kelly was shooting from the hip on this one. Martin O’Grady from stopgradeinflation.ie was on to make the case for the existence of grade inflation. Here’s my tuppence worth……………

Third level education is not what it used to be!

That’s not a judgement; it’s a statement of fact. So when people talk about ‘grade inflation’ they need to remind themselves that a lot of the time they are simply not comparing like with like. Here are some key differences between the third level education that I currently experience as a lecturer and that which I experienced as a student when I graduated in 1984.

  1. The system is now modularised and semesterised meaning that (i) the amount of material covered in courses has been reduced in favour of ‘independent learning time’; (ii) the content has been divided into smaller, more easily learned chunks and (iii) exams are more frequent and shorter, meaning that the scope of questions is narrower.
  2. While the aspiration is to encourage independent thinking etc., teaching has actually become more ‘supportive’. Material is ‘packaged’ better with systems like Moodle and Blackboard taking much of the ‘hassle’ out of learning; the subject has, to some extent, become the online lecture notes. Greater learning supports, e.g. screencasts, revision handouts, pre-exam tutorials and ‘clinics’ are put in place, especially at exam time. (One could say, perhaps, that the system is sending out mixed signals – preaching independence but encouraging dependence.)
  3. Lecturers generally take teaching more seriously and are more reflective – at least that’s the impression I get having been in the system a long time. Many constantly adapt their methods to cope with the ever-changing student population. That was not often the case in the 1980s when some lecturers used transparencies that were often fading with age and overuse. As one colleague remarked to me years later about one of our former lecturers, an eminent professor: “His overheads looked like they had been written on the DART!
  4. Marking of exams is now done in a very transparent and accountable way and it has to said that we know every little about how scripts were marked back in the 1980s. (Last week I met 22 students to discuss their scripts which they could inspect. That didn’t happen in the 1980s.) Perhaps expectations were unrealistic in those days. The point is: who knows?
  5. Were exams of the 1980s well-constructed? When I look back at my time in UCD, I can honestly say that some of the questions on my exam papers were absolutely ridiculous. What about this memorable question from a first year physics exam: “Discuss the laws of conservation of energy and momentum in mechanical systems”. That must have taken quite a while to dream up (!) and I’d love to have seen the marking scheme. I suspect but cannot prove that more thought goes into the setting of exams these days. There is such an emphasis on the whole philosophy of ‘teaching and learning’ that I would imagine that it has rubbed off on even the most research-focused academic.
  6. Students have a much clearer idea of what is expected of them these days. Personally, I talk quite a bit about exams in my courses because I feel I have an obligation to inform students of the type of questions I am likely to ask. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I hasten to add that I often say things like “let’s not get hung up on exams for the moment and just think about this in terms of pure education”. Students always look a little amused when I say this!
  7. It is a time of great change, especially technological change. Disciplines are changing. Many of the exam questions that would have been set in the 1980s are no longer appropriate. In chemical engineering, for example, we used to be asked very challenging questions that involved convoluted graphical or trial-and-error methods. They were hard! But these problems can be solved in seconds these days with readily available software – often with a couple of lines of code or even with a simple Excel formula. They are no longer suitable for formal exams, being more suitable for continuous assessment. So, in a sense, the subject is actually easier these days because the old, ‘hard’ questions are obsolete.  Of course this isn’t the case for all disciplines but the changing nature of traditional disciplines must be considered.
  8. Continuous assessment has been widely introduced, usually to stem the rise of failing grades, but it also has the effect of boosting the mark of the average student, if not the high-flyer. I’ve looked at this in a bit of detail over the years and there is nearly always a positive correlation between CA mark and exam mark for similar subjects.  Average marks in CA modules tend to be at least 5% higher than exam marks – and with a lower standard deviation.  (Project marks tend to have very low standard deviations.)
  9. Definitions of grades have changed.  A 2.1 used to mean 63% or higher – now it is 60%.

Therefore, there is a prima facie case for the ‘fact’ that the third level system has changed substantially and if we want to infer a drop in objective standards purely from grade distributions we have a pretty tough task ahead of us. In my view, we need to get less hung-up on grade inflation. People can still be assessed on a percentile basis no matter what the actual grade or mark we assign to student performance. (And employers have to do their homework about the institutions and degree programmes from which they recruit. They need to keep up!) Anyway, there never was an objective standard that each grade represented. Variations across disciplines have always been huge.

But, there are plenty of things we need to talk about and I suppose a good outcome of the whole grade inflation debate is just that – it causes debate. One thing is sure and it is this: we  need to talk about those areas where we have something of a crisis. These include literacy, both written and mathematical, work ethic and many students’ apparent unfamiliarity – and lack of practice – with actually thinking. Students come to us with a rote learning mind-set and we are not doing enough to instill a culture of thinking. Having huge first year classes is a major obstacle because it is in first year that we should be ‘de-programming’ students. But how do you do that in a class of 300? That said, I get the feeling that we are in a state of paralysis by analysis on many of these core issues. We’ve been talking about them for years and we’re not coming up with any solutions.

It’s not all bad, though. One of the key things that I have noticed in the last decade is the sheer variability in student ability. But the best students I teach would stand out in any era and in the current system they can score very highly indeed – higher than in previous decades because of the way the system has evolved. I think there is an argument to be made that these students could be challenged more – for their sakes – but that risks carnage at the other end. There tends to be a very large ‘tail’ in classes and this more than anything is the key difference between now and the 1980s when participation rates were much lower. Therefore, while there remains a core group of very good students, there are an awful lot of badly performing students. (Actually, I see no evidence of their grades being inflated. In fact, I see more failed marks now than ever.)  But we should not let our experience of the ‘tail’ colour our views of the entire system.

As a footnote, I should state that I have never experienced any sort of pressure to inflate grades or pass failing students. It would be a scandal indeed if any academics are experiencing this kind of pressure. If it is a widespread problem, there is clearly a need for some sort of whistle-blowing mechanism for the education system. 

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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7 Responses to Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring

  2. Good post.
    There is also the fact that students who are dropping during the year are encouraged to formally withdraw or defer. These students who would have made it into the stats previously as a fail, don’t count anymore because they are no longer registered.

  3. Pingback: Reblog: Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring | Wetwiring

  4. Greg Foley says:

    Are drop-outs on the increase? I know they’re in IOT sector and a bit better in Uni sector but would be interesting to see the trend.

  5. Greg Foley says:

    Meant to say ‘high’ in IOTs

  6. bealoideas says:

    Cheating is much easier nowadays though. Plagiarism is pretty much impossible to stamp out. The is no question a 2.1 is worth much less today then 30 years ago.

  7. Pingback: More on Grade Inflation | educationandstuff

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