Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me

The recent and impressive study on grade inflation in the IoT sector comes at an appropriate time. Exam boards are coming to an end and the various drivers of student grades are fresh in our minds.

There is absolutely no doubt that grade inflation is occurring, i.e. third level students are getting higher grades and doing so even when their second level performance would suggest that their grades should be getting lower.

The usual explanation for grade inflation is that third level has been ‘dumbed down’ and the implication is that the dumbing down has been ‘enforced’ by management.

Just to get the second of these out of the way, I can say with total conviction that never in my 30 years in DCU have I ever felt any pressure from anybody in a managerial position to inflate the grades I give to my students, or to dumb down the material that I teach.

What I have seen over the years is an extremely compassionate body of academics, many if not most of whom are parents themselves and who inevitably want to do their best for students, even if in some cases we are a bit misguided. At exam boards, therefore, student marks are routinely raised for all sorts of quite legitimate reasons. Students are looked at holistically and most reasonable academics recognise that assessing students is an inexact science and there is almost an obligation on us to give students the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are as over-assessed as they are in the modern modular system. In my experience, this whole process is driven by us, the academics: no managers are involved.

So what about the dumbing down? The whole concept of dumbing down is predicated on the idea that there exists some objective third level standard and that this standard was set some time in the relatively distant past. Personally, there has never been any immutable standard for the courses that I teach. I set a ‘standard’ of sorts and it varies from year to year and from class to class. I used to do this unconsciously but now I do it consciously. After a few lectures and tutorials with a class I get a sense of where they are at academically and I adjust my teaching methods accordingly. In general, weaker classes require more ‘spoon feeding’ and so they experience a slightly different ‘me’ than stronger classes. But in both cases the goal is the same. As an aside, I think it is very interesting how group dynamics seem to shape the overall class performance and I think this goes some way towards explaining why CAO points only correlate weakly with third level performance. I have a feeling that a small number of students can set the tone for a class and if the tone-setters are high achievers with a strong work ethic this can rub off on the entire class. The opposite is also the case unfortunately. The important point in all of this is that the ‘standard’, whatever that means, is not constant but is constantly varying, not only downwards but upwards as well.

But even if we were to accept that there is some universal standard ‘out there’ that all autonomous institutions should be aspiring to, are there any reasons why students should be getting higher grades? Of course there are and they are all pretty predictable. Improved teaching is the obvious one and it is worth noting that many of the developments  in the whole area of third level T&L (the National Forum, for example) are driven by the IoT sector.

But there is a danger, I admit, that we are becoming ‘lawnmower academics’, cutting a swathe through the third level forest, creating a smooth, predictable path that all students can navigate, albeit a path with lots of academic hurdles of ever increasing number and ever diminishing height. But even that is not quite the same as ‘dumbing down’; it is more a case of creating a system in which it is easier, and more acceptable, to score highly. The old days of having to be a genius to get 70% are long gone, and rightly so. However, within the modern highly-managed and structured system, a system that incorporates large elements of continuous assessment, there is still plenty of scope to challenge students. And challenge them we do.

So I’m not bothered by grade inflation. As readers of this blog will know, however, I am bothered by the extent to which many students do not fully commit to their studies. These are the students who fail repeatedly and scrape through with low H2.2s or H3s when with a bit of focus they should be well capable of getting H2.1s.


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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3 Responses to Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me

  2. Brendan Guilfoyle says:

    In fact, there is an “objective third level standard” – it is contained in the Bologna documents, which seeks to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher education qualifications. While they are set in general language, they give details of what students need to demonstrate at the various levels – and being able to eat from a spoon, I’m afraid, is rather low down on the list of expected learning outcomes.

    With regard to “the usual explanation” that “the dumbing down has been ‘enforced’ by management”, a much more nuanced discussion of the various forces contributing to the rise can be found here:

    And, yes, the “extremely compassionate” body of academics whose professional distance from those they assess has been steadily diminishing, is identified as a possible contributory factor.

    As for “improved teaching” being responsible (I’m not sure if this includes improvements to spoon-feeding techniques or not), there doesn’t seem to be anyone actually testing such hypothesis against the data. We have made all of the data freely available on our website, organized by institution, subject and level, and have written a users guide to the datasets:

    So, if you believe that these grade increases are due to better teaching, or to better students, or even to the magic Irish educational fairy dust that was discovered back in the 90’s, by all means, test your hypothesis on the data and take the discussion beyond the anecdotal.

    • Greg Foley says:


      My fundamental point is that we have designed a modular system in which knowledge is chopped up into bite-size chunks with lots of CA, lots more in the way of supports for students, a lot more feedback etc and that this makes it easier for committed students to score very high marks. That doesn’t mean that the system has been dumbed down – it’s just fundamentally different. I also believe that teaching is far better now than it was back in the 1980s and I’m not suggesting that ‘spoon feeding’ (a term I used in a very loose sense to mean ‘supportive’) is indicative of good practice. If teaching has not improved then the huge emphasis that is placed on ‘T&L’ in modern third level institutions has been a complete and utter waste of time and I find that extremely hard to believe. I know my own practice has improved and the young lecturers that we have recruited into our faculty in recent years are extremely committed and reflect a lot on their teaching practice. (Incidentally the Irish Survey of Student Engagement suggests that students are quite happy with the standard of teaching in third level. I’m not sure that would have been the case 15-20 years ago.)

      As for Bologna and learning outcomes etc., I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that the language is too general. Nothing in Bologna tells me much about what level I should be trying to pitch my material at and what that even means. (This is complicated by the fact that I teach on a multidisciplinary programme.) Of course I want my students to be able to acquire basic skills in writing and mathematics and process engineering, and to be able and willing to think critically, but the latter is an especially woolly concept and is extremely discipline-specific. Bologna is of little use to me.

      In passing I think your emphasis on the grades that are awarded on exit from programmes is really missing a huge part of the big picture. My impression of the modern system (having just sat through yet another year of exam boards all across my faculty) is that very large numbers of students are stumbling through college, failing and repeating as they go along. (In the IoT sector, large numbers of these students are dropping out as you know.) Grade inflation is not occurring for them and their experience is an untold story. It is these students that concern me because these are the young people who are not coping and they seem to be getting very little out of their educational experience even if they ultimately manage to emerge with a decent-looking degree based on performance in final year where even academically weak students can shine in project work, for example.

      As a final point, I’d just be interested to know what your end game is here? If you see grade inflation (an international phenomenon) as a problem, then what is your solution? It strikes me that it would be far better if instead of analyzing and reanalyzing data, you and your fellow mathematicians from all third level institutions should get together and agree a common curriculum for, say, first year mathematics for general science students. Then it would become fairly obvious if some institutions were inflating grades for ‘political’ reasons.


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