The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made headlines recently by announcing a plan to fight grade inflation: all grades received will be contextualized on student transcripts, allowing graduate schools and potential employers to see grade distributions for each course and thus to determine just how much value to attach to those ever-prevalent As and Bs. This move is the latest in a series of attacks on what is perceived by many (rightly) to be an epidemic in higher education today, particularly among those institutions that seem to do well in the national rankings.
Student anxiety about such policies is understandable. Graduating seniors are naturally concerned about their competitiveness during difficult economic times, while juniors and seniors worry that they may be passed up for fellowships, summer programs, or other academic opportunities on account of a lowered grade-point average.
Professors, too, have their concerns about grade deflation; we not only care about our students’ successes but also about the implications of anti-inflation policies on our own careers. While institutions are increasingly taking measures to combat grade inflation, there are several key pressures faculty members face when assigning grades, and these may cause us to feel uneasy or hesitant about immediately subscribing to a strict regimen of grade deflation. These pressures in no way excuse or minimize the ethical implications of grade inflation, nor do I seek to undermine the efforts of those striving to curtail what is indeed a significant and widespread problem in higher education today. My purpose is only to suggest some of the underlying causes of this epidemic from a faculty perspective; to point out some of the pressures faculty face as they assign their students grades. These pressures, as I see it, come from three primary sources:
Pressure from students: Most professors are experienced in the familiar end-of-semester scene in which a student comes to office hours to argue for a higher grade. Such discussions often involve a student’s disputation of minutiae from past exams, papers, and assignments, all in the hope of gaining a point or two here and there and thus retroactively improving his or her grade. Such discussions can be quite time-consuming, and they often come at the busiest time of the semester, thus bringing with them the temptation to do whatever it takes to close the matter and move along. There may also be a nagging fear that minor grading errors have indeed been made and that the student should be given the benefit of the doubt. With ever-increasing college costs and the inevitable sense of student entitlement and consumerism that follow, such discussions are becoming all too common. and are not always limited to the end of the semester. Even more important, many faculty members dread and even fear the negative classroom atmosphere that often results from giving students "bad" grades (i.e.. C or below, though even a B fits this category for many), particularly in courses dependent on student discussion and participation, such as a seminar or a foreign language class.
Pressure from administrators: Success with student evaluations is a career necessity, whether one is a young scholar seeking the elusive Elysium of tenure or one belongs to that now-majority of faculty members who teach part-time or on an adjunct basis and are dependent on positive student evaluations for reappointment. At teaching-intensive colleges and universities, in particular, student evaluations are often of paramount importance, and faculty members must do what they can to keep their customers happy. Many faculty members feel, and numerous studies seem to suggest, that generous grade distributions correspond to positive teaching evaluations, so many faculty members, under pressure from administrators to produce good evaluations, feel a temptation to inflate grades to secure their own livelihoods. Since administrators usually have neither the time nor the expertise to make independent evaluations of a professor’s teaching ability (imagine a dean with both the leisure and the proficiency to sit in on and evaluate in the same semester both a Russian literature course and an advanced macroeconomics course, without having done any of the previous coursework...) they must rely heavily on student descriptions of what goes on in the classroom, descriptions that are often contradictory and that unfortunately do not always cohere.
Pressure from colleagues: Some faculty who wish to curb grade inflation may feel that they are the only ones fighting the problem. If everyone else is giving out inflated grades, why should they be the ones to stand alone, only to incur the displeasure of students who may be confused by inconsistent standards? As college freshmen arrive on campus increasingly unprepared for college work, faculty members, inheriting a problem passed on to them by their colleagues in secondary education, often have the difficult task of trying to determine reasonable standards of achievement. It takes effort and planning for faculty to balance their professional responsibilities to both their respective disciplines and to their students’ positive academic experience. In an era where budget cuts affect most severely those departments and programs with low enrollments, no one wants to lose the bidding war for students, and many professors, particularly those in vulnerable fields, fear that a "strict constructionist" approach to grade deflation may cost them student interest and consequently much-needed institutional support, both of which risk being redistributed to more favored colleagues. Furthermore, the seemingly ubiquitous nature of grade inflation may simplify the ethical quandaries involved: if everyone understands that grades are being unfairly inflated, then there may, in fact, be no unfairness involved at all, since the very transparency of grade inflation thus removes any sense of deception that may linger in our minds.
There is a final pressure to grade inflate, and it comes from ourselves. It may be the disquieting feeling that our own efforts in the classroom have sometimes been inadequate, that poor student performance reflects poor preparation or teaching on our part, and that grades must be inflated to compensate for our failings. It may come from the difficulties inherent in assigning grades to elusive and ultimately unquantifiable phenomena such as class participation, essays, student presentations, and the like. In such cases, grade inflation ceases to function as a lazy or disinterested tool for maintaining steady waters; it becomes, instead, a corrective measure seeking to make restitution for our own perceived shortcomings.
If we are honest with ourselves about the pressures we face as we engage in what is one of our profession’s most unavoidable and routine tasks — assigning grades — we can begin to think seriously about the part all of us play in inflating grades. Examining the underlying causes of why we grade-inflate is the beginning of doing something serious about it.
Peter Eubanks is assistant professor of French at James Madison University.
Many professors are perplexed by their students’ entitlement complex. To their way of thinking, say the faculty, students see themselves as customers who deserve being treated as “always right” no matter how wrong, rude, inconsiderate, or otherwise bizarre they behave. In one recent essay, Brian Hall expressed his concern that students were telling him he wasn’t teaching to their style. In expressing his frustration, he uses the “e” word: “Maybe students are so used to our consumer-driven society that they have an inaccurate sense of entitlement. They believe the customer is always right … and I am only supposed to teach students what they want to know and nothing more.”
Equally dismayed is Elayne Clift, who concluded from her semester in hell that “Every college teacher I know is bemoaning the same kind of thing. Whether it’s rude behavior, lack of intellectual rigor, or both, we are struggling with the same frightening decline in student performance…. A sense of entitlement now pervades the academy, excellence be damned.”
In an interview with the authors of the newly published Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education(University of Toronto Press), James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar state, “The corporate model treats students like customers, and as customers they expect services and products for their tuition fees. The services include high grades in return for little effort. The products include guaranteed credentials with a guaranteed value. With this sense of entitlement, most will not prepare for classes, and expect all material to be told to them in simple terms in entertaining classes.”
Cumulatively these articles generate hundreds of comments, ranging from faculty at their wits’ end with underprepared and overdemanding students to others who suggest faculty leave the academy and their cushy jobs if they can’t handle their students. What seems in short supply are ideas worth trying that could eliminate entitled student syndrome and get all of us stakeholders in higher education united in achieving our common goal – students who demonstrate a passion for learning that enables them to graduate on time with good prospects for career success.
A hint toward a potential solution was offered in a comment to Hall’s essay: “It's not that complex. All they learned is there is no loyalty. They've watched every older family member get laid off, downsized, and outsourced. The only thing they believe in is building relationships on trust and credibility…. What makes you different from anyone else? The relationship, the relationship.”
As I see the problem, many students expect one type of college experience while their faculty believes in delivering something completely different. The resulting disconnect, manifested in students’ awful behavior, is owing to the gap between the desired and actual experience. To my way of thinking, a potential solution lies in doing the exact opposite of what faculty are inclined to do, which is giving students the idealized learning experience they themselves had or aspire to in their classrooms.
Instead, create a student learning experience designed empathically to meet students’ expectations. By “design” I don’t mean construct a syllabus, exercises and lectures, all those things we typically associate with course design. On top of all that usual activity, faculty members should try designing an actual experience for their students, modeled on the principles and qualities of iconic user experiences.
Does this sound like a recommendation to treat students as customers, and if so, isn’t that the root of the whole entitled student problem? If faculty have no control over student experience expectations anyway, why not turn it into a strategy for better behaviors conducive to learning?
Consider the potential value in approaching what happens in the classroom as if your job depended on how good an experience you delivered. If you were an independent consultant being paid directly by the students, as your customers, how many of them would recommend you to their friends versus how many would ask for refunds? The goal is an experience that builds relationships based on trust, leading to loyalty.
Here are three principles faculty can employ to create the student learning experience:
1. Start with why.
2. Write your experience brand statement.
3. Move toward totality
The ‘why.’ In his book, Start With Why, the author Simon Sinek explains why it’s critical to start anything you do, whether it’s selling widgets or teaching, by first articulating why you do it -- what’s your purpose, your belief, your reason for getting out of bed and going to your classes. He shares the stories of inspired leaders and others who succeeded where many failed. They all have one thing in common: the golden circle. At the center is “why”; the how (technique) and what (results) are peripheral. Sinek points out that no one buys what you do, they buy why you do it.
Just another meaningless “achieve success” business-jargon platitude? Think about it. You want your students to come to your class because they believe in what you offer them – because they believe in you. To paraphrase Sinek, if people buy why you do what you do, not what you do, and you have no clear sense of why you teach this material, then why should any student give you their undivided attention and respect? Because you have a title, some letters after your name and grading power? Sorry, that’s not good enough.
If the only message students get from you is that they must take this class to master some subject matter in order to succeed on assignments, that’s all based on the “what” of the golden circle. The “what” are your results -- what you get for your effort, such as a grade. What people want – and why they follow any inspiring leader – is to satisfy a deep innate desire to emotionally connect with other humans. Think back to your most inspiring instructors, and to those for whom you had only disdain. Which ones connected with you on an emotional level? Those instructors were the ones with which students wanted to build relationships.
Imagine sharing the why message in every class, each time. I teach instruction sessions. I only have 50 minutes – not 16 weeks. I could easily throw up a list of outcomes, like “you’ll be able to search a database” – who cares? The first thing I do is look them square in the eye and tell them that if they listen to me and work with me for the next 50 minutes, I believe they will do better in the course, improve their papers, and learn an important skill; I want them to believe in me first. Then I can deliver the experience that I’ve designed for the session. In answer to Hall’s question: no, you should not teach the students only what they want to know. Instead give them an experience that drives them to want to know what you have to offer.
The experience brand statement. The EBS is a way to express the why as a form of action; it defines the experience you want others to have in response to what you offer them. By establishing an EBS, the instructor seeks to deliver a consistent experience and touchstone for dealing with those situations that fall outside the norms of classroom behavior. Consider the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. It is universally recognized as the most famous fish market because of the unique experience it delivers. People flock there to buy the products, and take part in their totally unique and zany way of fishmongering. But it started with an EBS: treat everyone as if they are world-famous.
That’s the whole point of the EBS – to create loyalty and relationships – and to be different in how you go about it. What exactly do you bring to the classroom that students can’t get anywhere else or that they haven’t already experienced a thousand times since preschool? You may wish to dismiss this idea by telling yourself that you don’t have to do anything different because they are paying to learn, nothing more or less, and that as long as you teach the content you are doing your job and it’s their responsibility to be engaged, cooperative and respectful. But I ask, why should they if you don’t take the time to design an enlightening and engaging learning experience for them?
Move toward totality. What likely exacerbates the problem of the entitled student and the barriers to creating a student learning experience is that each faculty member teaches in a silo called the course. At most colleges and universities, there is no student learning experience. There is only the course experience, and it can differ radically from course to course. Most of the world’s iconic user experiences are the exact opposite of what happens in higher education. Imagine if every aspect of Apple’s business were a totally different experience. Your iPhone, your iPad, your iPod would all work completely differently with different interfaces. Each would require the use of a different web-based service, each with completely different experiences. You might need to go to different Apple stores for service. In other words, you’d have a broken system where none of the parts worked together, and you’d ultimately have one truly bad experience.
That’s why the best experiences are based on creating systems that work together – a systemic user experience that delivers satisfaction from the moment you first explore, through your interaction and all the way through until you end your relationship. Think of it as totality. The experience is great from start to finish, and is always consistent and coordinated at any touchpoint where contact occurs. Now, does any of that describe your college or university, or even the courses in your department?
So what would a course based on these three principles look like? A good example is provided by Ryan Cordell, who shared his beliefs on why it’s important to use technology to engage students, and provided examples and resources for creating this learning experience. If I had to sum up Cordell’s philosophy of applying technology to engage students in building their scholarly authoring skills as an EBS it would be: Students Will Get Their Intellectual Hands Dirty. Cordell’s belief, his purpose, is to immerse his students in a scholarly experience. Remember, your students don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.
In his Chronicle of Higher Education essays this spring about “The Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education,” Thomas H. Benton shares his views on why higher education is academically adrift. He says, “Few people outside of higher education understand how little control professors actually have over what students can learn.” I found it so puzzling a statement. It’s the professor who has more control over what happens in the classroom to affect learning than anyone else. Granted, Benton has no control over his students’ level of preparation or the shortcuts other faculty take or their lack of rigor. But he – and every other instructor – holds ultimate control over the design of the unique experience that is the class, and the faculty can collaborate to create the total learning experience the institution delivers.
Like many faculty members, I suspect that Benton interprets the term “experience” only in negative ways, as in a manufactured college experience promised by administrators. In part two of the essay he writes, “Increasingly, students are buying an ‘experience’ instead of earning an education, and, in the competition to attract customers, that's what's colleges are selling.” If designed experiences are so powerful in selling students on choosing one college over another, why not design a course-level learning experience and sell students on what you offer them as their instructor?
The choice is up to each instructor. You can stop making excuses. Stop blaming it on poor preparation. Stop blaming it on the administrators. Stop blaming it on helicopter parents. Stop blaming it on MTV, video games and smartphones. Stop blaming it on society. Most of all stop blaming it on a student’s sense of entitlement. No amount of finger-pointing will create positive change or help you achieve the goals you set for yourself when you chose to teach. If it’s time to change something up, start with the learning experience the students get. Think about why you do it and how to design an experience around it. There’s no time for more excuses.
Steven J. Bell
Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services for Temple University Libraries. He blogs at the Kept-Up Academic Librarian.