Inflating Grades vs. Enhancing Performance

While long resisting grade inflation, Michael S. Berger found that without the normal in-person teaching to help motivate students during COVID, they struggled to meet the rigor he demanded.

September 1, 2021
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Everyone in higher education will long remember the past academic year. Administrators, faculty members and students faced unprecedented challenges. Uncertainty loomed on every front. Depending on the resources and conditions of both institutions and individuals, the outcomes varied markedly. Deans scrambled as they tried to navigate the right balance between maintaining learning standards and showing compassion for many students who faced particular difficulties.

I was among the fortunate. I teach at an institution that had the means to provide significant support to allow faculty members to up their online game. We were taught the ins and outs of Zoom, Voicethread and a bevy of other online resources. The university provided an intensive three-week course on how to improve our course design and provide more on-ramps for students who might be absent for days or even weeks or face other disadvantages. If mid-March 2020 became a quickly conceived “rescue and salvage” mission for the spring semester, summer 2020 served as a “plan and thrive” endeavor for the coming academic year. And as we face another academic year with its own challenges and uncertainties, those experiences will no doubt continue to have an impact on the ways many of us think about teaching.

Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, deans, the provost and even the president regularly updated us with pandemic-related information and also made sure to thank us for our efforts. They made us feel we were part of the team. They encouraged us to create assignments or online activities that would simulate as best as possible the in-class experience of shared learning and rigor.

Yet, at the same time, they kept reminding us that most students were not operating under optimal conditions. They urged us to maintain our high standards and yet be understanding about assigned readings, attendance, timely submission of work and testing procedures.

As a humanities professor teaching religion, I found this balancing act a challenge. Rigor, as I learned in my own graduate training and in my 27 years of classroom teaching, is a carefully calibrated blend of high expectations and accountability. Supports of all types can be provided -- office hours, study guides, review sessions, sample exam questions, to name a few. But in the end, both the students and I knew their growth was directly proportional to the time and effort they would invest -- a point Deborah J. Cohan powerfully makes in her recent Inside Higher Ed piece on upholding rigor even during COVID. Nevertheless, we in the humanities knew deep down that the motivation for that investment was quite often the teacher’s presence and the energizing interactions of the in-person classroom -- from body language and rapport to contagious excitement, verbal encouragement and impromptu exchanges before and after class. Absent that essential scaffolding, student motivation would likely flag, except among the dedicated few.

That, indeed, was my experience. In the undergraduate courses I taught remotely (and synchronously) this past year, maintaining high student motivation was an uphill battle. Whether it was the demanding workload of other courses (usually in the sciences, math or business), isolation, insufficient self-care or Zoom fatigue, I’m not sure, but, in the end, only a minority of students were able to keep up their level of engagement and performance throughout the semester. As the college administrators suggested, I gave midterm course evaluation surveys to enable some adjustments, but even those corrections often did not click for most students, as was evidenced by their assignments and exams.

Concerned that the students were not achieving my courses’ stated learning goals, I instead leaned heavily on more individualized instruction -- first with the students who clearly needed it, but then more broadly out of fairness to all. I wrote more extensive comments on assignments and discussion boards and met students on Zoom individually to discuss and explain what I wrote. In several cases, if a grade was in the B range or lower, I gave students the option of revising and resubmitting and thus raising their grade. I was more attentive to attendance, contacting students who were not present just to see if they were OK and encouraging them to watch the recording of the class they’d missed, which I posted immediately after the class ended. I dedicated more time in class to reflecting on assignments and exams than I typically did in my in-person instruction and modeled assessment formats -- for example, what makes a good site visit or article analysis -- multiple times rather than only once. I created paired assignments and activities and then met with the students together to give feedback and recommend improvements. While it would be an exaggeration to state that my teaching began to resemble the tutorial system of Oxbridge, the experience felt closer to that model than to the sort of instruction to which I was accustomed for 26 years.

Unsurprisingly, as I tabulated end-of-semester grades, they were overwhelmingly in the A/A-minus range. How could it be otherwise? Having chosen not to lower the bar, I decided instead to help each student climb and reach the top as best as they could -- if not on the first try, then on the second or even the third. Of course, that was only possible in a small class; even my pre-COVID enrollments averaged 10 to 15 students, so I was able to invest the extra time and energy needed to work with each student to ensure broader success. Like many of my colleagues, I decided last summer to move my research and writing to the back burner and make myself available to learn new tools of engagement and learning. Yes, I invested time in preparing PowerPoint decks, engaging discussion boards and the like. In the end, I devoted a greater portion of my time to assisting individual students.

For most of my career, I have resisted grade inflation -- a fact that has no doubt contributed to my more modest enrollments compared to some of my colleagues. As I hit “save” on OPUS to submit my final grades in December and May, I thought about all those A’s and A-minuses. They looked strange to me and could easily be construed as letting my COVID compassion bestow high grades on undeserving students. But that was not the case. The truth was that my teaching or, more accurately, my instruction, morphed into a pandemic performance enhancer, enabling most students in my classes to achieve more than they were likely able to do left entirely on their own under present conditions. The students greatly appreciated what I did, and I, too, found it an enriching experience.

Of course, the work was labor intensive, and in a research university, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sustain that level in all my classes. I do not, however, see it as an expression of “self-sacrificial teaching,” as Cohan would have it, with no one coming out the winner. It’s false to the reality and to our profession to portray our teaching as an either-or proposition of demanding rigor and a balanced life (for the faculty) on the one hand, and easy A’s or boundaryless instruction on the other. I simply acknowledged last year that without the normal in-person scaffolding for their motivation, students were struggling to meet the rigor I demanded. I named their challenge explicitly, invited them to work harder and offered striving students a helping hand. When serious students need support, they appreciate the instructor who reaches out -- the sort of appreciation Cohan strives to earn from her students, as her mother had in her years of teaching. Going forward, I intend to find ways to help striving students to improve, not just learn. To me, that’s a win-win, even if it takes some extra time.

I know that when graduate school admission officers or employers look at a college transcript and see high grades in 2020-21, they will likely dismiss them as inflated, the result of unearned if understandable faculty benevolence. At least in my case, I’d like them to consider that a different way of teaching helped students perform at their historical best -- and appreciate the potential that lies in most of them.

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Michael S. Berger teaches religion in Emory University’s department of religion.

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