In Praise of Grade Inflation

How many times have all of us complained about grade inflation? I'm guilty. You're guilty. We all do it. But maybe we're all wrong.

January 5, 2010

How many times have all of us complained about grade inflation? I'm guilty. You're guilty. We all do it. But maybe we're all wrong.

What if grades are a discouraging force for original, innovative, and creative student work? What if our students focus on delivering what they think the professor wants in order to receive an "A" - rather then challenging the professors ideas and the prevailing wisdom? I'm starting to wonder if teaching faculty realize that grades are serving to demotivate creative student work, and are therefore taking grades "off the table" by defaulting to a higher grade. I'm starting to see grade inflation as perhaps a good thing.

My thinking is under the influence of the book I'm reading now, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink. (If you don't have time for the book you can check out Pink's T.E.D talk.)

Pink makes the argument that external carrots and sticks are poor motivators for performance. For creative, heuristic, right brain problem-solving work that requires collaboration, communication and the development of new ideas, products or systems - the only effective motivations are intrinsic. People need to believe in their tasks, be given autonomy and control, and only then will they be able to produce high quality creative work.

Carrots and sticks are good motivators for routine, mechanistic, algorithmic tasks. People will work faster on an assembly line if they are paid more. Under what Pink calls "motivation 2.0", grades can work very well to motivate students to spend long-hours studying the material in order to answer multiple choice questions. The more you study, the more you will recall on the exam, the better your grade will be.

But many of our classes are moving towards an active learning approach where students are required to create something new. A better understanding of how we learn, catalyzed by technologies that bring multimedia authoring and sharing to a range of technical skill levels, have combined to transition our students from knowledge consumers to knowledge creators. This transition is occurring earlier than in the past, where previous cohorts needed to wait until graduate school to become part of the scholarly conversation. Today, with blogs, wikis, rapid authoring, Slideshare, and YouTube - all of our students (even in large classes) can learn the material by teaching.

I'm betting that classes where students act as creators as opposed to consumers end up with much higher grades. We realize we are stuck in a grading regime that is built on the assumption that higher grades will motivate higher levels of achievement. We know that this assumption is incorrect, that grades tend to freeze students and stifle creativity and risk taking, so we get around this roadblock by giving "A's" for demonstrated passion. If classes are set up correctly than each student should be able to find something in the curriculum that they are passionate about - and find some way to demonstrate their passion that matches their learning style - and therefore receive an "A". If we teach to our students' strengths, rather than try to correct their weaknesses, the result will be higher grades.

Now, I know that this explanation for rising average grades can't hold for every class. Some classes require, I guess, traditional high-stakes multiple choice exams and the demonstration of foundational knowledge (although I'm skeptical). For every other class, where we are working to inspire our students and help them develop their own intrinsic motivation to learn, I say to go ahead and grade inflate away.


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