Woebegone About Grade Inflation

Janice McCabe and Brian Powell explore the world where all the professors are above average (and tough graders).
July 27, 2005

Grade inflation continues to occupy the attention of the media, the academy and the public at large. As a few Ivy League universities have adjusted grading policies, and a few of their professors have captured headlines with their statements on the issue, people have taken note. Absent from this discussion, however, are the voices of the silent majority:  those who teach at non-elite institutions, as well as those at elite institutions who are not publicly participating in the debate.

Public discussion over grade inflation, then, may reflect the viewpoints of the very few. During the past few years, we have sought to correct for this imbalance by using several approaches. First, we have conducted in-depth interviews on teaching, grading and grade inflation with professors from a range of academic disciplines at Indiana University -- a large, public institution. Second, we have completed informal interviews with professors from several campuses, including Ivy League universities, liberal arts colleges, and public flagship and regional campuses. Finally, we have led discussions in workshops and presentations about assessment and grade inflation with professors from diverse campus environments and with graduate students who have only begun to teach.

From these varied discussions with instructors, commonalities emerge that provide insights to help us decide how to address grade inflation, whether we view it as an "intractable national problem" or a fiction. We find four seeming contradictions that may offer lessons for better understanding the rhetoric surrounding grade inflation.

First, most professors believe grade inflation occurs at their university, but few believe it occurs in their department, and even fewer in their own classes. Not only did most instructors (both professors and graduate students) whom we spoke with perceive grade inflation at their university, they were more emphatic in their responses ("No Doubt" and "Absolutely!”) than were those who believed that accounts of grade inflation were overstated ("No, I don’t think so.” and "No, not really"). Yet, the professors made a clear distinction between the grading practices in the university and in their own department: grade inflation is seen as a problem that occurs mostly in other departments and units.

Even more striking is the disjuncture between professors’ assessments of their own grading practices and that of others. Although a clear majority of professors believed that grade inflation was prevalent on their campus, almost no professors admitted that grade inflation occurred in their classroom. As one professor replied, "In my classes? No, because I control it." Most professors saw their grading practices as more stringent and fair. In the words of one professor, "I have high standards. I know people who don’t have high standards." In other words, professors characterized grade inflation as a phenomenon that did not occur in their neighborhood, and especially not in their own household.

Not surprisingly, then, professors described themselves as "tough" graders. What did surprise us, however, were professors’ inaccurate assessments of their grade distributions. In our in-depth interviews, we asked professors to indicate a "typical" grade distribution for their undergraduate classes and -- because this is public information at the university -- we compared their estimates to their actual distributions. Nearly all professors believed that their own grades were lower than they really were: They underestimated the number of A’s and overestimated the number of lower grades. This pattern was ubiquitous. It occurred regardless of the professor’s rank, gender or department and regardless of whether the professor had a relatively high or low grade distribution. To put this pattern in perspective, the average difference between reported and actual grade distributions far exceeded the reported rise in grade point average that occurred at this university during the past 30 years.

Second, most professors view student pressure as a key factor fueling other professors’ grading practices and grade inflation, but few admit they experience this pressure, and fewer acknowledge they are influenced by it. When asked to offer explanations for grade inflation, professors mentioned factors parallel to those identified in the scholarly literature, including lingering effects of the Vietnam War and student movement, changing curricular requirements and student demographics, and the demands of the current job market and economy. Still, the most common explanation was student pressure, described by one professor as a "'Let’s Make a Deal’ sort of atmosphere." Professors typically reported that in contrast to others who "succumb to that [grade inflation]," they saw themselves as mostly immune to this pressure.

Third, most professors assert a link between grades and student evaluations, but they also express faith in their students and their evaluations’ ability to distinguish between the best and worst teachers. Many professors saw an inextricable link between student evaluations and grade inflation, or, as one professor suggested, "those two come hand in hand." Indeed, professors typically believed that "a lot of good grades results in great teaching evaluations, which drives some people to grade inflation, without consciously doing it.... There’s no question that the quality of your evaluations follows the grades."

While their peers purportedly "unjustifiably give high grades to students because they want higher evaluations," the interviewed professors did not implicate themselves in this practice. Instead, they claimed that their evaluations -- although "better than average," or, as described by one professor, "I’m the man!" -- would be even more positive if they "just lightened up on students."

Still, the longer the interviewed professors discussed the seeming linkage between grading practices and evaluations, the more equivocal they became. In fact, very few professors believed that their colleagues who regularly earned the best evaluations also gave the highest grades or that those who earned the worst evaluations gave the lowest grades. Some professors acknowledged the inconsistency in their responses, as in the case of one professor who noted, "This may sound like a contradiction, but I think students can tell when their instructor doesn’t know what they’re doing ... and they pick on them for that in the evaluations, even if they got A’s." In other words, most professors, even those who initially complained in their interviews about student evaluations, believed that "students are more savvy than you think" and that grades ultimately were less influential than other professor and course qualities (e.g., intellectual excitement) in determining student evaluations.

Fourth, most professors believe average grades should be lower on campus, but would like to see a higher grade distribution in their own classes. In our interviews, we asked professors to indicate what grade distributions should occur in their class and their university. Most professors indicated that they would like to see higher grades in their classes, but lower grades campus-wide. Typical was the response of a professor who described the preferred grade distribution for his class as 50% A’s, 25% B’s, and 25% C’s but for the university as 15% A’s, 15% B’s, 40% C’s, 15% D’s, and 15% F’s. This same pattern emerged in our informal interviews and teaching workshops, as in the case of a workshop with faculty from regional branches of a public university, in which professors indicated that the grade distribution in their classes should be higher than at the flagship, main campus, which in turn should be higher than at Ivy League institutions such as Princeton University.

How do professors explain this discrepancy? Most professors saw their classes or their students as qualitatively different from others. In the words of an instructor at an Ivy League university, "I like to think my students are more brilliant than students in other classes." Other professors explained that they would like to see an increase in the grade point average in their courses because that would indicate that students are learning more. Overall, professors did not see their courses as contributing to grade inflation (and, if anything, they would like to see higher grades in their classes), and they viewed their own classes as unique, so different that they warranted a higher grade distribution.

These four seeming contradictions provide another illustration of what social psychologists refer to as self-enhancing tendencies: that individuals believe they are better than average and that their situation is distinct from others. This is the social psychological equivalent of the Lake Wobegon Effect, "where all the children are above average." The Lake Wobegon Effect is referred to repeatedly in the public discourse over grade inflation, although in that discourse, students, not professors, are being rated as above average. 

The self-enhancing tendency helps explain why professors believe that grade inflation exists but their grades do not contribute to it, why student pressure and student evaluations influence others’ grading but not their own, and why grades in their classes should be higher but grades at the university level (and other universities) should be lower. These tendencies may well be intensified in environments in which there is limited information on or discussion about grades and grading. Because teaching and grading are seen as individualistic and solitary activities, professors often may rely primarily on student accounts of other professors’ grades: in the words of one professor, "the only lens I have to see this is through the students."

Social psychologists often note that self-enhancing tendencies are functional for one’s own well-being. Our research shows how this concept -- in conjunction with the infrequency of departmental and university-wide open discussions on grading -- may help us better understand grade inflation, regardless of whether we see it as a crisis or an illusion. If one believes grade inflation is a serious problem, the cost of these tendencies is that professors will deny personal responsibility and instead attribute this problem to the practices of others. If, on the other hand, grade inflation is indeed a myth, then these self-enhancing tendencies explain why professors are so willing to believe that it occurs, even if they are convinced it does not occur in their own classrooms.



Janice McCabe is a doctoral student in sociology at Indiana University. She is completing her dissertation on race/ethnicity and the academic and social divide experienced by undergraduates.  Brian Powell is the Allen D. and Polly S. Grimshaw Professor and co-director of the Preparing Future Faculty Program in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University.

For a more detailed discussion of aspects of this research, see the authors' "'In My Class? No':  Professors’ Accounts of Grade Inflation," in The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: The Contribution of Research Universities, edited by William Becker and Moya Andrews (Indiana University Press).


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