Colloquium Tackles Grades and Grading Philosophies

By Susan Hagstrom
January 19, 2005 

"91% to Graduate with Honors (at Harvard)"
"Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education"
"Grade Inflation: It's Not Just an Issue for the Ivy League" 

Recent eye-catching headlines on grade inflation prompted the Undergraduate Division of the College of Letters and Science to host a colloquium on the topic of grades and grading philosophies.

On November 22, 2004, a panel of four distinguished administrators and faculty members, and an audience of faculty, staff, and students, gathered to discuss the meaty issues surrounding grades and grading philosophies.

Dean of the L&S Undergraduate Division Robert C. Holub moderated the event and opened the discussion with his perception that no topic is more important to studentswhile they are undergraduates and less important after graduation from college. The four panelists then presented thoughtful, provocative perspectives on the value and purposes of grading along with some specific views about what's working, what's not, and what the institution could do differently.

In a reference to Garrison Keillor's fictional small town, panelist Dr. Dennis Hengstler of the Office of Planning and Analysis described the phenomenon of grade inflation as the "Lake Wobegon effect", one in which all of the students are "above average." Giving a historical perspective, Hengstler noted that in prior years a grade of "C" was considered "Average" and is now defined as "Fair."

Hengstler set the stage for his fellow panelists by providing statistics and facts about grades at UC Berkeley and elsewhere:

  • In the late 1950's, the average cumulative GPA for Berkeley undergraduates was 2.50 and has increased to approximately 3.25. A significant increase in the GPA occurred during the Vietnam War when students received a draft deferment if they remained in good academic standing.
  • Of 79,791 undergraduate course grades given at UC Berkeley fall 2003, almost 50% were A's, approximately 35% were B's, and less than 5% were D's or F's.
  • Data from the Ivy League schools indicated that 44% to 55% of their students received "A" grades. These findings parallel recent data (spring 2004) from the National Survey of Student Engagement: 40% of students say they earn mostly A's, with 41 percent reporting that they earn mostly B's.
  • In general, the increase in the UC GPA paralleled increases in the high school GPA and SAT total. An exception in recent years occurred when the SAT total score decreased between 1998 and 2001 as it was deemphasized in the UC admissions process.
  • Variations exist in the grading practices across academic disciplines. Such variations are a national phenomenon and are not specific to the Berkeley campus.
  • In response to grade inflation, Harvard has changed to a 4-point grading scale (from a 15-point scale) and has placed a cap on honors awarded. Princeton has declared that "A's shall account for less than 35% of the grades in any department."

 

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Panelist and Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology Jasper Rine noted that he has been unable to find an unambiguous way to understand and interpret grades, even in his own department. "No one, not even faculty who have been here for 20 years or more, can accurately interpret a transcript," stated Rine. "Yet we try to serve our students, often writing letters of recommendation, based upon the very data on those transcripts that we cannot accurately interpret."

Rine noted the variance between policy and practice in citing a 1976 Berkeley Academic Senate recommendation that the average grade awarded by the instructor in a course be recorded on the student's transcript along with the class size and the grade he or she has earned. The Academic Senate also stated at that time that "it seems to us that we should attempt to return to the traditional distribution where grades A and B recognize honor work in undergraduate courses and should be awarded to fewer than half the students on average."

Rine described the shock he felt during his three years on the Committee on Teaching from roughly 1998 to 2000 when he reviewed teaching records for large undergraduate classes, with more than 100 students, in which no one got less than an A-, year after year. At the time, Rine asked Associate Registrar Walter Wong to assemble some data looking at upper division and lower division grading in the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, humanities and engineering, so that he could distinguish trends from anecdotal exceptions. The results were clear. "The physical sciences and engineering had rigorous grading standards roughly in line with the recommendations from 1976," stated Rine, "while the humanities and social sciences in many classes had all but given up on grades below a B, and in many courses below an A-, and the biological sciences had no consistent pattern."

Dr. Rine gave data from his own discipline to illustrate: in the lower division, the average Bio 1A GPA is 2.48. At the other extreme, in MCB61 the average GPA is3.28, nearly a full grade point higher. At the upper division, MCB 100 has a rigorous 2.57 GPA, whereas MCB130 L has a 3.50 GPA, with 62% of the grades being A's.

Referring to the 1976 recommendation, Rine outlined two possible benefits of recording the class size and GPA on the student's transcript. First, a student could tell whether he or she was adequately measured against the other students in that class, and hence would have some feeling for whether he or she has talent in that field, as well as an understanding of how much work was required to achieve what level of distinction. Second, faculty evaluating transcripts "would be able to see whether there is clear evidence of distinction in rigorously graded classes, or whether the grades are ambiguous, in which case we would be better off emphasizing other aspects of the record in preparing our evaluations of that student."

 

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The endless cycle of responding to papers and revisions in considerable detail was driving Vice Chancellor and Professor of English Don McQuade crazy. "The student turns to the last page of the paper and either congratulates himself or condemns the instructor. That's usually the end of it. When asked to revise a paper,most students use the instructor's comments to simply 'correct' their work."

Now, McQuade chooses not to put grades on papers, maintaining that grades are a serious distraction from the pedagogy. This approach keeps the responsibility for making progress where it belongs—with the student. McQuade believes that his first obligation as a teacher is to create conditions where students can learn. He asks students to make an ethical commitment to submit work that is "ready-to-be-read." The initial readings are done in small groups of students. At the end of the term, McQuade also asks students to write a detailed analysis of the work they have done during the semester, summarizing the nature and extent of the specific progress they've made and recommending a final grade. If there's a discrepancy of more than a half grade (B / A-), he meets with the student to review and reconcile the difference. He finds that the vast majority of students undervalue their work.

McQuade observed that students often are expected to pretend that they know how to do something before they've had the time to establish mastery over the skill through practicing it. So, too, he noted that one goal of teaching is to make oneself obsolete by the end of the semester.

 

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Professor of Physics Dr. Bob Jacobsen distinguishes between the grade recorded on the transcript and the mastery of course material. For Jacobsen, an A should indicate a very good level of understanding of the course content. Jacobsen states that just 15 to 20% of his students earn A's because he hasn't figured out how to teach well enough so that they all master the material.

"Student's worry about preparing for impacted majors," reflects Jacobsen. "They don't worry about whether they are adequately prepared for the next course." A C grade should indicate that a student is prepared for that next course, but may have to struggle with some of the prerequisite background.

The Physics department began monitoring lower division GPAs at one point when it was discovered that instructors were giving mostly B's. A faculty committee then mandated that faculty give A's and C's or explain why. This worked for a while but now, Jacobsen notes, the department is once again drifting toward giving mostly B's in lower division.

"I'm not willing to say that 17% of students should automatically receive A's and B's. But I am willing to say that 25% should get D's and F's if they earned them."

The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at alix@uclink4.berkeley.edu or (510) 642-8378.

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