Grade Compression Appears to be Inflating
March 17, 2010 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Stuart Rojstaczer wrote an article in the Washington Post in 2003 detailing his experience as a professor with grade inflation at Duke. He has set up a website where he has aggregated data from the grades of two million undergraduates tracking the phenomenon.

An excellent post previously,
Another one previouslier,
And recently

A Rebuttal of its importance in Slate by our very own escabeche
posted by Blasdelb (61 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Grades are—should be—many things. But ritual fetish objects they are not.

That's not what I said in my letter to Dan Savage.
posted by GuyZero at 3:50 PM on March 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


It seems to me that if you the normal letter grade system, it makes a lot of sense to go for easy classes to boost your GPA, rather then challenging yourself. Maybe we ought to go for a points system: so a class on quantum mechanics is worth, say 15 points, whereas a poetry workshop might be worth 1 or 2. If you get 80% of points in the QM class, you get 12 points, whereas you'd just get 0.8 in the poetry class, because probably you would learn a lot about QM if you didn't get all the points.

You'd also need a metric to determine if someone passed or not, if they know 'enough' to go on to higher classes, etc.
posted by delmoi at 3:59 PM on March 17, 2010


delmoi, that's a rather subjective assessment of the relative merits of poetry versus quantum mechanics.

It's a more difficult issue than just saying the arts are easy and the sciences are hard, so they deserve more credit.
posted by knapah at 4:01 PM on March 17, 2010 [15 favorites]


Or maybe it means that GPA never meant anything meaningful in the first place. A 4.0 GPA in something hard like microbiology still won't get you a job if I need a mechanical engineer. The issue is probably scholarship money in which case the scholarship people just respond in kind by raising their bar or abandoning GPA altogether.
posted by GuyZero at 4:03 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


What would a class on grammar be worth, than? Less then QM?

Three quarks for Mr Mark's poetry class!
posted by GeckoDundee at 4:04 PM on March 17, 2010


I believe you meant to say:
 that's a rather
    subjective 
assessment of the 
    relative merits of 
poetry versus 
quantum 
()
mechanics
posted by GuyZero at 4:04 PM on March 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


delmoi: "It seems to me that if you the normal letter grade system, it makes a lot of sense to go for easy classes to boost your GPA, rather then challenging yourself. Maybe we ought to go for a points system: so a class on quantum mechanics is worth, say 15 points, whereas a poetry workshop might be worth 1 or 2. If you get 80% of points in the QM class, you get 12 points, whereas you'd just get 0.8 in the poetry class, because probably you would learn a lot about QM if you didn't get all the points.

You'd also need a metric to determine if someone passed or not, if they know 'enough' to go on to higher classes, etc."


So how would creative writing majors ever graduate? Graduate Acceptance Committees arn't filled with idiots, they can already tell the difference between a transcript filled with pottery and one filled with Immunology and O-Chem. I say do away with grades, make classes smaller than 30 students, and have professors give narrative evaluations of student performance. This way anyone with an actual interest in a students ability will get a good idea of it.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:06 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ironically, it was a brutally hard Quantum Mechanics class that convinced me that, no matter how much I enjoyed it, my brain just wasn't wired for high-level Physics. So I switched majors to English and immediately aced a Poetry Comp class.

Which proves nothing, but makes me laugh.
posted by COBRA! at 4:07 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry, that was unnecessarily snarky. Arts and sciences can be equally difficult. The issue is ensuring consistency of marking. I've heard students complain about marks in arts subjects where the whinge began, "I didn't take this subject to lower my GPA...". The belief that arts subjects are always easier than subjects in other faculties is a commonly held one outside of arts, but that doesn't make it correct.
posted by GeckoDundee at 4:09 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Slate: The arguments put forward against grade inflation span all genres: ... Marxist (grade inflation is a symptom of the consumerization of education)

lolwut? This argument is usually made by old-school conservatives upset with new generations of "entitled" students. There's nothing remotely "Marxist" about talking about "consumerization" anyhow. Actual Marxist educators tend, though not unanimously, to object to grading as a reflection of the institution's social sorting function, rather than thinking it has anything much to do with learning.
posted by RogerB at 4:10 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree with GuyZero. I think GPA is an imperfect measurement in general.

I think it's the concept that a 100 is all the points, that we start at 100 and move down for problems. So if you do the work required of you, why shouldn't you get all of the points? It's not like it's a zero sum game between students.

Maybe there's a way to rethink the system. I don't think just failing more students is really the answer.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:11 PM on March 17, 2010


...so a class on quantum mechanics is worth, say 15 points, whereas a poetry workshop might be worth 1 or 2.

Not this bullshit again. Didn't we have a thread like three days ago that got sucked up into this hard science vs. liberal arts nonsense? It's like we've found our own version of Digg's eternal coders vs. salesmen war.
posted by griphus at 4:16 PM on March 17, 2010


Maybe we ought to go for a points system: so a class on quantum mechanics is worth, say 15 points, whereas a poetry workshop might be worth 1 or 2.

I have a Bachelor's in Speech and Theater, and am getting a second Bachelor's in English/Language Arts, as well as certification to teach in the public school system. Crazy as it might seem to you, delmoi, I have also had a life-long interest in quantum mechanics, own more than a few books on the subject, and know enough to know that I could take an intro course without straining myself. So-lyou spend a semester learning to unpack, interrogate, and write poems in a variety of forms, and have your work evaluated by other poetry students, and an instructor with an MFA. In the meantime, I'll take a class in quantum mechanics and have my grades based on whether my answers are right or wrong.

Shorter me: Your underlying proposal is worth, say 15 points, whereas your presentation might be worth 1 or 2.
posted by tzikeh at 4:24 PM on March 17, 2010


So if you do the work required of you, why shouldn't you get all of the points? It's not like it's a zero sum game between students.

Um... because if you "do all the work" but don't demonstrate actual working knowledge of the concepts being taught in the class in the execution of that work, then why should you receive a grade which implies that you have gained said knowledge?
posted by hippybear at 4:25 PM on March 17, 2010


Um... because if you "do all the work" but don't demonstrate actual working knowledge of the concepts being taught in the class in the execution of that work, then why should you receive a grade which implies that you have gained said knowledge?

Wait, what?

I don't understand what you're reading into my comment. By "do all the work" I meant "demonstrate knowledge of the topic to the instructor's satisfaction, blah blah blah" basically do a good job.

I don't know what you think I meant by "do all the work."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:31 PM on March 17, 2010


Ooh... I see what you thought. I meant do all the work well, not just complete it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:32 PM on March 17, 2010


Does grade inflation matter? Yes, if ten years ago your HR department screened out engineers by using a 3.5 GPA cutoff. Ugly, and brutal, but effective. Somehow I doubt HR adopts such policies because they really wish they had been quants instead. Yet who else would the idea of statistical analysis of grade distribution appeal to?

The idea that straight A students will still shine through is a bit annoying to me. Let me tell you the story of the one person I knew with a 4.0 GPA in college. He would enroll in 7 or more classes, and use the grace period to evaluate which ones would be too much work and drop them with refund. The practice is not only a mercenary approach to education, but it also bumps out more junior students from the seat he choose to occupy then drop. Under the categorical imperative, this is a drain on the school.

Nowhere in his transcripts will you observe this behavior. I doubt he'll mention it voluntarily in an interview. Maybe this behavior translates to a guy who always hones in on the easiest way to get the job done, but I feel it's more likely to see the guy give up when the going gets tough on a project. But he took a job with a defense contractor and I haven't heard from him since.
posted by pwnguin at 4:35 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Grades are inflating with the gases of their own internal corruption.

I can't wait until they pop and the overwhelming stink makes it plain they've been dead for decades, if not centuries.

Grades are stupid. They've always been stupid. They actively prevent real learning, and encourage students, faculty and society as a whole to worship a false idol of ersatz achievement instead of doing anything real.

I have nothing but contempt for the prattlers about grade inflation and the coprophages who consume their every word.
posted by jamjam at 4:49 PM on March 17, 2010


Ooh... I see what you thought. I meant do all the work well, not just complete it.

The man I live with is a Computer Science professor, and he teaches programming classes regularly.

I cannot count the number of times he's come home for the day with a tale of someone who turned in a programming project (usually at the very last minute or even late) which won't compile and wont run, and who then later contests the grade they get on the supposed merit of "but I did the work!" The fact that they turned something in has no bearing on whether they actually achieved anything in the world of programming at all. Computer programming is a pretty basic thing at the college class level -- it compiles, it runs, it produces the expected result. Simply "doing the work" doesn't mean anything.

"Doing the work well" should always be rewarded. That is not what most 20-year-olds at this state university seem to believe. They think that just turning something in is worth an A.

They will be shocked when they get into the actual world of doing computer work, and discover that their employers have a different view of things.
posted by hippybear at 4:56 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Consider the idea that a numeric estimate of the relative difficulty of a class compared to other classes could be determined empirically after the fact (based on how students actually did in the course) instead of set ahead of time. That way none of the silly sciences/humanities biases can get in the way of an accurate weighting. Just look at the scores students got and downweight the courses for which everyone got high scores.

However, once weighting differences are known by the student body, that may affect the populations that elect to enter a given class (only the kids that think they're smart enough will enter the highly-weighted Principles of Poetry, while even kids without much confidence will enroll in Dynamics for Dummies). This self-selection will affect the scores that next semesters' weights will be derived from. BUT this is a negative feedback loop, so it's not going to blow up. Since only smart people enroll in Principles of Poetry, the average score will be increased, reducing the weighting and thereby reducing the future smartypants enrollment of Principles of Poetry; the reverse holds for the super-easy Dynamics for Dummies.

Maybe this would drive classes to all have roughly-equal weightings; I don't know. In that case, you might just want to report students' z-scores relative to others that took that class, instead.
posted by Jpfed at 4:59 PM on March 17, 2010


I love teaching, but I hate giving grades. It just hurts my brain trying to figure out if the essays I'm reading are 89% or 91%. I don't mind reading them, and I wish it was possible to have a conversation with every student about every assignment. But grading sucks.
Right now I'm wading through a stack, and I hate it so much I'm reading MF instead of finishing.

Responding to upthread comments:
I teach a humanities style art class. Students sometimes complain "This is as hard as my ________ class!"
I use a line I stole from a fellow instructor: "Why shouldn't it be?"
posted by cccorlew at 5:06 PM on March 17, 2010


Getting worked up about students getting worked up about grades is not a metatrend we should encourage.
posted by woodway at 5:08 PM on March 17, 2010


Everyone is above average.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:10 PM on March 17, 2010


Solon and Thanks: "I think it's the concept that a 100 is all the points, that we start at 100 and move down for problems. So if you do the work required of you, why shouldn't you get all of the points? It's not like it's a zero sum game between students."

Whats really sad is that tests can be a wonderfully productive learning experience. As soon as professors arn't worried about the consequences of giving average students average grades they stop giving easily accomplishable tests, and as soon as students who didn't get the materiel the first time around arn't worried about failing at life over a number they don't need to cram all of the materiel into their short term memory the night before. Tests suddenly become a much more useful tool to both professors and students for gauging actual learning.

Grades are themselves a major obstacle to learning, and inflation only highlights its fundamental flaws.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:14 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, if ten years ago your HR department screened out engineers by using a 3.5 GPA cutoff. Ugly, and brutal, but effective.

I will never understand why anybody should care about your college grades, unless you're interviewing for your first job out of college. It's absolutely absurd.

Or I'll put it to you this way -- If you've been out of school for more than a year, and have nothing more impressive to show people than the grades you got in fucking college, you don't deserve to be in fucking workforce.

School is an artificial environment filled with toy problems, and is in no way reflective of how valuable a worker or human being you will eventually be.

Honestly, I think all schools, classes, assignments, etc, should be purely pass/fail, and what should distinguish you from your competitors should be your ACTUAL ACHIEVEMENTS, such as taking on difficult projects and ACTUALLY COMPLETING THEM in a satisfactory fashion.

To my mind, "He got good grades in college" is to the workforce what "He's very nice" is to the dating world -- damning with faint praise.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:15 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Consider the idea that a numeric estimate of the relative difficulty of a class compared to other classes could be determined empirically after the fact (based on how students actually did in the course)

I think the problem is that grades are an artificial assessment of how "students actually did." I don't think there's a perfectly objective way to compare "the quality of the poems this student wrote, the feedback they gave and the consideration given to their revisions" to "another student's ability to understand mathmatical concepts and apply this them to a series of different real-world problems."

The idea of using a 0-4.0 number system to weigh those is just not going to work that well. It's necessary, but there's only so much fixing you can do to a system that started out broken.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:19 PM on March 17, 2010


School is an artificial environment filled with toy problems, and is in no way reflective of how valuable a worker or human being you will eventually be.

Graduate schools definitely use undergraduate grades as part of their evaluation package. I suspect that most professors who are thinking of taking on students use grades in three ways:

1. The student had a terrible GPA. That would probably be a red flag and would need to be addressed in the application.
2. The student had a 4.0 GPA. If I were choosing students, that would be a red flag that the person was an over-achiever and probably high maintenance. To others, it's probably a sign that they work hard and get things done.
3. The student had a GPA in between. That says very little about the student one way or the other and can be ignored.

That is, yeah, the great middle of GPA is probably uninformative, but the two extremes almost definitely say something about the student in question. What that something is is no doubt context-dependent, and the rest of the application package will likely resolve the meaning of that very high or very low GPA.
posted by one_bean at 5:24 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since I graduated in 1985 with a 2.6 GPA, can I now report my GPA as 3.0 (adjusted for inflation)?

I contend that today's college students are smarter and better prepared than me and my peers were 25 years ago, at least at the top universities. So maybe Cal should be giving out a higher GPA.
posted by Edward L at 5:32 PM on March 17, 2010



I've long thought that grades should be Honors/Pass/Fail/Incomplete.

I had an engineering class where the professor announced that he was going to grade on a straight curve. That mean that the bottom 40% of the class would receive D's and F's no matter how well they did on the homework and tests.

Let's leave aside the idiocy of expecting a normal distribution of performance in a self selected group of ~50 students. And leave aside that a professor in engineering ought to fucking know that. What happened was that at the drop date, everyone with a C- or lower dropped the class and my B+ went to a D+ overnight.

Other professors were more intelligent about grading. I don't have any real feeling about grade inflation overall - but I can say that by and large, I got the grade I thought I deserved in all of my classes, except that one. But grading in STEM classes is arguably easier than the humanities; after all, the math is done right or it isn't.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:49 PM on March 17, 2010


To my mind, "He got good grades in college" is to the workforce what "He's very nice" is to the dating world -- damning with faint praise.

Good grades in college indicates to me that a person adheres to deadlines and doesn't do a half-assed job when something is boring to them and a lot of the stuff we do sounds cool and is actually really boring. Granted, my field isn't very creative and no one needs to come up with creative solutions and you don't necessarily need to be passionately engaged to get work done right and without any great financial rewards. I hate to say it, but I recommended a hire once based on her 3.7+ (it wasn't a 4.0) at Mt. Holyoke because to me, her grades showed that she was going to work hard because it was just part of her makeup, and I wouldn't have to create incentives to motivate her. She worked out really well, too, but, then again, we aren't creative big picture problem solvers. We're more administrative and boring.
posted by anniecat at 6:02 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


.“The nightmare scenario, if you will, is that you apply with a 3.5 from Princeton and someone just as smart as you applies with a 3.8 from Yale,” said Daniel E. Rauch, a senior from Millburn, N.J.

Actually, the nightmare scenario is that you use the phrase "if you will" in your job interview and your prospective employer instantly chucks you out of his office.
posted by escabeche at 6:11 PM on March 17, 2010


I teach a skills-based class. The students are not competing against each other, they are working toward my expectations of them. I have had classes where 21 out of 23 students earned As or A-s, and I have had classes where a third of the students dropped because they felt there was too much work, and I still had students earning Cs, Ds, and Fs. Whether this adds to grade inflation or not in the long run, I am not really sure -- based on the student comments, my general education research methods class requires more work and rigor than many introductory classes for majors, which kind of depresses me.

Grading on a curve seems kind of lazy to me -- whether a student "gets" the material or not shouldn't be related to whether another student "gets" the material. On the other hand, I teach a course that, being skills-based, is fairly objectively assessable, unlike, say, a History survey course.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:13 PM on March 17, 2010


By the way, I stand by what I wrote in Slate, but I do think wide disparities of GPA between different departments (and, to a lesser extent, between different universities) is more of a problem than compression of grades uniformly across all courses at all schools.
posted by escabeche at 6:15 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Doing the work well" should always be rewarded. That is not what most 20-year-olds at this state university seem to believe. They think that just turning something in is worth an A.

Just to make N=2, I too teach at a state university, and I wouldn't describe our students that way at all. Diligent students who do the work, more or less get the main ideas, but don't excel? They get a B, expect to get a B, and are satisfied with their B.
posted by escabeche at 6:29 PM on March 17, 2010


Good grades in college indicates to me that a person adheres to deadlines and doesn't do a half-assed job when something is boring to them and a lot of the stuff we do sounds cool and is actually really boring

Even if this is the case, grades only tell you about how that person was while they were still in school. It tells you nothing about who they are NOW. Fuck do I care what someone was like 7 years ago when they still lived in the artificial bubble-world of academia? Hell, someone who goes to college right out of highschool is still a teenager for half their college career.

Think about it. Teenagers.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:33 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I went to an intensive, college-preparatory public magnet school, and while I was there, I was not exactly striving to get a 4.0, but I did spend a lot of time figuring out exactly how much effort I would have to put into which classes in order to get the grades I figured I should get, given that I was supposedly some kind of smart person. I tried very hard not to care too much, but I still found myself using my TI-89 to try to figure out what my current calculus grade was, and whether I had to get all the homework done in order to pull a B+ or an A for the quarter. It was pretty pointless.

Then I decided to attend a college that doesn't have grades. It is much less stressful. There is basically no sense of competition with my peers, because we don't have some dubious metric to compare each other by. I will say that getting a paper back that isn't going to have a grade on it can be more terrifying, because you have no summary of what the teacher thought of your work, just this big daunting paragraph that you hope is mostly positive, which you read a bit at a time if you dare. On the other hand, I've received evaluations that are more enjoyable than any "A" I have ever received.

I guess the point is, yes, grades are silly, and debating whether grade inflation is a problem is missing some kind of point or other. (IANA educator.)
posted by silby at 6:39 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


GPA is a bunch of crap. Maybe we can start handing out peacock feathers and pieces of coral?

Seriously, I have never felt felt as cheapened by anything else in my university career as struggling with schoolwork under the baleful eye of the GPA. It is a courtship dance that ends in mechanistic copulation with Economic Necessity.

Dance you monkeys, Dance!
posted by kuatto at 6:53 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Diligent students who do the work, more or less get the main ideas, but don't excel? They get a B, expect to get a B, and are satisfied with their B.

See, I think this points to a lot of the problem--to me, someone who more or less gets the main ideas but does not excel gets a C--because that's average work, and a C is an average grade. A B means you worked at an above average level, that you did more than just more or less get the main ideas. And an A is reserved for work that is truly excellent.* So it's not just a problem between discipline a and discipline b, it's that professors themselves vary, probably widely, on what kind of work is the cut off for a particular grade.

I was just having a conversation with a colleague about this the other day, and we were speculating that there was probably a lot of variation in grading standards just in our own department, never mind the rest of the university. But nobody really wants to talk about grading standards or rigor or anything like that.


*This is probably why the one frequent complaint on my student evaluations is that "I grade to hard." To me, though, this is a feature, not a bug.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:23 PM on March 17, 2010


So just so myself, outside the US, can understand this - your GPA is an overall university completion score, that's the sum of all the courses you took? And employers actually care about decimal-point differences in this single number, rather than looking at the individual courses and the grade you got for them?

Weird.
posted by Jimbob at 7:34 PM on March 17, 2010


Try this: you get into Harvard and most likely have a straight A. So too all the others there. How do you give out a A, B,C, D unless late work, lazy, etc, which is not going to yield much of a spread for most of the student body. They are all A students unless.....

Taught at a place where the students and school chatted about doing away with grades and giving just Pass/Fail ...a few students said there ought to be Pass Plus for the very good student!
To be a bit cynical: give all A grades and recall the Marx note: quantity drives out quality.

Paul Goodmahn: the best way to change the grade system? Give everyone an A all the time.
posted by Postroad at 7:41 PM on March 17, 2010


> So just so myself, outside the US, can understand this - your GPA is an overall university completion score, that's the sum of all the courses you took?

Your GPA is the average of all the course which count towards your completion of a degree (I took more courses than needed, for example, because I switched majors). For reasons I don't understand, that average is then divided by 25, which gives you a GPA. A 3.0 GPA is a 75 average.

At least, that's my understanding of how it's played.
posted by Decimask at 8:30 PM on March 17, 2010


To make N=3, or maybe N=5 in a nested model, I've taught at 3 public universities of varying repute and found that students pretty much take what you give them without complaint. C minus? Cool.

to me, someone who more or less gets the main ideas but does not excel gets a C--because that's average work

If your average students more or less get the main ideas, you've got a better crop of students than I've sometimes dealt with.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:31 PM on March 17, 2010


that's average work, and a C is an average grade.

No, it isn't. I mean, you might make a moral claim that C should be an average grade, or you might make a historical claim that C was at one time an average grade, but (in the upper tier of universities which form the context for most discussions of this kind) it's just not true that it is an average grade.

Try this: you get into Harvard and most likely have a straight A. So too all the others there. How do you give out a A, B,C, D unless late work, lazy, etc, which is not going to yield much of a spread for most of the student body. They are all A students unless.....

I went to Harvard. It is not the case that all or even most students there get straight A's. Plenty of lower grades are given for diligent work turned in on time.
posted by escabeche at 8:58 PM on March 17, 2010


Jimbob, ask anyone under 30 (maybe even older) you work with what their GPA from university is and they'll be able to tell you. It's not just a US thing. Does it affect getting jobs? I doubt it. It does affect getting competitive scholarships, entry into postgraduate courses, and the like.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:34 PM on March 17, 2010


escabeche - yes, historically a "C" means you get the material and are able to regurgitate it, but are deficient in actually using the material.

A "B" means that you are able to both regurgitate the material and understand it enough to use it successfully. An "A" means that you understand the material and are able to use it to good effect, or synthesize different materials to solve complex problems efficiently.

Your argument is exactly the definition of grade inflation.

But, yeah, there's a huge disparity in the methodology of grading between the sciences (and pseudo-sciences) and the humanities.
posted by porpoise at 9:59 PM on March 17, 2010


jpfed: actually, that exact negative feedback loop is used in awarding grades for year 12 students across the state of Victoria.
posted by jacalata at 10:38 PM on March 17, 2010


Jimbob, ask anyone under 30 (maybe even older) you work with what their GPA from university is and they'll be able to tell you.

I'm exactly 30, work as a post-doc at a university, and all I can tell you off the top of my head is that I had a "Distinction Average" which enabled me to get into the Honours program, and I got a "1st Class Honours", which enabled me to get a PhD scholarship. I seriously don't know my actual GPA, I would have to look it up - I know I wanted to fall into the "Distinction" band so I could get into Honours, but beyond that I was much more concerned about grades in individual courses.
posted by Jimbob at 11:36 PM on March 17, 2010


I knew you were an academic, but I'd no idea you were so young (comparatively speaking). It must be a Queensland thing then as students here seem to be obsessed with GPA.

In fact I know a few engineers in their mid-forties who will quite happily tell anyone who'll listen about their GPA of 3 or 4 point something (which is somewhere between a technical pass and a pass, or around 1.5 to 2 for those in the US). They don't say "I barely scraped through my degree and I still get to build bridges", they say "My GPA was 3.8 but none of my bridges have fallen down yet".

They're obviously enjoying the disparity between their academic record and their professional success, but it says something that they know their GPA to one decimal place.
posted by GeckoDundee at 1:22 AM on March 18, 2010


Yeah, it may be a product of the fact that I'm in academia now (as opposed to having a real job). I'm acutely aware of how many papers I've published and the impact factor of the journals they've been published in, my h-factor, etc. Once you've got your foot in the door with a PhD, your undergraduate years cease to matter.
posted by Jimbob at 3:06 AM on March 18, 2010


all I can tell you off the top of my head is that I had a "Distinction Average" which enabled me to get into the Honours program, and I got a "1st Class Honours", which enabled me to get a PhD scholarship. I seriously don't know my actual GPA, I would have to look it up - I know I wanted to fall into the "Distinction" band so I could get into Honours

But this amounts to basically the same thing, which makes your initial comment read even more like a "you USAians are so stupid with the backward way you do things" kind of comment. The specific metric may be different, but you are in a system that's just the same. In some ways your system is worse, because it embeds superlatives within the measurement itself, rather than just using a number. I usually have no problem with knee-jerk criticisms of the US system for many things, because I too find it stupid, but in this case it just seems petty.

On the other hand, I've received evaluations that are more enjoyable than any "A" I have ever received.

I went to a college where I received evaluations rather than grades, and I thought it was great. (I also happened to go to a private school for HS where there were no class rankings or GPAs.) It was easy to read an evaluation and see the level of work that the professor thought I did. My good ones were fabulous, and made me feel great. They described my strengths, my contributions to the class, and generally made me feel as if my professors gave a damn about my education and engagement. I remember one distinctly in which a professor said I had "made the class," and then went on to detail why he was so happy with my work. An "A" would not have made me feel nearly as good, nor would it have given me the same sort of reinforcement. My bad ones, which weren't too numerous, were also much more helpful than a "C" would have been. In the one class I really blew off, my evaluation made it clear that my problem was laziness, and that my professor was more than a little disappointed. That evaluation was much better at motivating me to change than a low grade would have been.

Now, I teach at the graduate level, and I'm baffled by grading. My students turn in a substantial scholarly paper at the end of the course, and I have to decide, as someone said upthread, between an 89 or a 91. It's basically impossible as an isolated exercise, and I find that the grade inevitably comprises a kind of composite of many factors that may have nothing to do with the assignment at hand.
posted by OmieWise at 6:01 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, I don't think it's the Australian academic system so much, as the Australian social context. People don't ask you your GPA. Jimbob was able to tell you because he needed to get into a program. However, to mention your GPA in conversation would be seen as boasting, even if it were in the context of a (non-academic) job interview, whereupon it would be reasonable for the people you were addressing to start cutting you down like a "tall poppy".

Now, I've worked with academics and I recently finished with an obscenely high GPA in a degree in multimedia studies. I did one quiz and no exams. I usually did very well because of my ability to write academic essays with pretty good English and excessive references. I can not code a webpage, have forgotten what little PHP I did know, and couldn't find even one course concentrating on Photoshop. Because my work was considered high level :P, I received very few comments on how to improve. It's quite appalling really.

Regarding the academics I've worked with (I didn't just throw that in for a casual boast), it's in the field of education, and there are a number of different ways, as I understand it, to assess a student. There's the usual quiz, and examination, pass/fail, written assessment by practitioner (ie student practice teaching, and a real live teacher comments on whether the student's skills are beginning, developing or competent, on a four page report), there's peer assessment (blargh), and there's different pieces of assessment from essays to presentations to posters to artwork and interpretive dance (I'm not kidding). It seems, unsurprisingly, that different methods of assessment and grading work better in different circumstances and with different students.

Oh and one last thing in comparing Australian and American GPAs - the Australian system is up to 7 with scores of 1, 2 or 3 usually a fail and you will either have to repeat that course, or take another in it's place to make up the number of courses you do. The 1, 2 or 3 however impacts on your GPA. My understanding (do correct me if I'm wrong) is that you have a smaller range of possible grades that can be called a fail (ie 0 and sometimes 1) and if my math is right, that means your 3 (out of a possible 4) is not necessarily equivalent to my 5.25 (75% of 7). However, I don't know how to convert it in a sensible way. Oh and lastly:
High Distinction 7
Distinction 6
Credit 5
Pass 4
Fail 3, 2, 1.
posted by b33j at 6:22 AM on March 18, 2010


It's not to say that it is boasting to know your GPA and to share it, just that if you were to do so in Australia, you would be treated as if you were boasting, so you may as well forget it now, cos nobody wants to know. I don't mean to imply that Americans who know their GPA and state it are flaunting themselves. It's just a weird Aussie quirk that makes job interviews particularly uncomfortable - the one time you're supposed to talk yourself up and you have no experience.
posted by b33j at 6:25 AM on March 18, 2010


Even if this is the case, grades only tell you about how that person was while they were still in school. It tells you nothing about who they are NOW. Fuck do I care what someone was like 7 years ago when they still lived in the artificial bubble-world of academia? Hell, someone who goes to college right out of highschool is still a teenager for half their college career.

I can't argue with that because it rings true to me. I'm completely different about work than I was when I was 22. In some ways better, in some ways worse. Mostly, I'm just less enthusiastic.
posted by anniecat at 6:42 AM on March 18, 2010


Honestly, I think all schools, classes, assignments, etc, should be purely pass/fail, and what should distinguish you from your competitors should be your ACTUAL ACHIEVEMENTS, such as taking on difficult projects and ACTUALLY COMPLETING THEM in a satisfactory fashion.

I've rattled about this before, and I don't know how it tracks to science and technology study, but after finishing a B.A. at Big State U and an M.A. at School in the East, I did my master of fine arts at Goddard College, which doesn't assign grades. Instead, you plan your course of study with your advisor and are evaluated, and evaluate yourself, based on how well you do it. Your advisor helps make sure your plan is coherent and rigorous enough.

What I learned is that when you're not being graded, there's little incentive to do less than your best--or, on the other hand, no penalty for doing "just good enough" on a piece of work that has to be done but isn't central to what you're working on. For instance, as I was preparing to graduate, I had a long critical paper that had been through a couple of drafts. My advisor and I talked about how it might be improved, and then I asked, "Is it good enough now for me to get credit for it? Would you consider it acceptable?" She said yes, and I said, "Then I'm going to just leave it as-is so I have more time to work on my creative thesis," and that was a fine choice.

My own experience taught me how damaging grades can be. I know it's not true for everyone but partly due to my temperament, but one thing that happened to me in college was that I regularly got A's, or at least A-'s, without working very hard (I commonly wrote five-page papers in the hour between when the computer lab at the library opened at 8 and when my class started at 9:10--this was before people had their own computers).

When I got to grad school the first time, in my first semester I was assigned a paper on Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice. As an undergrad Women's Studies major, I had been assigned this book something like six times in the previous four semesters, so I had no trouble cranking out the paper.

When she gave it back, my prof asked to talk to me. She told me that she had given me an A on the paper because it deserved it and she couldn't in good conscience give me a lower grade. But she said she could tell it was a lazy paper and not my best work. She suggested that if I was that familiar with Gilligan, I might have asked her for an alternate assignment. She suggested that I ought to try to do better work.

It was like "blah blah blah Ginger blah blah" to me. It made no sense to me that I should work harder if I was going to be given the highest available reward for doing less. I had been in a system where the point of the work was the grade, and when this prof tried to suggest a different way of thinking about the work, I could not hear or understand her. When I was assigned Gilligan again, my reaction was less, "Oh, God, not that again," (though it was partly that) than "Woo-hoo! I know that inside and out! Easy A!"

For me, grades created anxiety but also set a low bar I could never see the point of exceeding. At Goddard, with no grades I was still anxious ("Is it good enough? Is it long enough?" I would fret to my advisor in the semester I was supposed to graduate, and he'd say, "Do you think it's long enough?" and I would tear my hear), but it gave me this hint of what academic work could have been like, and what I might have accomplished, in a system without grades.
posted by not that girl at 8:21 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's not even a standard way of computing GPA. Many graduate schools actually recompute it from a student's transcript as a result of this, in order to make it more comparable -- of course this is false, unless the students all come from the same school, but it gives the process a veneer of objectivity.

Some schools map GPA (0-4) to A,B,C,D,F so that F=0, D=1, C=2, B=3, A=4, and then they average your courses to create an average GPA. This is the simplest route. Others have some form of weighting mechanism (as is suggested way up at the top of the thread); my alma mater did this with something called "quality points," although others call it "hours" (having no real connection to the number of hours that a class meets, although perhaps historically they did). A lab science was worth 4 quality points, lecture-only classes 3, and some independent studies worth 1. They'd map the letter grade to a number, multiply each number by the number of quality points, then divide by the total number of quality points.

However, other universities map from grades to GPA more indirectly; some do it based on percentile within your graduating class, or mix in some percentile-based factor on top of grades (generally this is seen as a way of preventing grade inflation).

So it's a pretty useless measure for inter-school comparison. But because employers and graduate schools feel the need for some facade of objectivity in their hiring and admissions, they tend to obsess over grades (meaning students obsess over grades, and pressure faculty to give them good grades) far more than they probably ought to.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:06 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, it isn't. I mean, you might make a moral claim that C should be an average grade, or you might make a historical claim that C was at one time an average grade, but (in the upper tier of universities which form the context for most discussions of this kind) it's just not true that it is an average grade.

Ok, well, to be clear, average is a mathematical term, and I wasn't using it in the sense of "the mean grade should be a C." I was thinking more along the lines of porpoise's comment:

a "C" means you get the material and are able to regurgitate it, but are deficient in actually using the material.

The mathematical average of the grades in a given class may vary depending on the course material, the specific students enrolled, etc., but my standards are the same: "fair" work (as opposed to say, "Good" or "Excellent" or "Poor") gets a "C."

And ROU_Xenophobe, I teach at a public commuter university with a lot of 1st generation and minority students, so as a general rule, they don't complain much about the grades, either. I'm lucky in that I mostly get to teach upper-division, elective courses, so I get students who are generally more engaged. My colleague who teaches a required research methods course is having a much harder time getting students up to "C" level work.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:30 AM on March 18, 2010


So much of what passes for 'education' these days is coercion, humiliation and promotion of the mediocre. Why would grade inflation even be an issue in that environment?

As so many above have said, 'Grades are themselves a major obstacle to learning ...'

I would go further and say that any kind of measurement of learning can't help but be flawed. So much of the real learning (the kind that shifts the brain -- i.e., challenges old ways of thinking) can only be *seeded* in college. Any significant changes may take years - even decades. A good teacher knows that passion for imparting learning for students must be accompanied by dispassion for any 'results'. This is not to say that students should not be required to demonstrate mastery of material, but just that they should always - themselves - be responsible for measuring their achievement of that mastery.

Any part of society that still uses numbers to measure a person (whether for a job or as a human), simply perpetuates a system that actually rewards cheating. And any person that uses their numbers to express their worth deserves to land in that same soul-disintegrating system.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:16 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I usually have no problem with knee-jerk criticisms of the US system for many things, because I too find it stupid, but in this case it just seems petty.

Well I probably was being a petty arsehole. I was just a bit surprised, because it seemed from the comments that in the US you can get away with inflating your mark by taking "easy" courses, and your employer wouldn't notice because they base everything around your GPA. Every job I've ever applied for as required me to give my potential employer a copy of my entire academic record so they can see what grade I got in each course, what I took, what I passed, what I failed. Does this, or does this not happen in the US?
posted by Jimbob at 12:48 PM on March 18, 2010


It happens for some jobs, and not for others. It happens about 50% of the time in the jobs I've applied for in applied social sciences/public health. I don't have enough information about other fields.
posted by OmieWise at 1:12 PM on March 18, 2010


But, yes, as the rest of my comment should have made clear, I find it a weird and disturbing metric to use. I just don't find it more weird than other pointillist academic metrics.
posted by OmieWise at 1:14 PM on March 18, 2010


It is possible that everybody except one person is above average. It just requires that one person to be really, really, really dumb.
posted by jewzilla at 5:32 PM on March 18, 2010


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