Posted by: Gregory Linton | 07/24/2011

More Reasons for Grade Inflation

In the previous post, I suggested reasons for grade inflation that often are not mentioned in articles about the topic. I would like to suggest two more explanations that I have not seen discussed in the literature. Both of these require understanding the psychology of the professor.

One possible explanation is that most professors genuinely like their students; therefore, assigning a grade to them seems like an unnatural act. Most professors were attracted to their calling because they cared about people and they wanted to make a difference in their lives. They view the classroom as a relationship-building exercise, as the development of a community. They work hard to make a connection with their students–yes, they may even come to view them as their friends.

Then to come to the end of a semester and have to place a value on a student seems to disrupt the relational connections that were made. A grade seems to say to a student that “this is how much I value you” or “this is how highly (or how lowly) I think of you.” It seems like an impersonal anticlimax to a 16-week process that has been very personal.

I think professors feel the same way when they receive ratings or evaluations from students. It can be painful to read the impersonal, sometimes insensitive comments from people who a professor has come to truly care about. It seems disruptive, unnatural, inappropriate. And so it feels when the professor must evaluate a student’s performance. The interpersonal connection influences the professor to be lenient, to show grace, to give the student the benefit of the doubt.

A second explanation that is overlooked is that professors feel ambivalent about grades in general. On the one hand, they recognize that they are probably necessary, in spite of the few notable attempts to avoid them (Alverno College, for example). A primary reason they are necessary is that they motivate students. I have reached the conviction that students in general will do only those things that will affect their grade. It may sound cynical, but it is true.

We professors would like to think that all students will read and write and do assignments just for the love of learning, just as we did when we were students. But we must remember that we were the exceptions, which explains why we are now professors. No, most students must calculate where their limited time is best spent, and they shrewdly figure out that it is best spent on those activities that have the biggest effect on their grades. So we understand that grades may be a necessary evil to motivate students.

On the other hand, we also know that grades are not the goal of learning. Knowledge is the goal of learning. Competence is the goal of learning. Personal development is the goal of learning. Grades are simply a means of seeing that those goals are reached. We give grades because we have to put something on a transcript that can summarize the student’s educational experience. We give them because they are needed for students to go on to graduate school. We give them because the auto insurance agent, the student loan officer, the foundation that provides the scholarship, and the U.S. Department of Education all expect us to give them. We give them for all kinds of reasons, some of which are legitimate, but we still don’t like it. We think there are a lot more important things going on in education.

And so professors are tempted not to take grades all that seriously. If it makes a student happy, if it makes it easier for a student to get into graduate school, if it keeps a student from being put on probation, if it eases a student’s relationship with his parents, why not fudge a little and pad the grade?

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