Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/09/2011

The Lack of Incentives for Professors to Set High Expectations

Peter Eubanks, “Why We Inflate Grades

In this editorial, Peter Eubanks provides some thoughtful reflections on why professors are tempted to be easy graders. I have offered my own explanations for grade inflation in earlier posts, but I find his reasons to be convincing also.

The trend toward higher grades runs counter to one of the widely held maxims in college teaching–namely, that students learn more when the professor sets high expectations. Chickering and Gamson proposed this maxim back in 1987 in their famous essay “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” Principle 6 in their list was “Communicate High Expectations.” They opined that if you expect more, you will get more.

This principle has become widely accepted in higher education. For example, the National Survey of Student Engagement identifies five “Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice,” and the first one listed is “Level of Academic Challenge.” Ideally, “Colleges and universities promote high levels of student achievement by setting high expectations for student performance” (NSSE, 2010, p. 33).

Most of the questions in the NSSE about academic challenge deal with amount and difficulty of the work required. There are no questions about the grades received. Is there a connection between high expectations and the difficulty of receiving a high grade? Does a student perceive that a professor sets high expectations if the student knows it will be easy to receive an A or B? One concern with grade inflation is that higher grades have resulted in lower expectations and therefore less student learning.

Eubanks raises some interesting questions about a professor’s incentives for setting high expectations. He shows that not only are there few incentives but there are also intense pressures not to do so. Who is looking over the professor’s shoulder to make sure that he or she is not setting the expectations too low? In most places, no one. For a dean to look over a syllabus and suggest that the professor beef up the assignments and make the grading tougher would be viewed as an infringement on that professor’s independence and a criticism of his or her professional judgment. And yet some accountability like that must be practiced, or else professors will take the path of least resistance and avoid fights with students by giving them grades they do not deserve. It is for sure that students are not going to clamor that their professors get tougher and expect more out of them.

The only professors who will set high expectations are those who receive a sense of satisfaction that they are doing the right thing for the student and for the arena of higher education in general. They will also have to be thick-skinned and not be concerned about lack of popularity or low student ratings. They will also need assurance that their job is safe even if they demand more from their students. And if they teach the same course as other professors, they will have to be prepared that students will choose the section with the professor who will expect less of them.

Here is one last point to reflect on. I have taken around 100 courses in my educational career, and when I think back to the classes in which I learned the most, they were the hardest classes that I took. They required a lot of difficult reading, major papers and assignments, and an advanced level of discussion in the classroom. I would say that, in my experience, higher expectations usually did lead to more learning.


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3–7.

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2010). Major differences: Examining student engagement by field of study—annual results 2010. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.


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