Grade Inflation: What’s Really Going On

A+ image from WritersResort blogI had the dubious honor of starting college during the first crackdown on grade inflation. My professors overtly ensured that every grade on our transcripts was hard-earned. Then I immediately started teaching college, where I was required to submit charts comparing my grades to the traditional bell curve, along with an explanation for any divergence. I did award more As or Bs than a bell curve would predict, and it wasn’t hard to explain. I was good at teaching people to write, so when essays were scored against rubrics instead of against other people’s essays, the curve skewed higher as the semester progressed, as I believe it should.

These days, rumors have it that 40% of students get As, and the debate about grade inflation flares again. Rumor has it that this time, we instructors are too wimpy to be honest with these consumer-students whose evaluations now determine whether we work or not.

But that isn’t my experience. What’s happening in my world is that the most common grade is the W. When students realize they aren’t getting that A–and this is especially easy with my institution’s generous midpoint withdrawal point–they drop.

Some students don’t do the work, realize where they are headed, then drop. Many take heavy loads, then drop the lowest grade. Many have illnesses, or car accidents, or family crises; while some emergency withdrawals seem necessary, in other cases, it’s clear that these students could complete the class (with an A even), but they fear what might happen–not that they won’t pass the class, but that they won’t get an A.

It’s midpoint for my students, so every day brings e-mails like these two, this morning’s samples:

“Sadly, I wish to be withdrawn from your class. I am taking a ton of classes right now and I can’t keep up with all the work this course requires and still get an A at the moment. The [college] office told me to send you an email asking for a withdrawal from the class. Thanks for everything!”

“Looks like I am going to have to withdrawal. It sucks but I cant take a chance that i will not get an ‘A’ in this class. I have talked to my lawyer and the responsible party with pay for this class, and I will re-sign up. I will attempt to try and get you as an instructor again. Thank you for all your help and constructive criticism.”

Even a non-A for a single assignment can trigger a drop. And the work required to focus a research question according to the course’s instructions, based on actual research, is too much for many students.

I have students announce early that they must have an A in my class. Students actually earning As don’t say that; they do the work and earn the grades. But the ones who get behind and/or don’t follow instructions announce that their As are non-negotiable, as though I have power to grant the prize despite any lack of effort or achievement.

When my own 7th grader got a C on his progress report (the result of missing assignments rather than aptitude) he declared that this didn’t matter because “C is average.” Them’s fighting words around here. I explained grade inflation and reminded him that even if Cs were still average, rocket scientists don’t have a reputation for being average students. (We used to say, “It isn’t brain surgery,” and now we say, “It isn’t rocket science.”) If Cs become the norm, his grades and his dreams won’t be accurately aligned for a successful Mars landing, or anything else he’s passionate about.

Today’s world requires collaboration and cooperation more than competition. Nothing would please me more than to have all my students earning As, because they worked that hard, and because I supported their learning that effectively. But human nature being operational, that is not happening.

It only appears to be happening, because for most students, it’s an A or nothing. Most students would rather pay for the class two or three times than get a B. This has me feeling increased respect for students who do stick it out for a B or a C. Those grades are often hard-won by students who are more gifted in other fields. I hope that in the future, along with students’ GPAs, we will report their course completion rates. Employers would do well to value the latter as more indicative of planning skills, tenacity, and raw courage.


Do you agree? What are you experiencing?


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.
Image created by author in Mac Pages, Helvetica oblique.

Online Learning Success

Writer silhouette, copyright Chris LeCraw #000000818351

copyright Chris LeCraw #000000818351

Online classes can be so efficient. You waste no time in travel or trivia, but only if you manage that time! Here are a few tips for success in the online environment:

  1. Post your assignment calendar to keep you up to date, maybe even a little ahead.
  2. Go online every day and do something to advance your learning:
    1. Check your school e-mail and your instructor feedback.
    2. Read your lessons carefully; they’re like going to class. If you skipped class, you’d be lost, right?
    3. Savor every reading assignment, and explore every media resource, even if there’s no official assignment checking up on you. I once had a student announce, “I am ‘In It to Win It!’ I paid all this money and I’m going to be here every minute, do every bit of the work, and learn everything I can!” (May I clone Tiffany?)
    4. Work on your written assignments each day, allowing plenty of time to let your first drafts rest. You’ll gather new ideas and perspectives as you go about your life. Then come back to revise.
  3. Take time to understand your learning style and play to your strengths. Love your brain for what it does best, and it will love you!
    1. If you’re a visual learner, you probably think online learning is the greatest invention ever. To add to the visual experience, you might print out your lessons or use a white board or mind-mapping program to review concepts or brainstorm for your own writing.
    2. If you’re an auditory learner, you’ll need to compensate for not hearing lectures and verbal explanations. You could record yourself reading your lessons, then listen to your own voice while you reread it.
    3. If you’re more hands on/kinesthetic, the white board idea could also work for you, and you might enjoy using post it notes you can move around or creating your own illustrations, whether high art or stick figures.
  4. Set up reminders that suit your learning style. Think like a kid.
    1. Visual: make a paper chain (like a child counting down to a holiday) and label all the links with the lessons and their tasks for the whole course.
    2. Auditory: you could set a timer to announce your scheduled study time, preferably one that plays your favorite psyche up music.
    3. Kinesthetic/hands on: the paper chain might work for you, too. Or you could booby-trap your room to catapult you into your study chair.
  5. Reward yourself!
    1. Visual: no one is too old for gold stars. Watch a movie.
    2. Auditory: play your victory music.
    3. Kinesthetic: dance, exercise, or create something.
  6. Protect your health. Schedule breaks for fun, rest, and relationships. I used to pull all-nighters in college. (Did you know it compromises your immune system for days afterward?) We all write better and more efficiently when we’re rested, nourished, and active.
    1. A great time to write is right after walking or swimming. Your brain will be rich with oxygen and your thoughts will run smoothly. If you ever feel stuck, get up, drink water, stretch thoroughly, walk a few minutes, and try again. Brain Gym® is an amazing modality.
    2. Pace your education your way. There’s no reason to die of stress: the number of classes you take at one time and the speed at which you complete them are choices you make.
    3. Include friends and family in your plans and give them reasons to be excited to support your success. Teach them what you’re learning. (Nothing will help you learn it better!) Enjoy time with them between assignments.
    4. Write every day. True, it will develop your writing voice and strengthen the skills, but the most important thing about keeping a private journal is the way you’ll use that writing to rest, reflect, and restore your perspective.
  7. Remember that your instructor is part of your support team. If life happens, keep in touch. Be aware of your school’s policies so that if you have an emergency, and need more time to complete an assignment, you know where to request a due date extension.
  8. Keep copies of everything! Sometimes technology eats your homework. Sometimes humans make mistakes. So please keep duplicates, and back up your files. A flash drive is wonderful, as long as everything is also stored elsewhere. (Yes, I’m the voice of experience.)
  9. Ask for help whenever you have questions or concerns. Your instructor is your first contact, and can also refer you to additional resources when needed.
  10. Allow the time and freedom to savor learning itself. I am happiest when I’m learning. That’s what I love best about teaching, both learning to support my students better and learning from them. That’s the magic for me.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All rights reserved.

Photo © Chris LeCraw iStockPhoto #818351

Hamlet in Prison

This American Life Hamlet in Prison, screenshot

Jack Hitt’s hour-long report  for This American Life on Hamlet performed by prisoners, originally broadcast in 2002, has inspired me all week with its deep insights about Hamlet and encouragement for my own students, a few of whom have come from prison.

Nobody points out the ex-cons in my classes–I wouldn’t know that detail if they didn’t confide in me themselves. A couple have broken my heart by returning to prison or to the streets, but most are determined to take their second chance and become a blessing to their families. Like this reporter, I don’t necessarily want to know what they’ve done in the past. For me, their life begins here and now.

And I’d love to have all of my students think of my class-as one prisoner/performer said of his experience with teacher/director, Agnes Wilcox–“For a few hours a week, we get to feel human again.”


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011