Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Grade Inflation or "The Curse of the Aggressive Undergraduate"

Yesterday's Globe and Mail featured an article by education reporter Caroline Alphonso on the phenomenon of students who demand high grades from their professors, which she attributes to the rise of a consumer culture in education. Essentially, she argues that because students are paying so much tuition, they feel that they are owed "A"s in return.

As someone who has been both teaching and grading in the university system for the past eight years, this prompted a few observations on my part. The first was to think "No kidding. You finally caught on to this story several years after everyone in the university community did." Education reporting seems to lag several years behind the times, it always seems to me. That might also explain what seem to be out-of-date assessments of universities in the annual rankings compiled by various media outlets. But I digress...

I observed much of what Alphonso writes about when I was teaching in Montreal and Ottawa. Numerous students, after receiving low grades on papers, would appeal their marks to me on the basis that "they had put a lot of effort into them". This line of argumentation rarely got far with me. Even worse, and unobserved by this article, was the argument that a student needed high grades "to get into law school/med school/graduate school". From my perspective, the integrity of the admissions process in those institutions relied on undergraduate assesments being fair and as honest as possible. In other words, undergraduate instructors are the gatekeepers for post-graduate study, and it is incumbent upon us to stop grade inflation.

A more disturbing trend, which I also heard about from colleagues, but did not experience myself, is the rise in students trying to intimidate their professors into raising their grades. This seemed to be particularly common where there was the combination of a male student and female professor. All of these issues need to be more thoroughly discussed in public forums, and I'm glad that Alphonso and other education reporters are, albeit belatedly, raising these issues in the mass media.

For what it's worth, I have not had many similar complaints at my present university, Mount Allison. I'm not entirely certain how to account for the difference in academic culture, but my colleagues have noted similar differences between teaching here and in other (often more urban) settings. It could make for an interesting analysis.

In completely unrelated news, I finished reading La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte's new book, Aux pays des merveilles over the weekend. I'll have a full review up later this week on this provocative examination of the sovereignty movement and Canadian federalism.

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