Friday, February 07, 2003

More on Grade Inflation

Reader Lucas Wyman notes a specific example of how grade inflation has helped to drain resources from science and math:
Last fall, I found a course description book being thrown away in a stack of books by a retiring faculty member. The catalogue was from 1983 (the year I was born), and it contained a great many interesting surprises. The mathematics department offered a second course in logic which covered model-theoretic results and set theory, a course in point set topology, a course in algebraic topology, one in complex analysis, measure theory at the undergraduate level (now considered graduate), several courses in theoretical computer science, and what is now two classes in abstract algebra was only one class. I asked my faculty advisor why there had been such a change (he started in 1986), and this was his explanation (paraphrased from memory and condensed substantially from several conversations):

"At the time we had almost 400 majors in the department with nearly 150 of them in pure math, but now we have about 300 majors with 50 in pure math. Changes in the [state] teacher requirements (for high school) forced us to restructure the algebra class since a decent course would be too hard for most HS teachers. The reason that we lost students is both that a lot of bright people went into computer science, and our program was considered too hard, so that people started going to easier majors. As we were forced to stop running courses, people began to come back because the program requirements became easier, and it's been sort of a spiral down since."

Seems to jibe pretty well with your experience and intuition...
Yep. The really difficult part, from the perspective of a professor who'd like to reverse the trend, is that you cannot make the change unilaterally. If you started grading your classes harder than others, you would just be punishing those students who took your course instead of someone else's -- and probably reducing your future class sizes. In addition, you'd probably be lowering your evaluations relative to other instructors. I think this situation has many features of the classic prisoners' dilemma.

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