What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does to its credit note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and to a lesser extent office hour visits generated. None of that work is rewarding but it can be distracting. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations. Grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals.

In addition, I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades. The message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy away from more important activities. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

Finally, there is no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” I haven’t noticed students doing that. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Colleges mostly know this, and they’ve set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.”

5 responses

  1. I’ve had provable plagiarism once. All I had to do was document it and submit it to higher authorities, then it was out of my hands. One of the administrators didn’t like it because the cheater was her golden boy. She hates me but I still work there.

    Aside from that I grade pretty easily. It invites much less scrutiny and niggling. Why not? In the old days teaching was a calling. Now, the more I am told it’s a calling, the more I know it’s a job.

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  2. The problem and the pressure to inflate is much worse at the middle and secondary school level. At college, grades don’t really matter for most people (except damaging the ego). But for middle and high school, low grades means that people get grounded, they don’t get into the high school they want, they don’t get to play football. I got tremendous amounts of pressure from parents and students about giving decent grades. I also received lots of pressure from the school itself about giving too many low grades. part of the problem may be related to the fact that I just started teaching and made some novice mistakes about giving grades, but for the most part it was practically impossible to give anyone a failing grade — though some probably deserved it. At that level both parents and students don’t particularly care about the subject itself but simply that someone makes the honor roll another semester or that they have met some numerical target. I actually agree that failing a student isn’t a good way to motivate, but I really resent the negative feedback I get from students and parents — in my district, parents and students receive phone alerts about low grades almost instantaneously, and they almost always email me to complain…..

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