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The Grade Inflation Spiral: Adjuncts Are (Unwilling) Contributors

It is no longer simply grade inflation; the issue is the spiral.  You know what I mean: QC Freshmen arrive in our classes “hooked” on A’s.  They’ve gotten them in every subject in High School.  The students are, for the most part, competitive (they probably wouldn’t be at QC if they weren’t at least little competitive).  It is, however, hard to determine whether the competitiveness is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.   And if it is the latter, then the A-addiction is probably even harder to kick as the student must deal with what I call “helicopter parents,” and the instructor must try to lure the student out from under the helicopter’s shadow.

I teach writing, and every first day of class I give a speech the highlights of which go something like this:

1) As writers, we need to leave our egos at the door.  This class is not about producing a product to match a perfect template; it is about becoming better writers.  Whatever your writing level is now, by the time you leave this class at the end of the term, you will have become a better writer.  To do that, you have to accept critique and criticism of your writing.  That’s why ego has to be banished: you won’t become better writers if you defend the kind of writing you do now.

2)  As a consequence of the above, do not expect A-s on your papers.  You can get A-s for assignments, in class writing, participation and so on; for papers, that will be a rare occurrence indeed. That’s because an essay is not a physics exam or a math problem where there is one correct answer.  In writing, there is always room for improvement…

3) A grade is a purely arbitrary construct which—where writing is concerned—is virtually meaningless.  I grade process and progress, not product.

and other admonitions of that genre.

Can you guess what happens when I hand back the first essays, painstakingly annotated and commented using Word’s “Track Changes Features”?  Yes, they glance at the comments and suggestions and then insist on negotiating an A. In some cases, the ones who received an A-minus are the most insistent.

I have an excruciatingly detailed essay grading rubric which is made part and parcel of the Syllabus; it makes no difference–they are unhappy if they do not get their A.  They get A-s in every other class; they’ve gotten A-s for years. They are “A-addicts.”

And here we get to the crux of the matter: as Adjuncts, we are sensitive to (and to some degree dependent on) the evaluations our students make of us.  And while some students can be objective and separate their evaluation of our teaching from their disappointment at the grade…many cannot.  I personally know several Adjuncts who inflate grades simply because it is easier to not suffer the ire of disgruntled students.

The problem, of course, is that the more of us do that, the more the students (even subconsciously) will ratchet up their expectations.  That’s why I call it the “Inflationary Grade Spiral.”   How do we stop it?

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2 comments to The Grade Inflation Spiral: Adjuncts Are (Unwilling) Contributors

  • Yves:

    I once tried to give feedback on lesson plans that students wrote without giving them a grade. I figured the feedback I provided was more valuable to them and would help guide them in writing better lesson plans. The students were given one week to resubmit their work for a final evaluation and a grade. The students drove me crazy because they only wanted to know what their grade would be before they had to submit it again. They figured if the grade was good enough, they wouldn’t bother redoing their work. I told them that if they wanted to be a great teacher one day, they should focus more on how to improve their skills and less on what kind of a grade they received. Now, I just give them a grade on their lesson plan the first time (and there are rarely any A’s at this point) and let them decide if they want to resubmit it to be evaluated a second time. I like to think they care about improving their lesson plans as they hone their craft, but in the end, it is probably just to get a better grade!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

  • Yves Cloarec

    Thank you for sharing that experience. I cannot tell you how many different ways I have tried to come at this issue:
    1) Speeches
    I make multiple speeches about these classes not being product but process-oriented; How the goal is to become better writers in general, and better academic writers in particular; How a grade is not a reflection of one’s abilities or lack thereof etc.; No matter: they have been trained to follow the grade and–as your experience above related–to make arithmetic and probabilistic calculations as to whether the effort expended will be worth the potential grade increase.
    2) Not grading until after we have reviewed all the commentary together (so time-consuming!)
    3) Having them grade themselves, based on a) my commentary and b) the rubric I handed out at the start of the semester. Some students are incapable of objectivity, while those with low self-esteem invariably and entirely underestimate their grade…
    Maybe a radical proposal?: Make the CW1 and CW2 (at least those, and maybe the other 100-level W classes) strictly PASS/FAIL. Would this remove the extrinsically-motivated, grade-based, obsessions? Just a thought.