Understanding Grade Inflation

Understanding Grade Inflation (By Stephen Clarke)

According to the New York Times article “Want a Higher GPA? Go to a Private School” by Catherine Rampell, “Over the last 50 years, college grade-point averages have risen about 0.1 points per decade, with private schools fueling the most grade inflation . . . The study, by [former geophysics professor at Duke University] Stuart Rojstaczer and [computer science professor at Furman University] Christopher Healy . . . finds that G.P.A.’s have risen from a national average of 2.52 in the 1950s to about 3.11 by the middle of the last decade.”

The issue of grade inflation affects students in at least three ways: (1) as some departments within an institution inflate grades, inconsistencies appear; (2) as other schools inflate their grades, students at schools that resist grade inflation are seemingly left behind; (3) as all schools inflate their grades, students’ expectations change.

The study conducted by Rojstaczer and Healey found “science departments today grade on average 0.4 points lower than humanities departments, and 0.2 points lower than social science departments.”  This difference has existed for approximately 40 years and speaks to the lack of engagement or communication within and between colleges when it comes to grades. 

According to Rojstaczer and Healey, some American students feel discouraged from studying the sciences due to these relatively lower grades.  However, “so long as schools believe that granting higher grades gives alumni an advantage, there will be little or no incentive to impose stricter grading standards unilaterally.”

If we cannot resist glacial grade inflation, we can try to understand it.  According to Rampell’s “A History of College Grade Inflation” from the New York Times, we are seeing more A’s, about the same amount of B’s, and fewer C’s, D’s and F’s.  In addition, what these seemingly kind hearted instructors do not realize is, “When college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel.”

If we cannot resist grade inflation, we can strive for consistency, fairness, and transparency.  We can discuss with colleagues what standards we emphasize, how we evaluate students, and how we communicate standards and grading policies to students.  Most importantly, we can communicate our appreciation and respect for the effort students put forth, recognizing their patience and persistence, creativity and insights, attention to detail and ambitions. 


Faculty Teaching Faculty

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at the 2012 Virginia Community College Association’s annual conference. I enjoy sharing my experiences with other educators. In this case, I talked about integrating team-based learning into the curriculum. My presentation covered four areas: 1) how faculty can build and sustain successful teams, 2) the best ways to create team-based learning modules, 3) how faculty can integrate team-based learning into their curriculum, and 4) incorporating technology into the team-based assignments. Additionally, I discussed how to create and integrate Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs) into the class and how to develop and use peer assessments. The RATs and peer assessments are key components of the team-based learning methodology. Why is this important? Research shows that students taking traditional lecture-based courses earn lower scores than students using team-based learning (Letassy, 2008; Beatty, 2009). Yet, many students entering the Community College environment have little to no experience with team assignments. According to results of a 2010 study conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, 23% of student respondents never worked with other students on a project or assignment during class, and 68% of student respondents never worked with classmates outside of class on a project or assignment. Furthermore, many of the faculty teaching at Community Colleges have little experience creating and using team assignments. On average, faculty spends 2/5th of class time lecturing and only 1/6th of the time on small group work (Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, 2010)..

However, giving a presentation is just one of the benefits of the conference. The other is hearing from other faculty. Every year the quality of shared knowledge amazes me. Some of my favorites this year were:

1. Experiential Education in the College Classroom – Sean Coffron discussed how students crave real-world examples and hands-on manipulation of complex ideas. Sean’s session used hands-on scenarios to help the audience understand how to convert the most theoretical of concepts in our practice to real-world scenarios that both relate the content to the lives of our students and retain the rigor and integrity of a college-level course. This material related closely to my own research in team-based learning by giving the students things to do rather than just lecturing. In other words, send the students away from the classroom being able to do something, rather than just knowing something.

2. Does this Problem Belong to Me? – Determining who owns the problem can go a long way in helping you understand who is responsible for finding the solution. Michele Fletcher and Kimberly French led an interactive session that helped participants assess our problem solving skills in career, families, and/or friendships. The audience took away three questions to ask ourselves when determining if the problem belongs to you. Those questions are 1) With whom is this behavior or situation interfering directly? 2) Who is raising the issue or making the complaint? 3) Whose goals are being blocked by this problem?

3. Step Into the Future Utilizing Quick Response Codes in the Classroom and Beyond – Do you ever wonder what they are and how you can use them? Alex Gabriel and Monica Knight discussed Quick Response (QR) codes. As a career technologist, I am always looking for ways to incorporate new technology into my classroom. QR Codes connect the physical world to the virtual world instantaneously. Participants learned how to utilize QR technology within the classroom and office environment. The presenter’s main theme supported the idea that the use of these codes will streamline tasks and allow the creation of an efficient and exciting work and learning environment. When I create assignments, links to reading material, etc I create a QR code so students can scan the code using a smart phone and go directly to the material. Most smart phones come with an app that allows users to read QR codes. Users interested in using QR codes in their class material can find QR code generators (free and pay versions) on the Internet. Use this QR code to go to a YouTube video about QR codes. 

QR Code YouTube video


Mindfulness in Education

Students have a lot going on. Most are balancing fifteen or more credits, working 20-40 hours per week, and have relationship and family issues to contend with. Cell phones and social networking are constantly distracting students. Combine this pressure with a poor economy and no wonder that students are feeling stressed and can’t function properly in school. A 2008 survey by Boynton Health Service, found that nearly 70 percent of students attending University of Minnesota reported stress as the major issue in their lives. The same survey reported that one-third of students felt stress negatively impacted their academic performance. Scientific studies correlate stress with medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and addiction. Stress has also been linked to the inability to focus, insomnia and the inability to concentrate. There are many ways that students cope with stress: exercise, diet, music, sleep, yoga and others. However, mindfulness practice is another method that has shown to be beneficial in reducing stress. Studies by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts found that mindfulness practices increase students’ ability to focus and think creatively while decreasing blood pressure and insomnia.

What is Mindfulness?

Ellen Langer, Harvard professor, also known as the “the mother of mindfulness,” offers that a mindful person seeks out and produces novelty, is attentive to context, and is flexible in thought and behavior. The psychological concept of mindfulness is so simple people often think they are missing something. Langer says, “We simply need to go through life paying better attention to life itself.” She suggests that when people actually stop and think about what they are doing, when they turn off “auto-pilot”, they can think and live in the present moment and become more connected with themselves and the world around them. Langer’s concept of mindfulness grew out of her work examining mindlessness, which she described as a robotic thoughts and behaviors that are based on pre-programmed associations and routines learned in the past. Langer states that the most significant negative effect of mindlessness is that it stunts creativity and overall student potential.

Ellen Langer on Mindfulness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlRJo51JWME

Buddhism plays a major role in the art of mindfulness. However, many Western psychologists have gained interest in it as a method to help deal with stress and anxiety. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It means focusing our minds on the present moment with an increased awareness of our thoughts and actions.  

 Teaching Mindfulness

There are many centers and foundations based in universities dedicated to increasing an awareness of the benefits of teaching mindfulness to students. Some of the most popular strategies employed in the classroom are:

  1. Breathing Exercises: Teach students to take a deep breath in through their nose for two seconds and then breathe out through their mouths for four seconds. Breathing slowly in and out, the teacher can add in meditation, “I am” on the inhale and then “Relaxed” on the exhale.
  2. Creative Visualization and Imagery: Instructors can incorporate music and images into their lectures to create “an alert attentiveness” among students. Students can be taught to visualize themselves as being successful  in college and their future careers.
  3. Self-Awareness: Create meaningful learning experiences that require interaction with each other and the environment so that students can come to know themselves better. Students who exhibit self-awareness often have an increased understanding of the people in the community around them.
  4. Mindfulness meditation: This involves focusing on anything in the present moment. This awareness occurs through an acceptance of all that comes to mind and body while staying in the present moment observing thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise as each moment is formed.
  5. Compassion: Include assignments that require students to be introspective and reflect on their life experiences. Some professors have found that creating learning communities in the classroom fosters introspection and meaningful dialogue among students. These small group conversatoins foster compassion.   

 There is a growing interest in teaching mindfulness to students from elementary school through college. Many faculty have already creatively included  Mindfulness exercisess in their lectures and labs.  Many students who learn mindfulness in college continue to practice it in for the rest of their lives. One student who attended a mindfulness program at his university commented: “Advice given on first year law school exams usually is: ‘Don’t freak out.’  Mindfulness teaches the ‘how’ in “how not to freak out.”

“We must help students to find the meaning in daily life, to feel connected to other individuals and to their community – past, present and future; and to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. We must help them to achieve the state of flow – the balance between skills and challenges – which motivates individuals to return to a pursuit time and again. Plato understood this, 2500 years ago when he stated, “Through education we need to help students find pleasure in what they have to learn.”

Howard Gardner, An Education for the Future


Works Cited

Allan Gregg. “Ellen Langer Explains the Concept of Mindful Learning.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz94BmOIroA>.

“Be Mindful: Stressed Students, Just Breathe.” Minnesota Daily. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.mndaily.com/2009/11/29/be-mindful-stressed-students-just-breathe>.

“Book Page.” The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer . N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.greensense.com/Marketplace/Books/power_mindful_learn.htm>.

“Mindfulness.” Brown University. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/common_college_health_issues/mindfulness.php>.

“The Mother of Mindfulness, Ellen Langer | World of Psychology.” Psych Central.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/02/27/the-mother-of-mindfulness-ellen-langer/>.

“The University of Virginia Magazine.” Here and Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://uvamagazine.org/index.php/short_course/article/here_and_now/>.

“UVA Mindfulness Center.” School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://www.medicine.virginia.edu/clinical/departments/medicine/divisions/general-med/wellness/the-mindfulness-center>.

Education in Change

Recently I went to the SLOAN C/MERLOT conference and I was truly enlightened by the speakers who opened the conference.  Our K-12 and higher education is truly not the same as when I went to school because so much information is available through the internet.  Khan academy was compared to McDonalds serving much to the masses.  The Khan Academy videos are said to be the savior from terrible math teachers.  This has caused or will cause us to have the much needed conversations about who we teach.  When we consider McDonalds and its mild-flavored food to the masses, we can hopefully see that it is not the answer in full.  Mom and Pop specialized restaurants are also needed and desired for the one on one service and one of a kind taste.  Our community colleges are like these Mom and Pop restaurants; they are needed and desired for that one on one service and one of a kind experience. 

We as instructors need to find ways to have that one on one time and one of a kind experience with our students.  Consider the Mom and Pop restaurant.  There are many factors that we fail to see contributing to good tasty food.  As instructors we need to be aware of the factors we may not be immediately apparent that can help.  I have in my own thoughts tried to make the comparison between the specialized restaurant and us as community college instructors.

To compare these two, consider the following.

1)      The fresh foods that make the food tasty compared to the fresh minds we encounter in community colleges.  We have a chance to make a big impression with these fresh minds.

2)      The variety of timing of the harvest that these foods are picked to the various experiences our young minds bring to our classes.  The variety of experiences in one classroom can be difficult to steer but also can bring a lot to your classroom if you learn who they are.

3)      The spices added to our individual plates relate to individual attention that we can give our individual students.

4)      The chef that loves their job and takes pride creating the masterpiece can equate to the instructor that loves their job and creates pride in creating minds full of knowledge but trying new techniques and challenging themselves as well as the students.

5)      Lastly, the presentation of the food that tells an entire story relates to student that we have created; hopefully full of interest in the subject from not only being in our class but from participating in the environment we provide.

I hope you have time to consider the relationships between your instructions and Mom and Pop restaurants.  If you do, you may get inspired.  I did!

PowerPoint: Who’s using who?

Where a decade ago, it was the rare instructor who sometimes used PowerPoint slides in class to show pictures that illustrated a lecture, it is now rarer for students to take a college class that isn’t run almost exclusively on this ubiquitous presentation making tool. What started as a way to create presentations in a business setting has evolved into the second instructor in a college classroom.

As a community college instructor, the question I am most often asked (after “Can I turn this in late”?, which is an entirely different blog post) is “Are these slides available online?” The answer, more often than not, is yes—and in many cases, the slides for future lectures are available as well. It’s no surprise then that students have come to rely on PowerPoint, not only as a means of getting information, but of conveying it. Gone are the days of poster boards and puffy paints—here, computer generated bullet points rule the day. But as we slide headlong into the paperless era (at what seems like break-neck speed), are we doing more harm than good by allowing our students to use PowerPoint to show us what they’ve learned?

Rick Maurer, in his article, One More Time, Why is PowerPoint a Bad Idea? tries to answer this question by identifying two of the largest problems with the program: 1) it oversimplifies data and 2) it is a poor tool for influencing others. As he explains, when influencing others it is important that “People get it (Level 1) People Like it (Level 2) and People Like You (Level 3).” PowerPoint, he argues, only addresses the first level of presentations—it allows the user to translate all of the information they wish to share into a visual format.

As a result of this, we’ve all seen students who, time after time, use PowerPoint as a way of copying and pasting large blocks of text on a slide and showing them during the presentation in lieu of actual analysis or discussion. It is enough for them that the information is visible—it is quite another thing for that information to be digestible.

A quick search of the literature reveals that most of us, at least on some level, buy into the idea that PowerPoint is an important technology and that its uses in the classroom are boundless.

But what this search also revealed is that at some point, we stopped using PowerPoint as a means to an end and it instead became the end in and of itself. Instead of a group project for a history class, for example, students are now being asked specifically to create a PowerPoint as the outcome of the project.  Instead of explaining how a particular chemical reaction in the body takes place in a biology class, we are asking students to use a PowerPoint to illustrate that reaction. By making the focus the technology itself, we get even further away from the original intent of the assignment.

There are certainly good ways to use PowerPoint, and with the influx of newer, even more interactive presentation tools like Prezzi on the market, it’s clear this technology isn’t going away. But how can we manage its use in the classroom to ensure that the focus stays on the material, and not the way we can make that material dance across a slide?

Assessment Guidelines

In an article on classroom assessment techniques from the web, www2.honolulu.hawaii.edu/facdev/guidebk/teachtip/m-files/m-asses1.htm  several points really made sense to me.  I think everyone would agree that assessments are defined as the appraisal, evaluation, measurement judgment, or review of students.  College instructors are regularly disappointed after assessing their students.  Continue reading

Should we include effort in grading?

It is an issue we have probably all struggled with.  We know a student has tried hard, but the learning goals were not mastered.  So what do we do?  Do we potentially give the message that all of that effort was wasted and the student shouldn’t bother to try so hard, or should we say that effort is more important than learning?  In an era where some Continue reading

Preventing and Responding to Disruptive Students

Mr. F. Scott Lewis talks to faculty about Preventing and Responding to Disruptive Behaviors in the Classroom

On Friday, March 30th, Mr. Scott Lewis began the CETL New Faculty Orientation with an interactive workshop that gave participants skills to prevent disruptive classroom behaviors, to react to them and to enhance their own campus procedures to address them.  This session was sponsored by CETL and the Office of Student Mental Health.

Copies of the presentation materials provided by Mr. Lewis are found below.  Be sure to check out the Class engagement Rubric.

NVCC 2012 – Classroom Management-Power Point

Class Engagement Rubric – SAMPLE

What We Know About Learning

How Learning Works, written by faculty teaching and learning center staff at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is an excellent summary of what we know about human learning from decades of research.  The book is organized into seven sections, with each section addressing a major area of research.  The authors begin each section with case studies illustrating a teaching problem.  They then present a review of the research, a discussion of the implications of the research and how it applies to the case studies, and a set of recommendations for college teachers.  This article summarizes the seven research areas presented.

Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge is important because we learn by connecting new knowledge to what we already know.  Part of the teacher’s job is to help students make those connections by prompting recall, explaining Continue reading


The website TED, known for its educational videos delivered by the best and the brightest has opened a You Tube channel for educational videos, called TED-Ed.  Use this link to find out about it:  http://www.youtube.com/user/TEDEducation.  The introductory video asks that we nominate the best and the brightest teachers to post to TED-Ed.  Let’s do that!