to b or not to b

Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant: Here’s why I inflated grades

December 13, 2013
December 13, 2013

The revelation that the median grade at Harvard is an A- prompted lots of discussion, especially among Ivy-league educated journalists. Some speculated high grades reflect intelligence. Others say professors just want their students to get jobs, or, selfishly, they want favorable teaching evaluations. As a teaching assistant in the economics department at Columbia, I too inflated student grades, but for none of those reasons.

I just didn’t want to deal with all the complaining.

Of course, I (and every other graduate student and professor I worked with) read everyone’s work carefully and especially rewarded students who demonstrated a solid understanding of the material. But the distribution of grades was very narrow. Great work got an A, pretty good to average got an A-, slightly below average was a B+, not great was a B, very bad was a B-. Anything below was akin to failure and required showing zero effort or even hostility to the class.

We all cared about teaching and fairness. But the real reason so many of us inflate grades is to avoid students complaining. Anything less than an A- would result in endless emails, crying during office hours, or calls from parents. One student once cornered me and said: “I hope you’re happy you’ve destroyed my chance at Goldman and ruined my life.”

Dealing with all the complaints takes time and, as a PhD student, I had my own research to do. Evaluations, ironically, were not really my concern. Student evaluations are not that important in economics (unless you aspire to teach at a liberal arts college), or not nearly as important as publishing papers in a top journal. And despite pleas from the thwarted Goldman candidate, the future job prospects of students and the money they might some day donate to the university was furthest from my mind. I’d sooner worry about winning a research grant.

Grade inflation is a collective action problem. If the standard is an A- average, it’s impossible to give average work a lower grade. To some extent, students are right to complain if the grades of their peers in other classes or universities are inflated—but theirs are not.

Nonetheless, I initially found all the complaining offensive. I did my undergraduate work in Britain, where grade inflation is less of a problem. That’s because the brunt of your grade came from a single essay at the end of the year.  These exams are double marked, by your professor and one at another university, to ensure uniform national standards. That not only kept grade inflation in check, but the culture of complaining too. I would have been considered presumptuous to question the judgment of two professors.

That may not be realistic at research universities in America, as the British grading system is very time intensive and universities there are more teaching and less research oriented. But it’s worth consideration as US colleges grapple with keeping standards, one campus to another.

I worry that grade inflation discourages students from learning subjects which don’t pump up grades as much, like science (pdf). Further, grade inflation robs students of an important life skill: We learn the most from failure, which happens even when we try hard, and our ability to overcome it.  That kind of resilience will be rewarded more in the increasingly competitive labor market—and is worth a lot more than straight A’s.

You can follow Allison on Twitter at @AllisonSchrager. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Read this next: The most commonly awarded grade at Harvard is an A

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