2011/12 Course Prep Edition: Infographic

Welcome back!

Probably no week of the year holds more promise for me than this one.  It’s the week when I think most about goals — my students’ and my own, where they overlap and where they diverge.  And that, of course, entails thinking about standards.

So, in that spirit, I wanted to pass along the following infographic [located at http://www.mastersdegree.net/grade-inflation/] about grading trends over the last 50 years.   Some of my own thoughts appear afterwards:

Now, admittedly, the infographic is based upon research in U.S. universities, some of which (discussed in greater detail here) has methodology that is open to question.  However, I think that it’s worth at least considering whether the trends identified do indeed apply to our own classes and institutions.

There are of course many factors affecting post-secondary education in Ontario that could promote such grade inflation.  Certainly the chronic reliance on contract faculty* could result in an ever-rising number of professors who worry that rigorous grading could have a negative effect upon their own continued employment.  Alternately, rising classroom sizes could place a pressure on faculty to employ (or, in Ontario Colleges, for managers to stipulate) simpler forms of evaluation.**

But I suspect that the answer lies in something a bit less nefarious: In the pursuit of such laudable goals as increased transparency and accountability, professors have increased the importance of easily-quantifiable criteria that fit neatly within grading rubrics, at the expense of more nebulous, qualitative criteria like ‘originality’ or ‘critical thinking’.

Certainly doing so makes the process of grading simpler — and it has the added benefit of reducing academic appeals — but I suspect that the approach ends up prioritizing task completion at the expense of genuine thought.

I will leave it to others to discuss the long-term effects of such priorities upon students as they graduate and enter into the workforce.   (Feel free to send any thoughts on the topic to me at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.)

But I will share one thing that I do believe firmly: If we as professors believe that our job is to train our students for future success, we need to bear in mind that — in their lives as workers and citizens — our students will never encounter the phrase “solve for x”.

*  Table 3 of this Statistics Canada report indicates that 8% of Canadian jobs are in the educational field, but that sector accounts for 15% of the temporary jobs in Canada and 22% of the contract jobs.  [Hat tip to CAAT-S for providing this statistic — I wish you all good luck with your contract negotiations]

**  This earlier post summarizes the findings of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations’ survey of faculty members, on their perception of changes in the education provided by their schools, during the period from 2005 to 2008.  69.6% percent of respondents claimed that budget cuts had caused class sizes in their department to increase throughout that time, and 31.5% of respondents indicated an increased use of multiple-choice tests.

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