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Departments analyze, debate grade inflation

Joe Trombello | Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Despite the presence of more highly qualified students, Notre Dame faculty and students said that other factors may have caused grade inflation. Smaller classes, special teaching programs, greater contact with professors and a high importance on TCEs scores all impact the way grades are assessed.

As the level of courses increase, grades follow – the average grade in an Arts & Letters 100-level course in Fall 2002 was 3.470, as compared to the 3.582 average for 400-level courses. As students become more specialized in their majors and interested in the course material, they may naturally achieve better grades.

“There is a modest correlation between students liking classes and students doing well in those classes,” said Mark Roche, dean of the College of Arts & Letters.

Students like Sarah Greene said that increased concern about grades does not impact what classes students take but can influence the extent to which they are intellectually stimulated in learning for its own sake.

“I do not feel that students at Notre Dame avoid classes that challenge them to preserve their GPAs, but I do think that students’ consciousness of their GPA [can] hinder the engagement of the material,” she said.

Greene said numerous factors have contributed to a heightened grade concern in comparison with past generations, including a greater number of students attending college and the increasing competition that students face with respect to job offers and graduate school acceptances.

In addition, faculty members said that the smaller class size associated with higher-level courses could also contribute to the rise in grades.

Joseph Walter, chair of the department of pre-professional studies, said that he believes the inflation in science – a department with some large, required courses – does not occur in the more rigorous science classes. Walter attributes the inflation to be primarily due to the 100-level courses that allow non-science majors to fulfill the science requirement, general chemistry – a course that many first-year students take regardless of major – and calculus courses intended for arts and letters and business students.

Walter said of the the more solid science courses like organic chemistry or physics, “I don’t think grades have increased.”

Roche said that different departments and colleges also treat grades differently – quantitative courses such as science or engineering, according to him, rely more on right-or-wrong answers than a discipline like English or history does.

“There are different grading cultures and grading environments within colleges,” he said.

Roche commented that particular features about the College of Arts & Letters may predispose students to have a more personalized and nurturing learning environment. Roche noted that the presence of small, University seminar courses in the first year and classes such as First Year Composition that focus heavily on the writing and editing process provide students with better access to their professors and a more personalized learning experience.

“I think it’s an environment where students should do well because of the nurturing,” he said.

In spite of individual differences with respect to departments of colleges, some faculty said that the universal importance of TCE scores on untenured faculty may also influence grades. Although the data suggests otherwise – junior faculty actually give slightly lower marks than tenured faculty – professors said that the importance placed on TCE scores for tenure and promotions could encourage some faculty to inflate grades in hopes of receiving higher TCE scores.

“If there is anything driving grade inflation, it’s the critical importance of TCEs to retention, tenure and promotion,” said Sunny Boyd, associate professor of biological sciences. “So much weight is based on that one measurement.”

Boyd also said that she and other colleagues in the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, where she serves this year as a Kaneb Scholar, have discussed better standardizing the process by which departments evaluate their professors’ teaching quality and ways to reduce the weight placed on TCE scores.

Roche said that his college makes a special point to focus on teaching. Departments such as theology provide brief lectures on teaching skills during faculty meetings, encourage job candidates to teach a class as part of their visit and conduct regular peer visits to monitor teaching quality.

“There is a very strong and positive culture in Arts & Letters regarding thinking about teaching,” he said.