Tag Archives: Fall14

“Good Grade Inflation” – Undoing Illusions of Rigor, Part 1

17 Nov

On Moving from “Rigor” to “Vigor” – and Breaking the Bell Curve

As a starting out teacher, I often ended a term by bringing an assortment of student course work portfolios to a department chair’s office.  The collection was to include three portfolios of student work with peer, student and teacher comments on major graded assignments, one folder each for the course highest, midpoint, and lowest grade.

These weren’t meetings like the regular meet ups in the department where teachers brought a portfolio or two to share as part of a “grade norming” or calibrating session that helped us develop new assignments, apt assessments, and agile responses for the range of students needing feedback while completing major assignments.  Nope.  This was an end-of-the-term call to demonstrate that my students really had earned that “high number” of A and B grades, that none of my students really should have been “given” a failing course grade.  My department chair was required to hold these meetings with TAs and faculty to demonstrate that rigor – and not grade inflation – was going on in our individual classrooms and collective course grading practices.

We would have said – and would still say – that vigor was what we were after in the intersections of teaching and learning via course work and informal learning.  For us, the aim was vigor – active, well-balanced, enthusiastic, sturdy and vital learning and teaching that called on students to join us in bring moxie, bravado, spark, toughness and dynamism into the learning mix.

We saw – and were encourage by our mentors to see – learning as being about creating vigorous courses and classrooms attending to Bloom’s HOTS (high order thinking skills embracing analysing, evaluating and creating) and the learning students right in front of us.  The contrary view, of course, was an idea of rigor – often based in Bloom’s LOTS (lower order thinking skills, such as remembering, understanding and applying) – as a basis for teaching decisions and learning practices to meet standard expectations often set before the teacher’s own early college learning years.

So, what’s this got to do with higher education right now?  Grading.  The semester clock leaves us a month out from submitting final grades, and the cultural conversation is chock-a-block with all manner of stern opinion pieces about and academic journalism pertaining to “grade inflation.” It seems good timing for considering whether the ideas about and practices of active learning that we bring into classrooms are really aligned with our grading practices – or whether we and our practices are yet informed and guided by illusions of rigor rather than by the vigorous learning our active teaching practices provoke, and that students evoke as they complete course assessments and assignments.

Illusions of Rigor

I propose that distinguishing between bad grade inflation and good grade inflation requires a look back to Craig Nelson’s “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor,” which opens with a George Kuh observation that faculty members – along with administrators, student affairs professionals, parents, legislators, and students – are

Loaded down with assumptions, expectations, customs, routines, and personal preferences that make it difficult to see and do things differently.

Throughout the article Nelson, emeritus biology faculty at Indiana, proposes that academic rigor is a bedrock assumption, or guiding notion, that needs being seen differently.  To this end, he exposes nine dysfunctional illusions:

    1. Hard courses weed out weak students.  When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort.
    2. Traditional methods of instruction offer effective ways of teaching content to undergraduates. Modes that pamper students teach less.
    3. Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards.  Unusually high average grades are the result of faculty giving unjustified grades.
    4. Students should come to us knowing how to read, write, and do essay and multiple-choice questions.
    5. Traditional methods of instruction are unbiased and equally fair to a range of diverse students of good ability.
    6. It is essential that students hand in papers on time and take exams on time.  Giving them flexibility and a second chance is pampering the students.
    7. If we cover more content, the students will learn more content.
    8. A good, clear argument in plain English can be understood by any bright student how applies herself.
    9. Without further study, faculty know enough to revise their courses and departments know enough to revise their curricula.  Course and curricular revisions are primarily about deciding what content to cover in what courses.

One blogger notes of Nelson’s research-based debunking that the article proposes ways of seeing and doing rigor differently, “that is, [in ways] more likely to educate students than to repel or reject them.” Rigor – in its denotative definitions – cleaves to its etymological roots in stiffness to frame meanings including harsh inflexibility, quality of being unyielding or inflexible, strict precision, and “a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.” And Nelson certainly demonstrates a rigorous – thorough and careful – approach to Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research methods in this brief, research-based, experience-informed, reflectively-analysed article. Nelson opens the article with a segment focusing on this question: “Can We Reduce or Eliminate Fs – Even in Tough Classes?”  Here he takes on the top three dysfunctional illusions, a set of interlinked attitudes and practices associated with “having high standards” that shape into assumptions about student ability and preparation; about proper teaching methods and learning modes for classroom instruction; and about grading conventions including grade distribution norms.  (To set out these illusions and Nelson’s realistic responses to each of the top three, I quote directly from Nelson’s article; in quotes, all emphasis added.)

Dysfunctional illusion of rigor 1. Hard courses weed out weak students. When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort.

More realistic view. When students fail it is often due to inappropriate pedagogy. Substantial improvements were produced [with interactive pedagogies]…even in classes traditionally regarded as necessarily difficult, among them calculus, physics, chemistry, and economics. This is not to say that students have no responsibility for their own work. Rather, we have grossly underemphasized the faculty members’ responsibilities.

Dysfunctional illusion of rigor 2. Traditional methods of instruction offer effective ways of teaching content to undergraduates. Modes that pamper students teach less.

More realistic view. In a paper that partially foreshadowed this one, “Living with Myths: Undergraduate Education in America,” Terenzini and Pascarella (1994) stated, “the evidence we reviewed is clear” that the lecture mode “is not ineffective” (p. 29). Remember that in introductory physics, classes taught with traditional lectures usually learn about 23 percent of what they collectively missed on the pretest (Hake, 1998). Lectures do indeed teach something. Terenzini and Pascarella (1994) continued: “But the evidence is equally clear that these conventional methods are not as effective as some other far less frequently used methods” (p. 29). The comparison, still from physics, is that alternative methods teach on average twice as much as traditional lectures (Hake, 1998).

Dysfunctional illusion of rigor 3. Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards. Unusually high average grades are the result of faculty giving unjustified grades.

This follows from the preceding illusions. If low grades were mainly a consequence of students’ inadequacies, then massive improvements would be quite unlikely unless standards were lowered. This was a view I advocated well after I began teaching.

More realistic view. When Treisman [1992] massively improved the achievement of African American [students], he produced substantially improved grades. Similar results are clear in several of the studies cited [in the article]. Thus, we need to distinguish between bad grade inflation resulting from unjustifiably high grades and good grade inflation from more effective pedagogy and consequently improved achievement. 

Good Grade Inflation

Yes, each of those reviewed portfolios – whether I was teaching Rhetoric, Women’s Studies, American Studies, English or Sexuality Studies departments at places like UIowa, St. Catherine University, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, or UMinnesota – was judged as reflecting “good grade inflation from more effective pedagogy and consequently improved achievement” and my original grades stood.  Those departmental reviewers never asked me to “adjust” my grading criteria in future semesters in order to conform to the bell-curved grading distributions the college sought adherence to in the name of rigor. Overall, Good Grade Inflation means that students who meet high- and low-level course outcomes in completing required course activities, assessments, and activities will indeed earn high grades that reflect meeting of specific course outcomes through vigorous engagement with learning.  Moving away from “awarding” only a fixed percentage of “high grades” does mean that learners who meet high-expectations course aims will break a bell curve arrangement. This route to good grade inflation can begin with:

  • a.  moving from the typical Bloom’s Taxonomy peak-at-the-top-pyramid with its visual message positioning the realm of LOTs (remember, understand, apply) as the base for course design, building sequences of activities, assignments and assessments on the notion of covering the base, to

bloom taxonomy pyriamid

  • b. discovery-oriented rethinking of courses to envision course design based expectations that students can meet HOTS level expectations (analysing, evaluating and creating) through activities, assignments, and assessments that engage them in discovering how to use foundational materials in order to construct knowledge with other learners, and in order to learn to learn – as might practitioners in the field our courses represent:

Bloom inverted pyramidThe June 2014 meta-study conducted by Scott Freeman, et al, and published as “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111.full.pdf+html) supports Nelson’s assertion “non-traditional” modes of teaching do positively impact student learning, which can then show up as

good grade inflation from more effective pedagogy and consequently improved achievement.  We need a lot more of the good kind of grade inflation.  It is the faculty member’s job to document good inflation.  It is the administration’s job to reward good grade inflation.

This 4-part series includes these accompanying posts:


Craig E. Nelson.  “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor.” To Improve the Academy 28 (2010): 177-192.   

Terenzini, P.T., and Pascarella, E. T.  “Living with Myths: Undergraduate Education in America.” Change 26.1 (1994): 28-32.

Treisman, Uri. “Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College.” College Mathematics Journal 23.5 (1992): 362-372. http://www.utdanacenter.org/downloads/articles/studying_students.pdf

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