The skills–grades gap

We’ve all heard gripes about grade inflation.

We’ve all heard gripes about college students’ lack of basic skills and study habits.

How is it that those two conditions co-exist?

Letter A made from a balloon illustrates article on grade inflation

That’s the question Donald Hurwitz, senior executive in residence at Emerson College, explores in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe this week.

I don’t think many people in education have stopped to ask that question.

If you read Mary Alice McCarthy’s recent  influential piece in The Atlantic about America’s love affair with the bachelor’s degree, you might have noted the anecdote about her nephew who  couldn’t march with his college class because he was three credits short.

His adviser pointed out that he had taken the same economics course twice—one year apart. My nephew hadn’t noticed. When his exasperated parents demanded an explanation, all he could offer up was that the class had been taught by a different professor, and held in a different room. He got a B both times around.

That anecdote illustrates the problem.

Both times the nephew took the economics course he got a B, but he didn’t learn enough to recognize the material the second time around.

The B for not learning is what appalls Hurwitz.  He says:

Undifferentiated grades suggest a failure to engage with students, to acknowledge differences. Very high, undifferentiated grades make it easy not to ask, why? If the fault lies with students’ attitudes or abilities, shame on teachers; in not demonstrating how discerning judgment is exercised, they fail to equip students to determine how seriously to take their schooling and themselves, to wonder what in the situation they are responsible for. They are deprived of the means and reasons to ask: Did I work hard enough? How much should I care? Does this subject matter to me?

In the end, the solution comes down to teachers.

Hurwitz concludes:

Failure to engage, to acknowledge differences, to own up to discerning judgments of others, permits students to do likewise, and it undermines the very idea of a community of learning.

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