Beginning fall 2013, the University of Minnesota will likely provide information online about the average grade students earn in each academic program.
After two years of University-wide discussions of grade inflation and the value of putting a grade in context, the Faculty Consultative Committee recommended the move. The action will move forward pending approval from Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.
Per the FCC’s recommendation, the percentage of students receiving an A grade and the average grade students receive broken down by academic program and course levels will be publicly available online.
With the data, students would be able to show potential employers if their grades are high or low compared to other students’ in their major, said FCC Chair Sally Kohlstedt.
Since 1999, the Senate Committee on Educational Policy has issued an annual grade distribution report that provides average GPA and the percentage of students receiving A grades, said SCEP Chair Alon McCormick — but the data are broken down by college rather than academic program.
Nearly half of students in the College of Liberal Arts received A grades in 3000-level courses in fall 2012, according to SCEP grade distribution data.
In contrast, less than a third of students in the Carlson School of Management received A grades at the same course level.
In a controversial era of grade inflation in higher education, chemistry professor and FCC member Chris Cramer instigated the grades-in-context discussions as FCC chair in fall 2011.
“I personally believe grades have almost lost all meaning,” Cramer said, adding that if you have a large percentage of students getting A grades in a class, it’s hard to differentiate individuals.
But he said the current recommendation is still worthwhile.
“It’s a step in the right direction.”
A ‘long, strange trip’
Originally, faculty members discussed whether to place grades-in-context information — like the percentage of students who received the same grade for each course — on students’ transcripts.
But concerns about costs and usefulness to students dragged the conversation on.
Some faculty members also feared grades in context could reflect poorly on University students if their transcripts were some of the unusual few that provided extra information, McCormick said.
“It’s been a long, strange trip,” Cramer said.
The current recommendation — that average grades by major be available online — is meant to be a “happy medium,” Cramer said, where some context is provided but costs are manageable.
“We came up with a compromise,” Kohlstedt said. “It may please no one precisely, but it starts us on a somewhat different path and makes a certain amount of information more readily available.”
Grade inflation and ‘cultural differences’
In terms of grading, there are “cultural differences” between faculty members, Cramer said — differences that entered the grades-in-context discussion.
Some believe in a curved grading system, where students are compared to each other, while others adhere to a style where all students can earn an A if they meet the criteria.
Part of the two-year conversation, Cramer said, involved deciding whether the ultimate goal was to fight grade inflation or give context and whether there were other ways to fight grade inflation besides providing context.
One product of the grades discussion was a recommendation that all departments talk about their grading and determine if issues like grade inflation are present, Kohlstedt said.
“Faculty make decisions about their grades,” she said. “No one’s trying to be coercive. We just want people to be thinking about the issue of grades.”
While some students said the proposed context information would be useful, they’re divided over which style of grading is preferable.
Physiology sophomore Tyler Loomer said he thinks the grade context information the FCC has recommended would be beneficial, but he doubts students will take the time to look it up.
The current recommendation sounds useful, said biomedical engineering freshman Sarina Sandstrom, but she said she’s glad the committees didn’t decide to put context information on transcripts.
If a lot of students received a good grade in a certain course, she said, putting that information on a transcript would minimize a student’s accomplishments.
In terms of grading styles, she said she preferred a standard-based system.
Rather than competing against other students in the class, Sandstrom said she thinks a student should compete with himself or herself.
“It should be your own work that gets you what you earn,” she said.
Loomer disagreed, saying comparative grading ensures higher-performing students get good grades even if tests are difficult and no one gets a high score.
“I like a competitive classroom,” he said. “I would much rather compete against my peers than compete against a syllabus.”