April 25, 2011

De-Grading on a Curve

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In order to preserve its reputation of academic rigor, Cornell has taken upon itself the task of fighting the epidemic of grade inflation, which seems to have afflicted the rest of the collegiate world. Unfortunately, it seems that it consulted Rube Goldberg for a solution, adopting needlessly complex policy changes that have created more troubles than answers.

Grading on a curve is sort of an oddity. The quality of a student’s work is not judged on its absolute value, but on its relative standing; the work of the brightest student in the class determines an A and that of the dimmest student a C.

Of course, the problem arises when we have a class where all the students are equally intelligent yet the unfortunate professor is still forced to allocate a certain percentage of As, Bs, Cs, and, to the unlucky few, Ds and Fs.

Luckily, the Faculty Senate has realized these problems. Unluckily, for us students, their solution was to add another layer of complicated policy changes. In order to combat the problem of grade inflation and unfairness in grading, our transcripts now bear median course grades, which are publicly available online.

What was the reasoning? Somehow the faculty senate predicted that students would gravitate towards courses with low median grades and receive a more accurate reflection of their performance while our graduate school and job recruiters would sympathize with a B- received in a class with a C+ average.

The senate’s prediction couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to a study by Cornell Johnson school professors Talia Bar and Vrinda Kadiyali, and Hebrew University professor Asaf Zussman, the publication of median grades has, unsurprisingly, led to an increase in student enrollment in courses with higher median grades. And thanks to this new policy of publicizing them, students now have a how-to booklet on achieving a 4.0 grade point average for all four years.

And the problem that the Faculty Senate was initially trying to mitigate still exists—in fact, grade inflation has actually been exacerbated. According to the study, the average GPA of a Cornellian steadily rose from the 1990s to 2004 — from 3.10 to a 3.30 — and, even worse, it has accelerated after the policy changes.

So now the students are stuck with a defunct system, whose effects spill over to the learning culture at large. What we have is an academic environment that is a zero-sum game. Cornell’s grading policy has created a system in which students are forced to compete with other students.

Competition alone may be a good thing, but we have combined it with a game of academic musical chairs: Regardless of how hard students work, there will always be a loser. The system is cruelly designed to always have someone sacrifice himself for the greater good. And as a result, our academic policy has fostered a culture stricken with scholarly Schadenfreude that nurtures alienated learning rather than teamwork.

Alas, it is no secret that organic chemistry students furtively wish ill upon their fellow classmates, hoping that they did poorly on last night’s prelim in order to bring down the mean. And when the professor announces a measly prelim mean of 45 percent, sighs of relief erupt in the lecture hall. What sort of culture do we breed when another student’s misfortune has become a cause for celebration? When we should be congratulating our peers on a job well done, we are troubled by the thought that there is one less A to give out.

And this policy still fails to accurately reflect a student’s performance. It is an arbitrary policy that does not give a student an accurate reflection of his performance, but one of chance. On whose authority was it determined that that only 20 percent of students deserve As, 30 percent deserve Bs and the rest deserve unsatisfactory grades? Certainly, there is no scientific evidence for these grade distributions.

What is worse about this academic philosophy is that it is not a reflection of the real world; in fact, it is the exact opposite and is poor preparation for our post-graduate lives. When our time on the Hill ends, we will not be entering a zero-sum, dog-eat-dog world where performance is neatly defined by quotas and helping others means doing a disservice to ourselves.

Rather, we will be entering an increasingly complex and liberal world that relies more and more on cross-cultural networks and cooperation. It will be a world in which your win can also be my win. And the solutions to the problems of climate change, authoritarian regimes or some incurable disease will rely not on any individual effort, but most likely on interdependence.

Unfortunately, our antiquated academic policy has taken a step back in time into the Dark Ages of learning. In an era when collaboration and multilateralism have become staples to finding solutions, the academic culture of Cornell has, instead, encouraged scholarly isolationism.

Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang