October 13, 2022

KUBINEC | “Shadow Grades” Can Fix the Humanities’ Grade Inflation Problem

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This spring, I took a humanities class which required students to read two lengthy books. In lieu of a timed final exam, the instructor gave students two weeks to answer a list of questions, based in large part on those two lengthy books.

Being the sparkling scholar I am, I did not read either book, and I opened the final exam document for the first time five hours before it was due. I Ctrl+F’d my way through a PDF of one book, found a helpful book review of the other, and produced a slipshod thirteen pages of writing in those five hours.

When my grade came back, I was stunned. I scored a 100.

Grade inflation leads grades in many humanities courses at Cornell to not describe a student’s actual performance. At the same time, Cornell professors cannot change the societal forces leading to grade inflation. As a compromise, professors should institute shadow grading — where they give inflated grades for transcripts, but provide students with private “shadow” grades that measure quality more critically.

Graduate schools largely base acceptance on students’ undergraduate GPAs, meaning the many grad school-bound Cornell students are incentivized to take easy, GPA-boosting courses outside of their degree requirements. This is part of the reason why Oceanography perpetually fills lecture halls with students who may not have a deep interest in coral reefs. 

But grade inflation inevitably ends in grade compression, where median grades run out of room to inflate — and an A grade suddenly becomes an expectation instead of an aspiration. In the crowdsourced Cornell median grades spreadsheet (which doesn’t contain every course, to be fair), the most frequent median grade listed across the school is an A. 

With grade compression, students can’t afford to take risks with their course selection, and they certainly can’t afford a B or C in unmarketable humanities classes. I spoke with Seth Strickland, a Freshman Writing Seminar instructor who told me about high grade expectations from students.

“If you’re an engineer and you’re taking an English class, you don’t have room to get less than an A, and you’ll drop it if an A is out of the question,” Strickland said. 

But perhaps the bigger harm with humanities grade inflation is it robs students of intellectual growth. When I got a 100 on my humanities final, I lost the chance to hear how my writing could improve. The functional purpose of grades is to give students feedback and accountability for their work — when humanities classes become 4.0 factories, grades cease to have much purpose at all.

Granted, grade inflation is about more than just not hurting students’ feelings. College is increasingly expensive. Graduate programs are increasingly competitive. When a humanities instructor gives out a C grade, they could be making a big negative impact on a student’s future.

“If you’re paying $70,000 a year and you fail a writing class, it feels like you’re wasting your money,” Strickland told me. “That pressure shouldn’t be put on an 18 year old who’s trying to write, but it is.”

Grade inflation is troubling, but unless American graduate schools radically change their admissions practices, the forces propelling it aren’t going away. Plus, just giving out more C’s arguably doesn’t solve much — students will just flock to whichever new class is giving out A’s.

For this reason, humanities professors should offer students the option to privately receive uninflated shadow grades. A B-grade is average, a C-grade is below average and an A-grade exceeds expectations. 

Shadow grades would make feedback on papers more helpful — rather than doling out well-dones to their A-students, professors would be freed up to grade honestly. Students can receive criticism from professors in a way that won’t jeopardize their path to medical school. Humanities majors like myself can see their improvement over time rather than taking everyone else’s easy-A classes all throughout college.

When I got the 100 back on my final last semester, I knew I didn’t deserve that grade. I think my professor did too. Shadow grading isn’t an ideal system by any means, but when A-medians become the norm, we need to draw up new ways of performing that critical part of education that is telling students how they can improve. 

Cornell invented the chicken nugget; how hard can it be to rethink instructor feedback? 

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.