Is there grade inflation or are students really doing better?

Some older readers may recall their undergraduate days, when in the first class in many courses the lecturer would start with the warning: “Look at the student sitting on your left and the student on your right. Only one of the three of you will make it into second year.”

Those days are long gone.

Ask any overworked academic what the most unrewarding aspect of their lives is, and they’re likely to mention the hours and stress associated with appeals from students against what they see as unfair grades. Easy grading is one way to lighten the load.

Abdul Razeed of the University of Sydney Business School has been studying the trends in undergraduate grades over the years to 2021, and notes that there has been a rise in average grades. For example there has been a 234 percent increase in the rate of high distinctions. The study, which he conducted with a colleague, is yet to be published, but he outlines its findings and possible causes of the upward movement in grades on the ABC: Study raises alarm over university “grade inflation”. (6 minutes)

As drivers of grade inflation Razeed’s study hints at workloads, heightened expectations, and the increasingly transactional nature of the student-university relationship. (I’ve paid for a degree with a big student debt; I demand something in return.)

Writing in The Conversation Phillip Dawson and Thomas Corbin of Deakin University suggest there may be other reasons for higher grades being awarded: If uni marks are going up, does that mean there’s a problem?. One possible reason is the use of different grading techniques, which include explicit explanations to students about what is required to achieve high marks. Gone is the old bell-curve that implicitly rationed high grades. Dawson and Corbin dismiss the idea that students choose units or lecturers with a reputation for easy marking, there being little evidence to support this as a causal factor.

There may be other factors they do not mention. In the great expansion of universities in the 1950s and 1960s universities in some states, including New South Wales, had easy admission coupled with tough first year grading, to compensate for the high variance in the quality of high school Year 12 assessments. An associated phenomenon was that university facilities were stretched: it was not uncommon for popular courses to be videoed from overfull lecture theatres to students sitting in the corridor, and “tutorials” could contain 40 or 50 students. First year university was a tough sorting process.

Also there have been tremendous improvements in teaching materials and technologies, such as on-line practice tests for students to assess their own performance. In engineering, for example, many hours used to be spent on assignments requiring basic arithmetical calculations on mechanical calculators, log tables or slide rules. That time can now be turned to learning.

One shortcoming of the more explicit assessment mentioned by Dawson and Corbin is that while it rewards mastery of specified course material, these is no specific reward for the truly creative student who shows learning beyond the syllabus. They simply receive a high distinction alongside the diligent and intelligent but unimaginative and uncreative students.

DEI in universities: academic freedom fights back

DEI stands for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in universities, and increasingly in other institutions.

They’re all fine principles, but has attention to DEI led to means-ends confusion, and to a stifling of academic openness? Is a censorious DEI industry curtailing academic freedom? Are cases of extreme manifestations of DEI, such as “cancel culture”, giving the far right an excuse to bash universities?

These are among the issues discussed at a seminar last week at Harvard University, Pushing back on DEI “orthodoxy”, reported in the Harvard Gazette. A variety of views was expressed, but most participants were of the view that DEI, as is currently practised, is actually working against its own objectives by muzzling other voices and ideas.

Nothing new, but it is notable that these misgivings are being expressed at Harvard, which other universities tend to follow.