C Means Degree

by Jason Fertig

One of the hallmarks of grade inflation today is that a C grade is closer to a true F than it is to “average.” Thus, many students progress into upper-level courses without proficiency in the lower courses.

In two separate posts (in Mark Bauerlein’s blog on the Chronicle site and on the NAS site) I raise some pedagogical issues related to this grade inflation. On the Chronicle site, I ask why all majors do not have a defined “weed-out course”:

Quantitative disciplines have a natural rigor in the early stages that weeds out students of lower ability because many of the basic skills taught in the introductory course are the basis for more advanced work.  Faculty there seem to understand that without a certain level of difficulty in lower-division classes, the upper-division classes suffer.  This leads to more rigorous junior and senior courses, but also a side-effect on other fields.  The students who leave quantitative majors go elsewhere.  It is fairly common for students to switch into business majors like management precisely because they could not handle the math requirements (i.e. they failed an intro course) of their chosen (engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc.) major. The situation rarely occurs in reverse. When students leave a management major, they usually drop out of school altogether.

On the NAS site, I advocate designing assessments that do not allow students to pass unless they demonstrate competency:

My teaching experiences led me to realize that in order to reliably assess my students, every graded question that I asked needs to be a micro version of the class grade.  Regardless of whether an assignment was worth 1% or 50% of a course grade, passing that assignment needs to be reflective of proficiency in what I want my students to know.

I learned the hard way that C’s and D’s are not enough to motivate many students to work harder. The threat of failing has to be present. If students think that “C means degree,” then “degree must mean competency.”

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