Stuart Tannock dives into the ongoing debate about grade inflation, drawing on his own practice as a lecturer in an attempt to steer it in the right direction
In August 2019, the New Statesman ran a cover story titled The Great University Con: How the British Degree Lost its Value. Much of the article was spent rehashing what has become a moral panic in UK media and political circles over alleged spiralling, out of control “grade inflation” in British universities. The numbers of students getting firsts and upper seconds has “leapt from 47 to 79 per cent” over the last two decades. Students are “semi-literate” and barely competent grade grubbers, who expect their high tuition fees to buy high marks without the bother of working or learning. Academic standards have “collapsed.” All the while, there is a “conspiracy of silence among academics.”
This is now a widespread discourse in the UK. In March, Education Secretary Damian Hinds called on the Office for Students to fine universities found to be guilty of handing out too many “unjustifiable” high marks to their students “up to £500,000 or two per cent of a university’s income (whichever is higher),” while seeking to “reset the proportion of firsts and 2:1s awarded by universities.” Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, warns that “spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system,” and has told universities that “if they do not take action, we will use our powers to drive change.” In May, the UK higher education sector issued a “joint commitment” to work collectively to address “the international challenge of ‘grade inflation,’” in order “to protect the value of degree qualifications for the long term” and “tackle perceptions that degree courses are ‘dumbing down.’”
This moral panic about grade inflation is a potentially destructive discourse that threatens to undermine good teaching and assessment practice in our universities, and drown out a much needed alternative discussion that needs to happen over what assessment practice should look like in the public university, in favour of what appears to be a pre-determined demand to drive grades down and increase grade stratification, in the name of maintaining or restoring “standards.”
As Jim Dickinson recently observed, in a Wonkhe article, there are two common critical responses to this grade inflation moral panic. One argues that there is indeed grade inflation happening in British universities, but that this is a direct result of the government’s own drive to marketise universities over the past several decades. “Lecturers aren’t to blame for university grade inflation,” writes David Yarrow in the Guardian: “the government is.” A second argues that there is no grade inflation happening, but rather a steady improvement of student achievement as a result of sustained development of university teaching practice over time. “Many more students are getting higher grades, but they have never been so carefully supported to do so,” writes Sinead McEneaney: “This is something to be celebrated, not penalized.”
While there is likely considerable merit to both these arguments about grading in the university, neither fully captures my own experience with university grading – and here I write as a university teacher whose courses regularly have higher than average student grades compared with other courses in the undergraduate programme on which I teach.
these arguments work to shut down a much-needed critical discussion of what grades (and assessment more generally) are and should be about in the contemporary university
For both these apparently opposing viewpoints take the same problematic stance as to what grading is: a supposedly passive or reactive representation of objective levels of student achievement that is self-evidently true or false, accurate or inaccurate, correct or incorrect. In taking such a stance, these arguments work to shut down a much-needed critical discussion of what grades (and assessment more generally) are and should be about in the contemporary university. This includes an open discussion about the often deeply problematic validity and reliability of grades (particularly when applied to things like student essays), about the conflicting purposes and meanings of assessment that can shape grades in different ways, about the debilitating reductiveness of any system that seeks to capture the breadth and depth of student learning and achievement with a single, linear numerical scale, and perhaps most vitally, about the fact that models of assessment and grading never simply reflect or measure student learning and achievement, but actively work to shape, guide and construct this learning and achievement in the first place, in ways that can be either beneficial or harmful.
In my own university teaching, my approach to grading is driven by two closely linked concerns. The first is my belief that grading is often highly destructive or obstructive to effective student learning, in that it can undermine a sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility among students, promote relationships of passivity and submissiveness among students towards teachers; replace intrinsic motivations for becoming independent, critically engaged learners with extrinsic motivations of working and learning to gain reward and avoid failure; and, for students who find themselves at the lower end of the grading hierarchy, can have deleterious effects on learning, self-esteem and identity. This is based not only on my own teaching experience, but also on a well developed body of research and theory on grading and assessment in the university.
grading is often highly destructive or obstructive to effective student learning
When I taught earlier in my career at the University of California, Berkeley, I opted to teach some of my elective courses without any grades at all, on a pass/fail basis only, making extensive use of continuous narrative feedback instead. In my current university, where this is not possible, I seek to de-centre grading as much as possible, so that myself and my students can get on with the real business of learning together. This involves using a predominantly portfolio-based assessment system, in which all students can be reasonably confident they will end up with a good grade, so long as they engage fully and continually with the learning process that has been set up for them in the course.
Second, I use my assessment model, from start to finish, including my grading system, to support and guide student learning (‘assessment for learning’ in the academic lingo): to make sure students are closely engaged in the learning process, that they enjoy the process, are putting in extensive work, and are learning and achieving what they are all fully capable of. This involves the use of continuous, low-stakes assessment; collective, peer work and evaluation; and rigorous but supportive spoken and written narrative feedback from myself as course instructor. Assessment for learning as a central and vital purpose of university assessment is notably absent from much of the moral panic over grade inflation, which tends to focus instead on the use of grades by employers to sort and select graduate job applicants. As Rachel Haak points out, “if you follow the public higher education debate you could be forgiven for thinking that assessment is undertaken solely for the purpose of checking whether students have reached a standard appropriate to being allowed to call themselves graduates – and helping employers divide those graduates’ CVs into two clearly-delineated piles.”
Students on my university courses tend to have high grades and to achieve very highly: but the direction of causality is the reverse to what is often assumed in discussions of grade inflation. It is not that students achieve highly and are therefore rewarded with high grades (nor that students achieve poorly and are given high grades anyways). Rather, it is because students have been given a teaching and assessment system where they can stop worrying obsessively about getting low grades – and are supported extensively through a wide range of teacher, peer and collective group feedback – that they are then able to achieve so highly and enjoy themselves in the process. High grades, in my experience, are not about slipping standards, but precisely the opposite. They are one part of raising the standards of what the teaching and learning experience at university could and should be all about (and no grades might be an even better option).
I would think that there are many other teachers in British higher education, like myself, who have been finding similar creative and effective ways to use assessment and grading to support high levels of student learning. The danger is that the current moral panic about grade inflation could undermine much of this practice.
This summer, I received an email message that I had long feared would come sooner or later given the prevailing higher education discourse about grade inflation. I was told by my university that they were concerned by the uniformly high grades being given to students on one of my undergraduate courses, and I was asked to provide a formal account of the situation and explain what actions I would take to fix the problem. I wrote a lengthy account in response, seeking to explain and protect the teaching and assessment model that I have carefully built up, and that has proved to be highly effective and popular with students. Will this account be enough? At this point in time, I do not know.
We desperately need ... to ask whether grading is even helpful, or if there are other, better models of assessment to adopt instead
We desperately need an expanded public and professional discussion about assessment in universities, to revisit, rethink and rework inherited standard assessment practices: to raise questions about the purpose, meaning and nature of assessment; and to ask whether grading is even helpful, or if there are other, better models of assessment to adopt instead. My fear is that the current furore over grade inflation is going to drive this discussion in the wrong direction altogether.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________