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Grade inflation is making students lazy

College students study a lot less now than in the 1960s, yet they get better grades.

For students, these trends must seem like marvelous developments. But they raise questions about both declining rigor and potential grade inflation in higher education.

In a forthcoming study in the journal Economic Inquiry, economist Philip Babcock finds the trends linked. As Babcock related in an e-mail, when the instructor "chooses to grade more strictly, students put in a lot more effort." And when the professor gives easy A's, students expend less effort.

The finding relates to an earlier study, cited in a previous post here, showing that professors who get high ratings from their students tend to teach those students less. (The minimal effort required in those classes apparently fuels the professor's popularity.)

Babcock, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reviewed two sets of research literature that document crisscrossing trends.

On the one hand, average grades have been rising across all categories of post-secondary institutions. Take Harvard: The share of students receiving A's there rose from less than one-third in 1985 to about half in 2001.

Would that those students were getting smarter.

But college students are, in fact, getting lazier. "Aggregate time spent studying by full-time college students declined from about 24 hours per week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in 2004," Babcock writes, citing his own research.

The economist set out to determine whether the trends are linked: Do students study less because they expect higher grades?

Babcock reviewed course evaluations at University of California, San Diego. In those evaluations, taken in mid-course, students described what grade they expected to get. They also told how much time they spent on homework.

Babcock's findings are laid out in a series of charts that make me squint. In essence, Babcock proved his hypothesis.

Students reported studying half as much for a class in which they expected an A than for a course in which they expected a C.

In other words, students are studying less because their professors are grading easier.

Even, perhaps, at Harvard.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  July 22, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  Pedagogy , Research , Students  | Tags: Economic Inquiry study, Philip Babcock, grade inflation, grade inflation and college study time, grade inflation and lazy students, grade inflation study  
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Students use word of mouth and online professor ratings systems to figure out which courses are graded easier or which professors' style matches what the student does well in and signs up for those (papers vs. projects vs. exams). Then you've got required classes where the student may not have much of a choice in professor or is fundamentally difficult (ask anyone at any school who took Organic Chemistry for their major) and students realize they have to study more in order to get an A, B or whatever the highest they think they can achieve.
Sure, some of it is grade inflation. Some schools or departments within schools are known by students to give out lots of high grades for average effort -students (and their parents) are consumers paying for a good degree. But it could partially be students selecting courses based on how well they think that they can do with average or lower effort (or balancing an easy A with a hard required class). If I have to take Organic Chemistry this semester darn right I'm also going to take a comparatively easy creative writing or other gen. ed. requirement so I can get good grades without going bonkers in the library. That's the attitude I've seen and can't blame fellow students for trying to maximize their overall performance.

Posted by: amk19 | July 22, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Is it not possible that students are responding to less rigorous instruction and lower expectations rather than becoming more lazy?

Posted by: mder2 | July 23, 2010 6:57 AM | Report abuse

Grade inflation is worst at the colleges and universities often ranked "the best". Let's just call it what it is: elite self-perpetuation.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | July 23, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Here's the incentive structure at my mediocre state university: in order to get tenure, only publication matters. Teaching quality is measured only by student evaluations, and high quality doesn't help with tenure at all; there would only be a problem if a person had a lot of negative evaluations, though even that could be off-set by high research productivity. In my field, it's very difficult to get published. Most professors here are undemanding in their classes. So when I try to set high standards for my students and give them the grades I really think they deserve, they're outraged. They write scathing evaluations. I have lines of students outside my door, coming in to whine, cry, negotiate, or threaten me. It takes huge amounts of time and energy. It also takes tons of time to provide feedback on difficult assignments, especially since class sizes have increased steadily. All of that is time I should be spending on my research, or I won't get tenure and I'll probably have to leave the profession. So, what's a rational person supposed to do?

Posted by: crazycatlady | July 23, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Princeton is the only university -- and one of the best on the planet -- to openly embrace and engage in an formalized, instituted policy of grade deflation -- much to the angst of its students and recent alumni. For the record, the only other university to engage Princeton for preliminary investigation into formulating and implementing a similar grade deflation policy is Stanford.

Posted by: dcrolg | July 23, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

The problem of grade inflation is simple. I observe it at my local state university where the entire student body (it seems) is on the dean's list. Higher Ed is a business--more students--more business for the school and community (restaurants, shops, bookstore, etc.).State appropriations depend on class size--hence more students equals more money. Professors play the game because to do otherwise results in unemployment. It's time the public woke up to the charade that passes for "higher education".

Posted by: crewsin | July 23, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I'm a professor at a major university, and have taught at other big schools, as well as having been a student at a top 5 private school. There are all kinds of incentives in place that lead to professors giving higher grades and students to work less hard.

First, my evaluations as an instructor are based on student evaluations. A colleague of mine once ran a regression that determined that the #1 factor impacting how a professor does in student evaluations, is the grade the student expects to get in the class. While student evaluations don't count much towards tenure & promotion, they do count towards faculty awards, and if you have good evaluations, you don't have to deal with student complaints, or with administrators checking up on you. When you start giving grades lower than your colleagues, you raise a lot of eyebrows.

Second, departments like to give higher grades because it keeps enrollment up. Students are much less likely to enroll in a class where there is the expectation of low grades. Schools also publish grades by instructor, so there is very good information for students regarding the teachers that give the highest grades.

Third, there is little incentive at an R1 school to do anything but the minimum in your teaching, other than "because you like working with students", because tenure and promotion are based 95% on publication, and 5% on teaching.

Finally, students complain about the amount of work I give. I give about 1 / 4 - 1/ 2 of what I got when I was in school. They complain, they give bad evaluations based on the unreasonable amount of work for this particular class, etc. While its possible to work students really hard and gain respect for this from the students, the reality is that only 10 - 20% of students in a particular class are really there to learn. Most are there to pass the class and move on. Students also take more classes than they did when I was a student. It is not uncommon to see a student with 18 - 20 credit hours; when I was in school you could have no more than 15 without special permission, and 12 was considered a "full load".

Anyhow, these are some of the incentives and pressures that lead to this situation. There are several ways to stop this: 1) insulate professors from student complaints. Base faculty evaluations based on in-class observation & student work (or standardized test performance, which opens up another can of worms.) 2) have department & school-wide grade distribution goals / requirements (such as existed at my undergrad institution).

Posted by: danmatisoff | July 23, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I think the expectation is students pay so much for the privilege to get a credential they think entitlement exists in which the social exchange is money given for credential earned. For this money, a good grade is the expectation and studying is a distraction from partying and hanging out with friends, playing sports, or just doing community service. Since this shows it is the professors setting the expectation, just indicate everyone is graded easy so why disappoint the professor? He says it takes little to satisfy so just study a little and he's happy to reciprocate with a good grade. That's life, the challenge of meeting grade expectations.

Posted by: DESIGN-2-REPLACE | July 23, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I think one of the big reasons student are complaining so much about doing their work is becasue of the atmosphere in the k-12 schools. Over the last 10-15 years suddenlty giving a student a bad grade "will hurt their self esteme" or he has a hard home life so we will grade hinm easier, etc. Students are failing at all time lows, yet test scotres across the country are dropping like stones. 30 years ago it would have been out of the question for someone to graduate high school and not be able to point oi=ut their state on a map of the use. Last time the numbers came out (2007) it was at 22%, with 37% not being able to poin to New York (if they didn't live there).

Posted by: schnauzer2 | July 23, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I did a teaching internship for an undergraduate course at a university a few years ago while I was on exchange. At the time I was a student at a European university, and accustomed to the 10-point grading system there. In that system, none of my professors ever gave me a 10, usually citing the reason "Nobody is perfect."

Part of my internship involved grading student papers, which then had to be approved by an established faculty member. On several occasions, I was instructed that the grades I gave were too low. The students also made this known to me in their evaluations (though most of them considered the grading "tough," and nobody said anything scathing).

I found that when I returned to my university in Europe, all of my marks for courses in the US were marked down, which is a policy for compensating for inflated grades. I personally noted that I had to put in a lot less effort for an "A" in the US than I usually did for an 8 at my regular institution. Most of my colleagues who went on exchanges came back with similar stories.

It seems to me that students at US universities are accustomed to higher grades, and also find it completely normal to argue their way into a higher mark. I don't know if students are lazier in the US, but this does not mean they are any stupider. Certainly at the graduate level, the standards were quite high, but the undergraduate students seemed more concerned with trucking through their degrees.

From what I saw in the undergraduate courses, students were impeccable at completing the intermediary assignments and struggled more with big papers and essays. The idea seemed that establishing a baseline of good to very good performance in the more mundane tasks generates benefit of doubt when instructors grade heavier assignments.

Personally, I have always preferred weightier assignments myself, as they give the opportunity to demonstrate depth of knowledge and the ability to manipulate, link, and explore topics addressed in the course. Although this results in more hours of work, far fewer assignments are produced.

As for which system is better, I can't say. It would be interesting to compare cognitive tests of students at different institutions today to those of students in the past, or students in other countries. Couple that with a number for hours-of-studying and grade results, we might begin to approach an answer.

Posted by: avanommen | July 23, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

College is not real life and does not prepare a person for the real hard lessons of life that can only be learned through experience. The emphasis on elegant expensive education is ridiculous. Almost everything I've learned of value in the real world was not covered in college courses. Obviously, I don't value college education at today's prices; I value military service, paid and upaid work experience (even if it's a summer job or internship), and volunteer work....these are where the valuable lessons are learned. Success in life depends on many factors (but college education or pedigree is not the end all).

Posted by: br30 | July 23, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

The economics are all in favor of grade inflation. College is hugely expensive, and costs rise faster than income or overall inflation. Nothing short of a national overhaul of education financing will end the trend. If Mom and Dad are going to mortgage their retirement and I am going to mortgage my future just to pay tuition, then the school had darn well better give me a diploma and a transcript I can parley into a decent job. Otherwise no sane person would enroll.

Posted by: taxguru | July 23, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Recent grads have a hard enough time finding work in this economy without being slandered in the Post! just kidding... sort of.

Posted by: Kuklie07 | July 23, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Another issue is the number of extra-curricular activities that students participate in - and students expect/demand that time for these activities are available to them. So studying for a class has to compete with intramural sports, volunteering at a local foodshelf, choir, dance, resident-hall meetings, pre-med club, applying for internships, etc in addition to any work.

Posted by: grzz_76 | July 23, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

When you consider all the pressures on colleges and professors for grade inflation, such as those mentioned in the comments above, it is amazing that the colleges and professors do as well as they do. For the professors it is a lot of extra time, effort, and conflict to be a tough grader. Another factor is that society has a lot of reward systems that are based or influenced by GPA. One university law school even retroactively created grade inflation because the consequences of tough grading proved to be unjustly harmful to its graduates. ( Job interviews can be won or lost by GPAs, that puts a lot of pressure on grades.

Bernard Schuster

Posted by: arrive2dotnet | July 26, 2010 2:50 AM | Report abuse

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