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Monday, Apr 15, 2024

Inflated grades, deflated egos: tackling Middlebury’s problematic grading culture

Last week, we reported on grade inflation at Middlebury. The average GPA among Middlebury students has risen substantially in recent years, from 3.00 in 1987 to 3.35 in 2005 to 3.65 in the spring of 2023. There are a variety of potential explanations for the grade inflation issue, from technology’s ability to aid students in cheating to Middlebury’s increased selectivity and a higher number of incoming students in the top 10% of their high school class. 

But with either of these explanations, the problem lies in the inconsistency of grading policies, and the subsequent confusion of the meaning of grades. Rather than alleviating stress, grade inflation has done quite the opposite, leading students to have more fear of getting a low grade, and thereby make decisions based on grades, rather than for the sake of learning. 

Today at Middlebury, grades paradoxically mean both more and less than ever. Student stress around grades seems to be at an all-time high, yet the data tells us that an A carries the least weight it ever has. The problem with grade inflation is that once it starts, it is hard to stop. It is, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

It is unfortunate that grade inflation contributes to students prioritizing grades as the end result of their education, rather than being proud of the improved skills and new knowledge they have acquired in their time here. We do not aspire to resolve the issue of grade inflation on this campus or in these pages — it is clearly a national issue across higher education — but it should not be normalized or taken as an immutable tenet of a modern education.

Rather, we must consider tangible ways to improve our school’s culture around grading: Let’s prioritize asking for honest, constructive feedback, and not running away from every challenging course because of its scary reputation. And professors, we ask that you consider increased transparency around grading. Tell us the grade breakdown for assignments to provide context to our work. Even for students who succeed and earn A’s, provide critical feedback that will remind us we all have room to grow.

It makes sense that students at Middlebury care about their grades, and we cannot in good faith tell you not to stress. After all, grades were an essential part of all of our high schools — making them a priority is arguably why we are here right now — but it would be naive to say they don’t matter now. Graduate schools heavily consider a student’s transcript when deciding whether or not to admit them. Competitive jobs, especially in fields like consulting and finance, often have GPA thresholds that applicants must meet to even be considered for an interview. Stress around grades is not unmerited.

The assumption when we talk about grade inflation is that all students benefit from receiving easy A’s. As Zeitgeist 5.0 showed last year, there can be significant fluctuations in average GPA by major across different departments, although it is unclear if that depends on different grading policies or simply the quantity and quality of students each discipline attracts. Making generalizations about grade inflation does not take into account individual professors’ grading policies. The reality is, a lack of consistency across professor’s grading policies means that a student’s GPA is dependent on the specific courses and professors they choose. 

Board members noted having taken classes where, on the first day, the professor tells the class that everyone will get an A if they put in a decent amount of work. For some students, this may be a relief, an indicator that they can just focus on learning. Unfortunately, though, some students will take that as permission to put in less effort, which not only robs them of their own educational experience, but also is detrimental to everyone else’s classroom experience.

Students are left wondering if an A really means their work was excellent, or if it is just the professor’s default. We ask professors to consider sharing a breakdown of class grades on assignments so students can better understand where they stand. 

We also ask professors to continue to provide thoughtful feedback, no matter the grade. Board members noted how motivated it makes them feel when a professor leaves a note at the end of an essay with things they did well and constructive criticism instead of only a letter grade, even if that feedback is negative. It makes the student feel that their instructor is invested in their improvement.

Students, as hard as this may be, we encourage you not to shy away from a class because it has a reputation for being hard. Often the best learning happens in hard classes where a professor has high standards for success. A GPA of 3.60 rather than 3.65 is unlikely to make a major difference in your life; taking and succeeding in a difficult course will impart learning and satisfaction that counts for much more.