Monday, December 27, 2010

The Grade Inflation Prisoner's Dilemma

. Monday, December 27, 2010

A UNC professor that I spoke to this semester explained it thus:

"On the one hand, I don't want to give students high grades when they don't really deserve it. On the other, I don't want to punish students just for taking my class when they'd get a higher grade from another professor."

On our campus, the political science department has a reputation of being fairly tough with grades, although there is variation across professors. Sometimes students complain about low grades, and say that they would be higher in other departments. We respond that the only way to distinguish our best students is to have a fairly spread out distribution. If we give everyone higher grades, we help the mediocre students and hurt the best students. Which doesn't make sense.

As students of the prisoner's dilemma know, one way to alter the equilibrium of the game is through outside intervention. Some at UNC are trying to use administration to do just that. The thinking is that grade inflation will be less prevalent, or at least less pernicious, if grades are placed in context. A 'B' grade in a physics class with a median grade of 'C+' is more impressive than an 'A' in a humanities class with a median grade of 'A', so publishing class medians with grades changes what those grades actually mean.

As a closing aside, it seems like every semester the NY Times publishes a "state of college education" article that prominently features UNC.



The Grade Inflation Prisoner's Dilemma
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