Spare the Rigor, Spoil the Learning

It is time for the faculties of American colleges and universities to take teaching—and their students’ futures—more seriously.
By Michael E. Gordon and Oded Palmon

According to the 2009 Academic Ranking of World Universities, seventeen of the top twenty universities in the world were in the United States. Nonetheless, while American universities garner top honors for research, teaching appears to be in a terrible state. In an article published on March 17, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported widespread agreement among business leaders that graduates of American universities are not prepared to assume jobs in their companies. According to a fall 2009 survey of 302 U.S. employers conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, only one in four believed that two-year and four-year colleges are adequately preparing students for the challenges of today’s global economy. American education has many critics, and studies such as Alan Wagner’s 2006 Measuring Up Internationally (prepared for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education) indicate that the quality of postsecondary education in the United States has declined relative to that in a number of European and Asian countries.

The trade-off between teaching and research is documented in the annual reports of the National Survey of Student Engagement. The greater an institution’s focus on research, the less often its students report having to work harder than they expected to meet instructors’ standards. Ironically, undergraduate students at elite PhD-granting research universities devoted fewer hours to study and other academic pursuits than students attending colleges that grant only bachelor’s degrees.

For a variety of reasons, including fear of poor student evaluations of their teaching and unwillingness to budget time for instruction at the expense of research, many faculty members have relaxed their standards with respect to both course substance and the evaluation of student work. Although they apparently continue to expect students to work hard, their course requirements have allowed students to dedicate little time to meaningful interaction with course content. Whereas faculty members believe first-year students should devote an estimated twenty-four to thirty hours preparing for all their classes each week, students report spending an average of only fourteen hours on course preparation, according to the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement. Faculty estimates of the time students devote to class preparation are very similar to students’ reports of the time they actually study. These numbers suggest that although professors recognize that student participation in consequential educational activities is substantially less than they believe to be appropriate, they are unwilling to increase the demands of their courses.

It is time to embrace a more rigorous pedagogy that increases learning by requiring students to think more thoroughly and critically. This prescription for improving learning reflects the findings of substantial research available in the public domain, studies that reveal the beneficial effects of strict grading and classroom policies.

Eighty Percent of Success Is Showing Up

While shedding the vestiges of in loco parentis, many teachers have decided they do not need to require students to come to class (except to take exams). College students are mature enough to recognize the importance of attending class, the rationale goes, and forcing students to come to class will not make them learn. The political economist David Romer of the University of California, Berkeley, observed the effects of this laissez-faire approach to attendance in economics classes at three universities in the early 1990s. Roughly one-third of the students were absent from a typical class meeting.

By tolerating absenteeism, teachers ignore an obvious fact: class attendance significantly improves academic performance. Even after controlling for student ability and prior interest in the course material, studies that relied on different methodologies and examined different types of classes in different countries have demonstrated the robust relationship between attendance and academic performance. For example, Romer found that the grades of students who regularly attended large lecture courses in economics were on average a full letter higher than those of students who attended only sporadically. This finding was confirmed in a 2008 study of students enrolled in a public finance course offered at a public university in Taiwan. Using different estimation procedures, the economics professors Jennjou Chen of National Chengchi University and Tsui-Feng Lin of National Taipei University found that attendance improved performance on examinations between 5.1 and 18 percent.

These and other studies strongly indicate that students should attend all class meetings if they want to maximize their grades. If instructors do not require attendance, they should clearly communicate to their students the importance of attendance, given the rigor of the subject matter. Of course, instructors should also improve the quality of their presentations, because this will make students more likely to attend classes voluntarily.

No Pain, No Gain

For many faculty members, grading is the most unpleasant aspect of their jobs. The immediate consequence of assigning tough grades is having to spend time explaining the rationale and methods used for assessment to students who, owing to a pandemic sense of entitlement, are outraged by grades lower than Bs. In addition to keeping students at bay, awarding inflated grades makes it more likely that the instructor will receive satisfactory course evaluations and have more time to devote to research.

Evidence has been available for many years that grades have risen in colleges and universities. The education professor Arvo Juola reported an increase of 0.39 in the grade point averages (GPAs) of students attending 180 public and private U.S. colleges of different sizes, geographic regions, and curricular emphases between 1960 and 1978. More recently, Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor of geophysics, created a Web site that contains longitudinal reports on the GPAs at public and private four-year colleges and universities. At the seventy institutions sampled, the average GPA rose from 2.93 during the 1991–92 academic year to 3.11 in 2006–07.

Despite the annoyance it may engender among students, conscientious grading plays an important role in fostering student learning. Students feel compelled to study more when they believe that the grades they receive will reflect genuine mastery of the subject matter. The psychology professors Basil Johnson and Hall Beck of Appalachian State University demonstrated that students who expected tough grading significantly outperformed students who expected lenient grades on examinations in eleven sections of an educational psychology course. Philip Babcock of the economics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, using a twelve-quarter panel of course evaluation data, provided a rationale for the relationship uncovered by Johnson and Beck. His 2009 report indicated that the average study time in a class of students is negatively related to the students’ average expected grade. For example, in classes in which the average expected grade was an A, the average study time was approximately 50 percent less than in classes in which the average expected grade was a C. According to Babcock, “Students appear to study more when the study time required to earn a given grade is (or is perceived to be) higher—evidence that nominal changes in grades may lead to real changes in effort investment.”

Rigorous standards in evaluating student work are reflected in better student outcomes at all educational levels and with a variety of performance measures. For example, studies conducted with large samples of elementary and high school students in Europe and the United States consistently find that tougher classroom grading standards improve standardized achievement test scores. At the college level, examination of grade distributions in prerequisite courses that are delivered in multiple sections and are regularly followed by multiple ensuing courses reveals a similar relationship between rigorous grading and learning outcomes. In 2007, the economics professor Darren Grant of the University of Texas at Arlington reported that the average grades awarded by twenty-two different instructors in a prerequisite macroeconomics course were negatively correlated with the grades awarded in the follow-on microeconomics course offered by ten different instructors. All things being equal, students who took macro from instructors who awarded grades more generously performed notably worse in the subsequent micro course.

In Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, Valen Johnson, a professor of biostatistics at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, observed the salutary effects of rigorous grading in sixty-two different prerequisite courses at Duke University during the 1998–99 academic year, including mathematics, foreign languages, chemistry, and economics. Students who took prerequisite courses from teachers who graded more stringently performed better in the advanced courses. The lesson is clear: teachers should not cater to perceived student preferences for gain (high grades) without pain (the investment of time and intellect required to master substantive course material).

Try It, You’ll Like It

One of Madison Avenue’s most successful commercials from the early 1970s, revived in 2006, tried to convince people to use Alka-Seltzer, a product that, although perceived to be unpleasant, would prove satisfying once a customer tried it. Getting students to take their medicine in demanding courses entails a similarly difficult pitch. Students are often drawn to easy courses. For example, Clemson University students eligible for South Carolina’s LIFE scholarships responded to the incentive to improve their grades not by working harder but by choosing easier majors and courses. Similarly, Johnson reported that Duke undergraduates shied away from courses known for difficult content and stiffer grading (such as mathematics and the natural sciences) and opted instead for what they perceived to be less demanding programs of study.

Grade-driven course selection was exemplified at Cornell University after its university senate decided in 1996 to report median course grades on student transcripts. Adding these normative data about each course that the student completed was intended to provide more information to the reader of the transcript and produce more meaningful grades. According to the university registrar, such reporting might encourage students to take courses in which the median grade was relatively low: a B in a course with a median grade of C should suggest more scholastic accomplishment than a B in a course with a median grade of B+. Unwisely, the medians also were posted on an Internet site in 1997. The economics professors Talia Bar, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Asaf Zussman reported in 2009 that grade inflation at Cornell increased subsequent to the Internet posting as undergraduates migrated into courses with high median grades.

Although there is ample evidence of students’ reluctance to register for demanding courses, data also abound that students, once enrolled in a class, do not necessarily rate it harshly if it contains a justifiable degree of rigor. Engineering students at the University of Oklahoma preferred challenging courses but disliked courses they considered either too easy or overly difficult. Similarly, education scholar John Centra’s 2003 analysis of student evaluations of approximately 55,000 classes revealed that courses considered “just right” in terms of difficulty received the highest evaluations, whereas courses that were either too difficult or too elementary received lower ratings. A 2006 study of approximately 460 undergraduates by the social science professors Teresa Heckert, Amanda Latier, Amy Ringwald- Burton, and Colleen Drazen of Truman State University found that the students’ global evaluations of teaching were correlated with the appropriateness of the courses’ difficulty levels.

Faculty members who teach rigorous courses may have difficulty attracting large numbers of students. However, they may take heart from the fact that their course evaluations will not necessarily be worsened by challenging material and course content—assuming that the material is well presented. Nonetheless, unfavorable evaluations do seem to increase when professors make their courses unreasonably difficult. Instructors should identify the sources of these difficulties (students are not always lazy or incompetent) and revise their presentations accordingly.

Apocalypse Ignored

College faculties have ignored op-ed articles and white papers that criticize diminished academic standards in American colleges and universities and have resisted attempts by concerned administrators to stem the tide of grade inflation (Roger Bowen’s heroic but futile attempt to get the faculty at the State University of New York at New Paltz to raise its grading standards was covered in a November– December 2006 Academe column Bowen wrote when he was the AAUP’s general secretary). Developing and implementing methods for assessing teaching that reward rigor will not be easy (Simeon Domas and David Tiedeman published an annotated bibliography in the Journal of Experimental Education of research on the subject that contained more than one thousand papers—in 1950!).

University administrators and faculty unions have important roles to play in this enterprise for many reasons, not the least of which is that neither group is satisfied with the de facto delegation of teaching evaluation to students (research on student evaluations as early as the 1970s raised red flags, showing that these evaluations were influenced by both the expected and actual grades awarded by instructors). However, neither faculty members nor administrators appear willing to expend the energy or resources necessary to create and deploy an assessment system that would not penalize professors for more rigorous teaching. For example, in some European systems, students are given exams prepared and graded by faculty members who were not involved in teaching the course.

Two consequences of continued inaction on this issue are apparent. First, calls for increased accountability by governmental and accrediting agencies have pressured colleges and universities to produce data on learning outcomes rather than grades and reports of resources devoted to teaching. Faculty members have been rankled by an imposed “one-size-fits-all” accountability approach that may be insensitive to particular returns from pedagogy that do not appear on standardized tests or in departmental learning goals.

Second, in pursuing easy courses of study to earn their degrees, significant numbers of college graduates may have compromised their ability to function in an increasingly technological society. Course rigor should help students acquire the knowledge needed for successful participation in an increasingly competitive world. Without more rigorous instruction, we may repudiate the U.S. basis for world leadership, one overly generous and unwarranted grade at a time.

Instead of focusing on the short-term annoyance of students who have earned a low grade, consider the disappointment of graduates who face limited intellectual and economic opportunities because their instructors found it too difficult to say, “Your work is inadequate. Please repeat the assignment until you understand why you have finally prepared an acceptable answer. I will help you in any way that I can short of giving you that answer.”

Michael E. Gordon is professor of management and global business at Rutgers University. His current research focuses on organizational communication and grading issues in education. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Oded Palmon, professor of finance at Rutgers University, is currently researching the impact of corporate governance and the design of managerial compensation on firm performance. His e-mail address is [email protected].