Grade Distribution Discussion

Dear Senators:

I read with great interest appendix O from the Undergraduate Studies Committee on Grade Distributions.

After noticing that grade distributions tended to play an uneven role in faculty promotions across various campuses and colleges, I began to study the issue more closely. I’m hopeful that our Senate might take some time to further discuss and emphasize the following lines in the report:

“With respect to the role of grades in performance reviews, it is important to note that authors such as Millet (2016) caution against solely using grades as a metric to evaluate faculty members as this may have unintended consequences; for example, instructors may, in an attempt to improve their grading reliability scores, use GPAs to assign grades in a course.”

If instructors take seriously the guidance given to them by senate documents and significant administrators, they would find themselves facing what Gregory Bateson termed a psychological “double bind” (1956). They receive two contradictory messages from authority figures and find themselves unable to accommodate both without extreme measures. As Bateson, supported by R.D. Laing, explained, these impossible to reconcile standards produce environments that make it extremely difficult for those entrapped in them to maintain mental health and productivity.

I have begun working on an essay to analyze the impact of efforts to externally influence individual instructors’ grade distributions. It is very much a work in progress that I would prefer to further vet before sharing. It seems, however, that the issues are set to be discussed this month, so I’ll (with hesitation, given that I wish it were stronger!) present it now:

In short, we really need to come up with some better solutions to the problem of grade inflation than expecting administrators to press their faculty into giving lower grades.

Senator Mary Miles

2 thoughts on “Grade Distribution Discussion

  1. Mary Miles, Ph.D. Post author

    Interestingly enough, we just held a Senate Caucus meeting and essentially every non-tenure track faculty member present attested that grade distribution (emphasis on lowering it) played a major role in their evaluations and promotions. The plan youdescribe that looks at the relationship between SRTEs and grades precisely defines the double-bind. As I outline in the blog post, these issues have become even more contradictory in recent years and deserve conversations that don’t simply focus on penalizing instructors whose students do well in an effort to combat grade inflation.

  2. mtw1

    I’m confused. Grades don’t play any part in in faculty promotions at Penn State. I’m on the University P&T committee and I’ve not seen a single reference to grades in any dossier. In fact, ever since I came to Penn State I’ve thought that looking at SRTEs in isolation was a bad practice. At my previous university, where I worked in the writing program, when we were looking at the materials submitted by part-time faculty for full time positions (their equivalent of FT1s), we always looked at student evaluations alongside grades. (Our supposition was a teacher whose grading was rigorous and whose SRTEs were high was a better instructor than one who had equally high SRTEs and whose grades were also uniformly high.)
    Our recommendation was not that administrators should work to “to externally influence individual instructors’ grade distributions. ” Rather it’s a recommendation that argues that aggregate grade distribution reports aren’t particularly useful. That such reports would be much more useful on the local level.

    Matthew Wilson, Chair, Undergraduate Education

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