The Grading Gap: Analyzing the disparities in grade distributions



By Carolyn Klarecki  On  March 21st, 2011

Building the perfect class schedule is an art. The moment the course guide goes live, the eight-page paper due tomorrow takes second priority as students attempt to craft a four-day weekend with no classes before 11 a.m.

Within each department, students spread the word as to what courses to avoid and which to fit in before graduation. If you must take that painful pre-requisite, most have an idea who the best professor is to tough it out with. Students pick apart and analyze their professors for their peers — he talks too fast, she makes good jokes, his readings are interesting — but perhaps the most vital piece of information for schedule builders is how their potential professor grades.

The University holds its students to a high standard. However, according to data obtained by The Michigan Daily from a Freedom of Information Act request, there are large disparities in grades across professors and departments. The data includes the grade distribution and end-of-the-semester course evaluations of 2,329 professors, lecturers and Graduate Student Instructors for the fall 2009 and winter 2010 semesters. In analyzing the information to determine the easiest and hardest classes, the Daily excluded courses with less than 15 students and omitted courses in which the majority of students received incomplete grades. The FOIA data excludes information about certain schools.

If you’re longing to graduate with a 4.0 GPA, the math department is one to avoid. Compared to the other departments listed in the FOIA data, in the 2009-2010 academic year, math instructors gave the lowest combined average grade to students: a B-. While the math department appears to be the most difficult at the University, the easiest is LSA’s small Aerospace Science department, which consists of four courses where professors give an average grade of an A.

Obsession over grades has been a large feature of most students’ academic lives ever since high school. Parents, teachers and guidance counselors alike let us know that if we wanted to get into top-ranked schools, we were going to have to prove we deserved admission. Now that we’ve made it, it’s hard to shake that itch for an A. Maybe graduate school is on the horizon or you need a prestigious internship to make your résumé more competitive. Either way, for most students, the drive to secure a high GPA continues unceasingly into the college years.

But before you switch your major to Violin Performance — another program with an average grade of an A — it’s important to understand why there are these discrepancies in grades. We all go to the same University: Shouldn’t we all be held to the same academic standards? When an instructor gives an average grade of a C and another one awards nothing lower than an A+, there is likely to be an explanation beyond, “my GSI is so evil.”

The “easy” courses

Jennifer Yim, lecturer and director of the Global Scholars program, could be considered an “easy grader.” In the 2009-2010 academic year, she gave an average grade of an A for her Global Understanding course, which had 28 students total in the fall and winter semesters. Seven students received an A+ and 21 received an A. However, she maintains that her course isn’t an easy A.

The course she taught is a highly specialized class restricted to students in the Global Scholars living-learning community, which students are eligible to apply for at the end of their freshman year. Yim said students’ passion for the subject material is reflected in the grades her students receive.

She added that many Global Scholars courses are highly cooperative, with students depending on one another for their success in the classroom: this class style pressures students to put in more effort. Furthermore, Yim makes sure that the requirements for an A are clearly defined.

“The more clear you make your grading expectations in the class, the better the students tend to do,” she said.

Similarly, School of Social Work Assistant Prof. Brian Perron, who gave 17 A+s, four As and one A-, echoed Yim, saying that clearly-defined expectations and grading guidelines that are established and communicated to students at the beginning of a course leads to higher student achievement.

“It is my role and passion to create an atmosphere that will help students learn the course material and go above and beyond the course expectations,” he said.

He said when grading, he remains as faithful as possible to the grading criteria he set at the beginning of the term and works to make sure his system of evaluation is fair and accurate.

Professor Nilton Renno teaches Geophysical Electromagnetics which had 16 students during the last academic year. Seven earned an A+, seven earned an A and two received an A-. He said he tries to find problems early in his students’ work and help them overcome those issues by the end of the semester.

His teacher evaluations show that his efforts are appreciated. All students who filled out evaluations “strongly agreed” that he was an “excellent teacher.” Renno said students have told him that his class is the best they’ve taken while at the University. He added that students honestly want to do well and are interested in the subject material in his course, which is why they are so successful.

“Some people think if the professor grades the course easy, there’s a negative connotation,” Renno said. “But if the student meets the requirements, there’s no reason to give them a bad grade.”

Performance majors far from easy

Many departments that give the highest average grades are within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance School. Included on the list are percussion, opera, piano, music performance and violin.

Music, Theatre & Dance School is made up of about 1,050 students and 150 faculty members. Many of the departments require an audition and interview before acceptance. Unlike LSA students, students who choose Music, Theatre & Dance School aren’t undecided. And unlike LSA departments, the classes often require more pre-requisites, are restricted to majors and sometimes require further auditions, which significantly reduces the number of non-majors in the courses.

Despite the emphasis on talent and performance, Music, Theatre & Dance School Registrar Deedee Ulintz said the importance of grades for students in the school is “just the same as a student pursuing an academic concentration.”

“I would say a ton of these students are going on to grad school,” she said. “And even though things are audition-based, you still need a minimum GPA for any school to even show up.”

Music, Theatre & Dance School sophomore Roberto Arundale hopes one day to have an orchestra or teaching job. He agrees that getting good grades is important, but says it ultimately comes down to talent.

“I have a 3.5. I’ll be happy and that’ll be just fine,” he said. “It’s more important how well you play.”

Even though students who take percussion classes get higher grades on average than University students taking other courses — 100 percent of students who took percussion classes received at least an A- compared to 31 percent of students taking math classes — it is by no means easy to major in a performing art.

“I try to do three to four hours a day of solo practice,” Arundale said. “Others do more and others do less.”

The “hard” courses

Courses in the math department are anathema to students who wish to graduate with a 4.0. On a list of the 10 University instructors who gave the lowest average grades during the 2009-2010 school year, eight instructors from the math department are featured. The math department’s aggregate average grade is a B-.

The difficultly of math classes is one reason LSA freshman Salvatore Aiello recently dropped his Calculus II class. He was taking the course as a pre-requisite for his biology major and said he isn’t surprised that the math department gives out the lowest average grades. After talking with his adviser, Aiello decided that a better path would be to finish the course at a college near his hometown over the summer.

“It was extremely difficult,” Aiello said. “Combined with my first exam score and how I felt in the class, I didn’t think I could raise my score, and it just wasn’t working out.”

Stephen DeBacker, math professor and director of undergraduate studies, says “it’s because there has been no grade inflation” that math department grades tend to be low.

“I can’t speak for the whole department, but my thinking is grades should mean something,” he said. “If you’re giving 50, 60, 40 percent of the people As, then the A loses its meaning. The A is supposed to stand for excellence. I also think you honestly have to evaluate the students so they understand how they stand in life.”

Despite the low grades, many of the instructors have positive teacher evaluations GSI Tomoki Ohsawa gave an average grade of a C during the 2009-2010 academic year, yet in 35 evaluations, on average, his students “strongly agreed” that he was an “excellent teacher.” The same trend was found with other math GSIs and lecturers.

“Overall, mathematics work really, really, really hard to make sure its Grad Student Instructors are good teachers,” DeBacker said. “They have to go through all the training, and then they get followed up during their first semester of teaching, and if there are any problems with that they get followed for another semester. There’s constant evaluation during their initial teaching periods.”

Though it’s not best for GPAs, the math department’s techniques seem to be working.

“There are studies that show that kids who learn calculus at the University of Michigan learn it better than at other college that has been similarly tested,” DeBacker said.

Even Aiello said, “the way Michigan teaches its calc is very different than any way I’ve ever experienced it.”

Do grades matter?

For Aiello, grades are an important indicator of his academic success and will play a large role in his future.

“Grades are very important,” Aiello said. “I’m hopefully going to med school, and grades have a huge influence in that.”

Perron said the importance of grades fluctuates between disciplines and years in college. He understands how they can be important to an undergraduate’s future plans, but in graduate programs like the School of Social Work, grades have a different meaning. He said it’s his duty to motivate his students “to look beyond the grading system so they learn information and skills to support their success.”

“As educators we need to be responsive to what students need to excel in their careers, namely a high-quality education,” he said.

To DeBacker, grades are a measure of how well students learn the material. When grades are reduced to only A’s, he wonders, “why have grades?”

In regard to a universal University standard, Perron believes the University “should be providing the highest quality education as possible.”

“Grades are a part of the process, but a distribution of grades is not necessarily an indicator of educational quality,” he said.

What the data says

It’s hard to determine what constitutes a universally “easy” or “hard” class. The diverse strengths of University students ensure that a broad range of academic talents are represented. While one student may struggle in English 125 but be able to skip every Econ 102 lecture and pass the final while barely studying, it may be opposite for his or her roommate.

But grades aren’t always an indicator of the ease or difficulty of a class, as there are exceptions and special cases.

The Museum Studies Program — in which 92 percent of the students received an A — was in its first year as an undergraduate program in the 2009-2010 academic year. Duane Carl, an intermittent math lecturer, teaches a Summer Bridge class for the Comprehensive Studies Program, which is a transitional learning community for students who come from less academically-rigorous backgrounds. He gave out four As, six Bs, six Cs and four Ds in the fall 2009 semester.

Though the majority of students in the Michigan Marching Band walk away with an A, band member and LSA junior Jenny Barger says no one signs up for five-days-a-week, hour-and-a-half-long practices and Football Saturday commitment to boost their GPA.

"The minimum amount of time that you're required to spend on the field is 15 hours each week," she said. "Given the fact that its a two-credit class, it's way more work than a regular class."

Many factors beyond grades determine whether a class is difficult or hard. There were positive evaluations among the “toughest” graders at the University and negative ones among the “easiest.”

“No grading system is perfect or free from error,” Perron said. “But it is important that we continually strive to improve our system of evaluation to ensure it’s reliable and valid.”


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