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Grade Inflation and Mastery Learning: A Horse of a Different Color?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1719

After a number of years of teaching, students now average at or above 90% on my exams.  Needless to say, I have been accused of making my exams too easy. In turn, I would argue, if they have the skill, they should get the grade.

Folks:

The posting below is different take on grade inflation that is a response to TP Msg. 1798 on “Now I Know my ABC’s” posted on April 8, 2019. It is by, Professor Marion K. Slack, course coordinator for student research projects, Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science, The University of Arizona. Marion Slack, Ph.D. slack@pharmacy.arizona.edu.

Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Student Engagement Online: What Works and Why

 

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Grade Inflation and Mastery Learning: A Horse of a Different Color?

Grade inflation refers to testing that is based on the normal curve, that is, only really smart people should get A’s and there shouldn’t be very many. There is another approach to grades, mastery grading. Mastery grading is based on the notion that if one can perform the cognitive skill being taught, they get the grade.  The goal of mastery learning is to have everyone perform well, hence, the normal curve is meaningless as a standard approach to grading as it is based on the assumption that a substantial portion of the group should fail or not do very well.  The standard approach is problematic when one is teaching professional students who need a certain level of cognitive skill in order to perform as professional.  Since I teach pharmacy students, my goal is to have the class average between 85% and 95%. My students now average at or above 90% on my exams.  Needless to say, I have been accused of making my exams too easy. In turn, I would argue, if they have the skill, they should get the grade.

So how do I assure that I am grading cognitive skill instead of making my test easy? First, I identified the cognitive skill that I wanted students to have.  Since I teach basic research design to students, most of whom know very little about research, I want students to learn the concepts of research design, that is, they should be able to recognize a study design based on the way the study is conducted and recognize the limitations to[E4] each design.  Testing occurs through the use of examples that students have not been exposed to in class; students must be able to identify the type of design, its characteristics and limitations, from a newly encountered example. If they respond correctly, they get the grade, regardless of what the curve looks like. 

I anticipate that the next criticism is that what I am asking students to do is too easy; everyone knows based on educational hierarchies that recognition or identification is a low-level skill and is not important to teach, particularly to professional students.  I would counter with the observation that at least one Nobel prize some years ago was awarded for “recognition” of DNA in corn plants and that no one considers a physician’s diagnosis of a rare disease missed by others, also a form of recognition, are low levels skills. True, recognition or classification is often a fundamental skill, that is, required for further learning and the development of expertise—which seems like it ought to be taught to novices, even in the professions.

Finally, it is important to point out that I do not ask students to perform a skill on the exam that they have not practiced in class or on homework. The class lectures and activities are designed around examples and providing students practice on recognizing research designs  and their characteristics. Further, I am careful to use well written, clear examples for them to work with based on the assumption that poorly written and confusing examples are not appropriate for novice learners. 

One further comment, I view high grades on an exam as evidence that both the students and I have done our jobs. They have studied and I have provided good instruction that enables them to learn. If that means a good portion of the class gets A’s then I am all for it.

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