Is an ‘A’ just ‘okay?’

If the rate of students making the Dean’s List continues to grow, St. Thomas University could find itself looking for a bigger venue for its Dean’s List dinner than the Rigby Ballroom.

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

Since 1985, the number of students making a 3.7 GPA has jumped from about five to about 14 per cent of the student body. In recent years about 14 pe This “grade inflation” has a number of causes, and while other institutions have tried to curb ever-rising grades by applying a bell-curve, or simply handing out less “A’s,” there has been little success.

St. Thomas history professor Brad Cross has taught at the school since 1999. He doesn’t think grade inflation is an issue at St. Thomas but says part time faculty feel a lot more heat than he does to appease grade-hungry students.

“Part of our criteria for reappointment…has to do with teaching evaluations, and there’s increasing emphasis put on what I would call student satisfaction,” Cross said.

He added that part time professors aren’t necessarily pushovers. His level of job security allows him to look to the future and what the department and his courses need. He said handing out better grades can come from improving teaching material and course offerings, but for the many professors on a shorter leash than he, the focus is likely one-year-at-a-time.

Other universities give out much higher grades on average, like Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where first and second year arts and social sciences course professors handed out 16 per cent As, and 300 and 400-level courses in that faculty gave out 26 per cent As.

Inflation is much higher in U.S. Ivy League schools like Harvard University, where last year it was announced the most frequently awarded grade for undergraduates was an A, and at least half of final grades are an A-minus or better.

St. Thomas education student David White worked as an English teacher in France for a year before coming to STU. Now in just his third week of his internship at a New Brunswick high school, he has already seen the demand for higher grades through parent-teacher night.

“It wasn’t so much the students — it was parents that were really upset with the grades,” he said.

Grade inflation begins in high school, where it is pushed up by rising university entrance requirements. New Brunswick high school students had to meet a 60 per cent average on five Grade 12 courses to get a shot at entering STU in the early 1990s. Roughly a decade later, that requirement had moved to 70 per cent.

White says the inflation of grades may also have to do with the culture of university students.

“A lot of people work for the grade, as opposed to working [to learn] the course material,” White said.

In his undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University, he recalls picking classes based on the easiness of the professor’s marking. Tools like Rate My Professor, a website for reviewing professors based on clarity, helpfulness and easiness, make that even easier.

In retrospect, White knows that wasn’t the best way to learn. But he had to get through university, and he wanted to keep his options open for a post-graduate degree.

“Ideally, we shouldn’t have to have grades. It’s all about the feedback. An 85 [per cent] means nothing unless you tell me why I got that 85, and how I can improve.”

Fourth year STU communications major Kante Brew said he believes grade inflation is taking place at STU, and it may be a necessity to keeping students coming to university.

“You can’t just give out grades arbitrarily; they have to be earned,” he said. “But the signs of the time being what they are, they have to make money too, so they’ve got to pull you in by saying ‘Hey, we’re going to help you pass.’”

Brew doesn’t normally select his courses based on their easiness, but thinks most people here are seeking an A grade rather than a fun time.

“You have to remove yourself from the professor’s personality, and look at it like they’re a door you have to get through. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about… You’re here to get the information that will get you that A. You’re never going to see that prof again.”

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