Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gap is Everywhere!

Of late, I have been writing about problems that differential grading causes, both in terms of employers and graduate schools picking the “wrong” students, and in terms of dissuading students from studying certain subjects.

I must admit that my arguments and analysis of different grading schemes in different disciplines was based on one crucial assumption:

The intellectual quality of science students is no worse than that of
students in the humanities, arts, or social sciences.

I readily admit that, if science students tend to be less intelligent than humanities students, then they deserve poorer outcomes. However, there seems to be little evidence to this effect so I shall not belabor this point.

More importantly, I have recently run across several studies, which support the idea of grade normalization across subjects

In a landmark study done by Durham University in the UK, which tracked over a million students taking A-levels and GSCE exams, researchers found that students of equal ability received approximately a full letter grade lower in the sciences than in subjects like drama and English. The study was commissioned by the Royal Society (the world’s oldest professional body for the sciences, whose membership includes the likes of Newton and Hawking) in order to provide evidence that differential grading schemes may be contributing to a decrease in the number of students pursuing science degrees in the UK.

While my analysis in my last post was solely regarding grades at Dartmouth, it appears that the same differential grading practices take place all across the US as well. An online magazine article describes studies done at Cornell, comments by a Stanford Business School professor, and several other pieces of evidence which all point to the idea that lower grades in sciences can dissuade students from pursuing science degrees.

It is also evident that these grading differences between the sciences and humanities have been there for many decades. The question thus arises, why did they arise and why has no one corrected them, despite the easily available evidence as to their existence?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Wide is the Grading Gap?


While most people concede there is a grading gap between the sciences and the humanities, few are aware of big it is. In order to determine precisely how wide the gap in grading is between various areas of study, I analyzed the grades at my alma mater. Dartmouth is one of the few colleges that publically makes grading information available on the web. And there are fewer still colleges that publish course level data, such as Dartmouth and Cornell do.

In particular, in an attempt to combat grade inflation, Dartmouth started placing median grades next to the student’s grade on his or her transcript for each course with an enrollment of 10 students or above. Additionally, Dartmouth College publishes a list of all courses that fit this enrollment criterion along with their median grades on its registrar’s website.


In order to analyze the grading gap between different broad disciplines, I obtained the median grades of all available courses on the website, totaling to 3166 courses taken across the last two years. I then placed each course into one of four categories:
1. Arts
2. Humanities
3. Soft or Social Sciences
4. Hard Sciences.

After classification of each course, I calculated the mean of all the median grades in each discipline. You can view the results here.

In looking at the data, there are some useful things to know. At Dartmouth, an “A” is a 4.0, A- is 3.66, B+ is 3.33 and so on. Furthermore, the median student at the time of graduation has approximately a 3.3 GPA. The cut-off cumulative GPAs to be in the top 5%, 10% and 15% of students at the time of graduation are 3.89, 3.77, and 3.59, respectively.


In light of these reference points, the results are quite shocking. A science student who achieved the median grade in each of his or her courses would have a GPA in the middle of his or her graduating class, whereas a humanities student achieving the same feat in his or her courses will receive honors for being in the top 10% or 15% of all graduating students.

There is a 0.43 GPA gap between arts and hard sciences students and a 0.23 GPA gap between humanities and hard sciences students, which is needless to say, significant. A difference in 0.23 grade points, ceteris paribus, makes the difference between getting into a top professional school or not, between getting a prized job or not, between being awarded honors at graduation, or not.

Differential Grading – Altering Intellectual Paths

During my analysis of the disincentives to study science in the US, I described how lower average grades may dissuade students from studying the sciences for a variety of reasons. Differential grading across majors and subject areas poses a much broader threat to our education system and its aims than simply lowering the interest in studying sciences.

One of the fundamental goals of education, at any level and at any age, is to enable an individual to pursue his or her intellectual interests. Admittedly, this is rarely possible in the purest sense of the word freedom, because of economic constraints, parental pressures, and a variety of other factors. However, it is still desirable to grant students as much freedom as possible to pursue what they are passionate about.

Unfortunately, different grading schemes across subjects and across courses within the same subject tend to further incentivize students not to take certain courses or disciplines. College students are desirous of maintaining a high GPA, to impress their parents, their friends and for admissions into graduate schools and for employment purposes. Consequently, in deciding their majors, college students often consider what the grades are like in that major. Often, the average grades are a significant deciding factor when students pick college majors (I know this from my own experience in advising underclassmen in picking a major).

Even within a particular discipline, students often pick easier classes. “Easier” in this context means that the course has a good grade-difficult payoff. In other words, students are often unwilling to put in the extra effort for a challenging upper level course if it does not have a relatively higher average grade as compared to lower level courses.

(For the purpose of simplifying my examples, I have restricted them to those that would occur at the college level. However, many of the same arguments apply to high school students. For example, a high school student would want to maintain a high GPA for college admissions as opposed to for employment.)

Our education system aims to both prepare students for the world and allow for the student’s personal intellectual growth. A prerequisite for the latter is the ability of the student to pursue his or her academic passions. However, if the student is penalized heavily for doing so, in the form of a poorer grade, her or she may decide simply to ignore those passions and study something “easier” (here easy again means a higher grade-difficult payoff).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Economics of Science

Over the last half-century, the techniques of science have rapidly permeated into the field of economics. Tools such as game theory, stochastic calculus, and differential equations have been invaluable in analyzing different problems in economics, and in some cases (i.e. the famous Black-Scholes formula) solving them.

Now might be the time that the tools of economics should be applied to the study of science, or the lack thereof, in America. Economics, at a very fundamental level, is the study of incentives. In other words, economists study what drives people to behave the way they do. Economics is not simply a study of money; money just happens to be a convenient way to measure the value of different motivating factors.

In this article, I apply an economic incentive analysis to determine why Americans are not pursuing the sciences as early as high school and as late as graduate studies. There are several key structural problems within our educational and employment systems that I have been able to identify as providing strong disincentives to take science courses.

The first, and most easily identifiable of these problems, is within the differential grading practices in the sciences, humanities and arts. Namely, the sciences have significantly lower grading schemes at both high school and college and much higher failure rates. This creates a strong three-part incentive for students to not study the sciences. Firstly, the lower grades may be damaging to self esteem. Secondly, most colleges award class wide-honors such as valedictorian without normalizing grades across different disciplines, resulting in a median student in the sciences not receiving the same accolades as a median student in the humanities and arts. Thirdly, employers are also known for not normalizing across disciplines, either due to a lack of available information from the college or because they simply do not have time to conduct a detailed subject normalization. This holds true for many college admissions processes as well.

A second problem, although one much more difficult to correct than non-normalized grading schemes, is that of relatively modest salaries in the sciences. While it is true that engineers and scientists, on the average, make good money compared to those in other disciplines, it is also true that they rarely make great money. Engineers never make five million dollars a year, while there are tens of thousands of entertainers, businessmen, and athletes that do. The exception to this, is of course, starting your own company (as in the case of Google), but this does not provide a reason to study science, but rather, simply demonstrates that starting your own company can be highly profitable. The monetary payoff to studying science is lower than that of studying finance and becoming a banker. Consequently, why study sciences?

A third problem, also very difficult to correct, is the public perception of science and scientists, which generally tends to be quite negative. Scientists are often portrayed as geeky, socially awkward and poorly dressed. TV shows such as Bill Nye, Dexter’s Lab, and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” are but several examples of the negative stereotyping as portrayed in children’s programming. This portrayal continues in more adult-oriented programming such as “The Big Bang Theory,” in which turns the characters’ awkwardness and geeky nature is related strongly to their scientific backgrounds and interests.

The incentive structure in America is set up to dissuade students from pursuing studies in the sciences. Contrast this to places like India, where degrees in engineering, physical sciences and medicine are considered the most prestigious degrees and necessary for getting the best-paying and most prestigious jobs (i.e. with foreign MNCs). It is no wonder then, that getting into engineering institutes and faculties in India is so difficult, whereas in America, science classes are depopulated by a plague of disincentives.

It is true that some of these disincentives are difficult to correct (i.e. changing pay structures and media portrayal), as any active attempt to modify them would violate rights such as freedom of speech and free market principles that are part of America’s core values. However, other problematic disincentives such as unequal grading are very easy to correct.

In America today, politicians constantly complain about the dearth of Americans pursuing studies in the sciences and about the consequences that this will have on America’s position in the world. But then again, why should Americans study sciences when the rewards are so unappealing: ridicule as a geek; poor job opportunities and terrible grades?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Death of Science

The children born on December 31, 1999 were very fortunate. They can say are unique as they were the last children of the millennium. While I can not say that I was born on that fateful New Year’s eve, I too can say that I am of a rare breed and amongst the last of my kind for I am a student of science.

I am proud to have studied science and learned how the world works. But I am incredibly saddened by continuing decrease of students pursuing science degrees in America. America boasts many of the finest science universities in the world, but it boasts fewer and fewer home-grown scientists. Many of America’s top scientists are in fact foreign born or first generation immigrants. In the last three years, out of the 20 Nobel Prizes awarded in physics, chemistry and medicine, only 8 of the recipients were born and raised in America, and of the 8, one was a first generation immigrant.

More and more, we are finding our science programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, filled with students from India, China, and Europe or from first generation immigrants. For example, at Dartmouth College, there were approximately twelve physics majors the year I graduated. Approximately 30-40% of students were either not from the US or were from first-generation immigration families in a college where approximately 6-8% of students are not American or Canadian.

If it was just that American students are not choosing to study sciences at college, I wouldn’t be too concerned as students should pursue what they are passionate about. The lack of American students pursuing studies in the sciences is but a symptom of a much more serious issue – a declining interest in science.

Despite the fact that science and technology dramatically define the world, many American students are never taught basic things about science (even non-controversial things such as Newton’s Laws), nor is a passion for science ever encouraged. Even more frightening than the fact that not all students are taught these basic things, is the fact that the scientific method itself is rarely taught anymore (or at least not ingrained into students). The procedure of hypothesis, controlled test, and conclusion, which has dramatically altered the way we live our lives and the way we understand the smallest microbe to the largest galaxy, is unknown to many Americans.

In a country that boasts the world’s best universities and best scientists, why is it that so many can not describe what the scientific process is?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Inflation Part 2 - Inflation at the Top

In my last post, I only described grade inflation at Dartmouth, but the problem is just as bad amongst the other Ivies. Nearly half of all Harvard students receive A’s in their courses, and approximately 80% have honors conferred upon them at graduation (see: Ivy League Grade Inflation). At UPenn 51% of grades are in the A range; at Columbia 22.3% are A’s (not including A-'s); at Cornell A range grades make up 41% of awarded grades. At Princeton, which has instituted grade deflation programs, by limiting the number of A range grades that could be awarded, 42.9% of grades are still in the A range. More statistics can be found at

These statistics reveal an unfortunate trend at some of America's top institutions. The very institutions who have world-class brands and don't need to inflate grades still do. A range grades constitute nearly half of all grades awarded, even at Princeton which has attempted to institute a deflationary policy (unfortunately, with little success).

Many Princeton students who are against grade deflation cite that their quota system results in extreme competition between students, as there are a limited number of As to go around and that this competition may be to the detriment of learning. I feel there are three strong responses to this point. Firstly, those who truly care about learning will still learn. Secondly, a B does not destroy their career opportunities because it is widely known that Princeton is attempting to institute this policy. Thirdly, while learning is certainly important for education, I do believe that competition is a necessary part of college and in fact life. Indeed, it is very rare when one is judged on absolute scales; more common is the judging of one relative to ones peers. Quota systems such the one at Princeton, if done effectively, normalize grading. An “A” means you are much better than your peers and a B or B+ says you are average.

While I commend Princeton on taking the first step amongst the Ivies, I do wish it had taken a much stronger stance. For example, officially only 35% of students are supposed to get in the A range, but, in fact, about 43% do, thereby showing that the policy is not strictly enforced. And 35% of students being classified as "excellent" or "outstanding" still seems a little high.

In finance, printing money causes inflation. In academics, printing A’s causes inflation. Let our academic institutions not go the way of Zimbabwe.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Inflation Part 1 - A Rant

Inflation's become a buzz word recently, especially in the context of economics. With interest rates hovering around zero, inflation is rearing its ugly head. Central banks, the IMF, and investors around the world are scared at what many see to be an inevitable period of hyperinflation, when prices will skyrocket for both consumer and industrial goods.

There are many reasons that inflation troubles anyone who has to deal with money (which includes you if you’ve ever bought, sold, lent or borrowed anything in your life). Inflation, in its simplest form, is defined as an increase in prices (or put another way, a decrease in the value of currency). Two of the key problems with inflation are that it causes devaluation of money and that it creates financial instability in markets, because it becomes difficult to value things, as one has to account for an often unobserved level of inflation.

Inflation is hardly a problem isolated to finance. It is just as pressing, and nearly as concerning, a problem for our education systems, where grades are being inflated constantly. Just as with money, when grades are inflated it devalues them.

How bad is it?
To see how bad the problem really is, I performed an analysis of how bad the problem really is at Dartmouth, my alma mater, which places the median grades for all courses online (see: Median Grades at Dartmouth). Out of 450 classes analyzed the unweighted average was 3.33 and the average weighted by class size was 3.18. This problem is seen in further light when you note that out of 450 classes, 268 of them (i.e. over half) had A- medians or higher, with 48 (10.6% of the total) having A medians.

Because grade inflation is so common, employers, who often lack the time to do an in-depth analysis of grades, may simply ignore the grade that a student has worked hard to earn, even if the student’s school does not grade inflate. This is especially hurtful to students graduating from non top-tier institutions, as employers assume that the institution is inflating grades, so an A from that institution will mean nothing. Hence, a student graduating from a good state school with excellent grades may be passed over in favor of a Stanford graduate, as the employer is unable to compare grades and must resort to using educational pedigrees in discriminating who to hire.

While graduate schools are often more savvy in terms of separating good students from bad, they too find it difficult to separate between a “good A” and an “excellent A.”

A Final Word
It is interesting that we are so concerned about inflation in economics as it hurts our investments, and yet, we are so unconcerned and unwilling to act on protecting our grades from devaluation. Those same grades, which we have spent hundreds of hours of studying for, tens of thousands of dollars investing in, and nearly two decades of in school, to obtain. A significant investment, indeed, but not one protected from the devaluating effects of education.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cheating Part 4 - Viable Solutions to the Epidemic

Are there solutions to be had to the epidemic of cheating? If they did exist, why haven't they been implemented you might ask?

In fact, there are a variety of powerful anti-cheating solutions that can be implemented and in some cases have, but for the most part there is strong institutional resistance to taking the steps that must be done, as many of them are politically difficult to implement.

I would like to identify two general classes of solutions to cheating, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic." The former type of solutions focus on altering student behavior by changing students fundamental attitudes towards education. The latter deal with creating incentive schemes in the school that discourage students from cheating.

Intrinsic Solutions: Changing the Modern Student
There are many methods and methodologies that one can implement which may have an effect on fundamentally altering students' behaviour and attitudes towards cheating. One method that is advocated is the incorporation of Ethics into the curriculum, either in other courses, or as a dedicated course (see: Ethics Education in Business School). Another method, which was used at Dartmouth College is an academic honor code, in which the moral responsibility of cheating is transferred to the students. While in my own experience, this latter method was a failure, I do feel that it can be effective when combined with extrinsic solutions. A third possible solution to change students' intrinsic beliefs about cheating is remove the focus on grades and focus on learning. This can be done either through teaching the importance of learning, which is unfortunately not stressed nearly enough in current education systems.

Extrinsic Solutions: Changing the Modern School
Extrinsic solutions are those that change the incentive structures for students, to disincentive cheating. The simplest extrinsic solution (and probably least politically favorable) is to make the consequences for cheating severe. At present, many institutions (colleges and high schools alike) have laughable penalties for cheating. In the Hanover High cheating scandal (See: Cheating part 2), the penalties were miniscule compared to the scale of the crime, which involved breaking and entering and pre-meditated theft of exams. The criminal charges on many of them were dropped, and they were not expelled. Harsh penalties such as permanent expulsion (from either the university or the high school) would make it clear that cheating is not acceptable. A second solution, less cost effective, is to reduce the ability of students to cheat. Stop giving take-home exams or open book tests, place students large distances apart when taking exam, etc. Such direct deterrents will greatly limit the ability of students to cheat. Finally, we note that students greatest incentives to cheat are when they either only care about the grade or they are being forced to take the course. To reduce the former, remove grades and instead use a short letter of recommendation from the professor. To reduce the latter, remove mandatory courses. For example, remove distributive requirements at liberal arts schools. Why force someone passionate about English to take a math course, which he or she is likely to cheat through anyway?

While there are no doubt hundreds of other solutions, I believe I’ve fleshed out the two major classes of solutions that can be applied. One group of remedies focuses on altering the way students fundamentally think, and the other focuses on modifying student behavior by altering incentivizing certain actions and disincentivizing others. I leave it you to decide which class is better, or if both should be used together.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cheating Part 3 - A Bird's Eye View of Why

Having now spent some time describing two very different instances of cheating, which describe HOW cheating occurs, I want to take some time to mention some the WHYs of cheating. In my next post, I will discuss some solutions to these problems as well.

The most commonly cited one is the pressure to perform. Students (and in fact people of all ages) receive pressure to perform from parents, colleagues, students, the media, and friends. In the case of students, there are two particular types of students I feel are particularly likely to be targets of this sort of pressure. The first group are children of wealthy families, where the parents are in high-powered white collar careers and push their children to achieve similar professional success. The second group are Asians, where the academic pressure to succeed is incredible. Many of my Asian friends at college and high school commented how if they received a 95% on an exam, their parents would be displeased they had not received the other 5%.

A second cause that drives cheating is the innate competitiveness of certain individuals. People such as these feel that they must compare themselves to others via mediums such as grades, and must do all they can to "beat" them. This is not meant to say that there is anything wrong with competitiveness, as I myself fall into this category of type A people, but simply state that the characteristic of being competitive is a cause of cheating.

Related to competitiveness is what I called being "bottom line focused" i.e. the ends are the only thing that matters. I use this term as it is similar to terms used to describe the problem of cheating in business schools (see: article by Rutgers MBA professor). However, the term is more than just applicable to business schools. The "get the grade to get the job" (GGGJ) mentality is similarly present in colleges, where learning has taken a second place to grades. This is especially true in classes where professors grade relatively as opposed to on an absolute scale. For example, in my science classes where grading was absolute (i.e. everyone could get an A), I observed little to no cheating. In other courses (typically humanities), where grading was typically relative to some curve, cheating was rampant, as students knew that what mattered was not what they learned or demonstrated, but rather, how well the other guy or girl sitting next to them did, and that they had to beat that.

The final thing I wish to point out deals with the structure of our academic institutions, and the lack of severe penalties for cheating. In many top colleges and business schools, children of important people, or important people themselves cheat. As professors often face pressures from administration to be lenient or look the other way (reference: How far the Administration Will Go), they are unable to create enough of a threat of repercussion as to dissuade students from cheating. In other cases, the penalty for cheating is simply trivial, such as a temporary suspension with no record of it on your transcript. So, if I cheat, I go work somewhere for a couple months, come back and graduate a bit later, and suffer no long term consequences. Even with the Kids from Hanover High who cheated by breaking and entering, as mentioned in Cheating Part 2, many of the charges were eventually dropped.

While this was not an exhaustive list of causes for cheating, I've shown how there's a great carrot to encourage me to cheat, but no stick to stop me from doing it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cheating Part 2 - How far will they go?

While the type of cheating that I personally saw is relatively common, I also (indirectly experienced) a more severe form of cheating.

During my junior year at college, a major cheating scandal happened at the town's high school (full story: Several students broke into the school to steal math and chemistry exams, and several students serving as lookouts for the crime, which they then distributed to up to 60 students. The police enventually decided to charge them criminally for misdemeanor, although they could have charged them for committing a felony. I haven't been able to find out what happened

There were people saying that these kids made a mistake, and others saying that cheating (especially in the manner they did) should be severely punished.

I'm of the latter camp, as I believe that no 17 year-old can believe that it is legal to break into a school, and then steal exams. Doing something that is obviously both illegal and wrong should be punished, especially as a deterrent to future crime. Quite honestly, the police could have charged them more seriously, but they chose not to - that's leniency.

If they can't get into a great college or get that into that top medical school anymore, they made that decision consciously in knowing that they were committing a crime.

Cheating Part 1 - A Personal Recollection

No - I was not the one cheating, if that's the first thing that came to your mind.

Dartmouth College has an Academic Honor Principle (AHP), because of which professors are not supposed to proctor exams, and it is assumed that students will not cheat. At the beginning of each course, professors typically hand out a syllabus which includes any additions they would like to add to the honor code (i.e. their definition of what constitutes cheating). While noble in concept, this code was broken many times in my own experience.

For example, in my freshmen year, I was taking a mathematics courses (wherein the majority of students were taking this course as it is a required course for anyone wishing to study engineering or the hard sciences). The professor gave a two-part final exam, one part to take home, and one to be given normally in-class. The average grades on each, respectively, were around 95% and 75%. Now one might argue that this large difference does not mean anything by itself, as this could be indicative of a difference in difficulty, or because of the much greater time period available to complete the take-home examination.

However, the fact that clinches is was, the night before the take-home portion was due, I was walking through a very public area in order to grab a snack, when, lo and behold, to my surprise there were a large group of classmates from my math class collaborating on something. Again, this does not constitute evidence of any sort. What does serve as evidence though is that, one of them recognized me as being a member of the class, and asked if I'd like to join them in working on the exam together.

Now the part that surprised and shocked me was not that he was asking me to cheat on the exam, nor even that so many people were doing it, but rather, the fact that he assumed that he could openly ask me to cheat (barely even knowing me) and expect me to join in or, at the very least, not expose the group. What sort of thinking could possibly drive him to be so audacious in his proposal to me, except for the fact that his entire way of thinking was that every student cheats and its ok?

I kindly declined the offer and did not report the incident, as I felt it would violate some sense of personal honour. I no longer remember who was in that class, or who was working at that table, nor do I care. I did well in that course, and I hope everyone else did too, whether they cheated or not.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Problem

One of the problems I see, and its probably a contentious issue, is that too many people go to college who shouldn't go to college.

I feel that many people go to college for what the "wrong" reasons such as:
1. because their friends are doing it
2. because they want to party
3. because they have feel pressured to (by society, family, etc.)
4. because the system is set up to direct students from high school to college
5. because they have no idea what they want to do

There are also (obviously) some "right" reasons to go to college such as:
1. Explore an area or areas of interest
2. Career advancement
3. Personal development
4. Get a chance to interact with cutting-edge researchers

Because more people are going to college than necessary (or at least going to college for the wrong reasons), there are at least three negative effects I can identify:
1. Increased demand for college education causing increased costs to the taxpayer and to the student
2. Devaluation of a college degree, since everyone has one. Holding a college degree fifty years ago meant something, today it doesn't mean all that much.

A high school education is definitely enough for many careers, and in many cases, more than satisfies (or kills) the intellectual curiousity of the American student.

Beginning of the Blog

During my time as an undergraduate, both from my own experiences and those of my friends, I came to realize that there were many problems facing the American higher education system, ranging from a rapidly decreasing emphasis on academics to pervasive cheating. I resolved to do something about it, and I'm starting now by initiating this blog, where I hope to foster an active, intellectual discussion on education, problems, practices, and hopefully, solutions.