Wednesday, September 23, 2009

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).

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