Complicating the “over-involvement” complaint

Last week I promised that my next column would be short and sweet.  And in the context of the time crunch that inevitably wells up during week ten of the term, I am all about short and sweet.  So consider this data nugget as you bounce from commitment to commitment this week.

I think many of us seem to accept the campus narrative that our students are too busy.  If we were portioning out blame for this phenomenon, I suspect that a large proportion of it would fall on co-curricular involvement.  This claim isn’t entirely without merit.  We have legitimate evidence from our National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data that our students spend more hours per week involved in co-curricular activities than students at comparable institutions.

But rather than debunk this narrative, I’d like to complicate it.  Because I am not sure the real question should be whether or not our students are over-involved or under-involved in co-curricular activities.  Instead, maybe the question should be whether each of our students is involved in the right amount and array of experiences that best fit their developmental needs – a very different question than whether we should be managing our student body to an “average” amount of co-curricular involvement.

In addition to NSSE, our participation in the Wabash National Study (WNS) also provides insight into our first-year students’ behaviors and allows us to compare our first-year students to those at a number of comparable small liberal arts colleges.  While the WNS utilized the identical NSSE question regarding co-curricular involvement, it also asked students to report the number of student organizations in which they participated during the first year.  I wanted to know whether or not our high rank in co-curricular involvement would be replicated in our students’ organizational memberships.  Essentially, I wanted to know more about the nature of our students’ involvement.

Interestingly, the average number of organizations in which our first-year students participated ended up in the middle of the pack and did not mirror our high rank in amount of co-curricular involvement.  This suggests to me that our students are not bouncing around from meeting to meeting (as the “myth” might imply) without having the time to meaningfully immerse themselves in these experiences.

That is not to say that this contradicts the claim outright.  Instead, I would suggest that this finding might provide some insight into the nature of purpose – or lack of purpose – that drives our students’ co-curricular involvement.  I’ll let you chew on the implications of this possibility for our own work in between meetings, grading, teaching, and every other little thing you have to do this week.

Make it a good day – and a good end of the fall term!

Mark

Is grade inflation just a bunch of hot air?

I suspect that almost everyone has heard the “it was better in the good ol’ days” claim …if we haven’t even used it ourselves from time to time.  I would suggest that we have an academic version of this claim at Augustana.  The claim argues that there has been substantial grade inflation over the past several decades.   Apparently, this claim has carried some weight over the years, because we have created multiple mechanisms to prevent grade inflation – or at least stem the tide.

Luckily this is a claim we can test.  But before looking at the data, let’s make sure we share an understanding of this claim.  An assertion of grade inflation boils down to two points.

1)      Grades have been creeping upward.

2)      This is because faculty have shifted expectations for performance downward.

Grade inflation doesn’t just make an observation about changes in GPA; it also attributes the change to the failure of colleagues to hold the line on academic rigor.  In the context of a small college, it’s sort of a less physically damaging version of a circular firing squad.

So, testing this claim turns into two questions.  First, have grades gone up over time? And second, can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?

Have grades gone up over time?    

Yes.

From about 1991 to the present, the average GPA of each class went up by about .15 of a grade point, whether you look at each entering cohort’s end-of-year grades from the first year to fourth year or you look at each subsequent cohort’s end-of-year grades from 1991 to the 2010.

Can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?

No.

First, the increase in average GPA for each cohort from first to fourth year is predominantly explained by the departure – voluntary or otherwise – of students who struggled academically.  If you slice that group off the bottom of a class at the end of each year, and you recognize the likely influence of maturity and motivation for the students who remain, we would fully expect that the average GPA of a particular cohort of students would go up over time.

Second, from 1991 until 2010 the average ACT score of our incoming students improved by a full point – from 24.5 to 25.5. Since the ACT remained constant during that period, we can test whether the increase in GPA might be explained by the increase in students’ incoming academic ability.  It turns out that this increase in average test score explains virtually all of the change in GPA over the twenty year period in question.

The Verdict:

Faculty grading behaviors may well have changed over time – maybe for worse, maybe for better.  But we have little evidence to suggest a relationship between those behaviors and an increase in overall GPA.  In addition, we have better evidence to suggest that a change in our students’ pre-college academic ability might have influenced this change in GPA.  Interestingly, if faculty grading behaviors had changed in the way that the grade inflation claim suggests, ACT scores would have likely not been as powerful a predictor as they turned out to be.

So the next time you hear someone mention the good ol’ days in the context of academic standards and grades, you might remind them that there are other – and maybe better – explanations for this phenomenon.  You might also remind them of the relative trade-offs of a circular firing squad.

 

Make it a good day,

Mark