Professor Philip Vogt gained a reputation as the hardest grader at Lawrence Technological University. That’s not necessarily a good thing, for professors or students. While an “easy A” is what many students look for in a teacher, they really hurt themselves in the long run — academically, professionally and in their personal life. Dr. Vogt explains in the following essay that appeared in The Detroit Free Press.
Easy grading fails to serve students’ education
I am not Morrie Schwartz, the easygoing professor described by Mitch Albom in “Tuesdays with Morrie.” I’m also not the imperious Professor Charles Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase.” What I am, apparently, is the person with the reputation as the hardest professor at Lawrence Tech. See for yourself at www.ratemyprofessors.com, a website where students from across the country post comments.
Love me or hate me, students agree that my classes are very challenging, that I expect them to work hard, and that I’m a strict grader.
All of which puts me at odds with national trends. Higher-education researcher George Kuh describes an “informal treaty” between professors who give easy grades and students who reward them with the favorable course evaluations on which tenure and promotions increasingly depend.
Not surprisingly, the secretary of education in 2006 reported that “the quality of student learning at U.S. colleges and universities is inadequate, and, in some cases, declining.”
Economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks find that 67% of full-time college students studied more than 20 hours per week in 1961, while only one in five does so today. A 2005 study by the National Center of Education Statistics found that only 41% of today’s college graduates exhibit the “proficiency” required to understand information in “short texts” such as editorials or prescription labels.
For more than 10 years, my supervisors commended me for high standards and outstanding results. “He is a tough and demanding teacher who shows students how far they can reach academically” (2004). “Dr. Vogt’s teaching evaluations are consistently excellent, with especially high marks for his knowledge of the course material, his ability to promote and stimulate critical thinking, and his willingness to help students” (2009). “Dr. Philip Vogt continues to hold students to the highest possible standards of performance despite increasing demands on his time” (2010).
Then things abruptly changed. Here’s what the same department chair who praised me in 2009 and 2010 said in my evaluation for 2011: “After a decade of failure, and negative reactions from students, it behooves Vogt as an educator to find those practices that lift the majority.”
The dean simultaneously presented me with data showing that I gave A’s or B’s in a recent semester to 26% of my students in a multi-section course while other instructors gave A’s and B’s to almost 87%. Instead of being congratulated for resisting grade inflation, I was told to raise my grades. I was told that too many students withdraw from my courses or complain that I’m intimidating, but I was also told that these problems would resolve themselves if only I was an easier grader.
This prediction seemed plausible but dubious: In his book “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education” (2003), Valen Johnson notes that “higher grades do lead to better course evaluations,” though “student course evaluations are not very good indicators of how much students have learned.”
Why the sudden institutional about-face? Lawrence Tech faces a number of pressures that might make grade inflation tempting. Tuition has increased while enrollment has declined. In 2010, the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., found that we had the worst gap in black and white graduation rates of any college or university, public or private, in the nation. Because of aggressive overseas recruitment, students with an inadequate grasp of English are showing up in our classes.
Whatever the problem is, it can’t ethically be solved by abandoning professional principles and lowering standards.
Academically, we no longer live in the world of Morrie or Professor Kingsfield. That’s our loss. If you’re an educator like me, it’s our duty to fix it.