Comparatively Lower Grades in Philosophy Courses: Facts, Explanation, Effects, Fixes?


Informal conversations with students and professors suggest that it is harder to get a higher grade in philosophy courses than in courses offered by many other departments.

One chair of a philosophy department writes in an email, “I look at grades every semester (one of the joys of being chair) and our dept’s are lower than any others, mainly b/c fewer A+’s and as many B’s as A’s. Other depts are inflating like crazy!”

There are a few questions it would be useful to hear from readers on:

  1. At your university or college, are philosophy department grades lower than most other departments? (—especially, but not exclusively, other departments in the humanities?)
  2. If the answer to (1) is Yes, what do you think explains this?
  3. What do you think are the effects of the perception (and perhaps reality) that grades in philosophy courses are comparatively lower? (The chair who wrote in said, on this point, “I worry it hurts us getting majors, perhaps esp with the honors students.”)
  4. What, if anything, ought to be done in light of the perceived or actual lower grades in philosophy courses?

Discussion welcome.

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PrinceGoGo
2 months ago

Philosophers have to be more generous.

I don’t like the fact that this is the best way to go, and I hate grade inflation as much as anyone, but:

a) it is simply not fair for someone’s life chances to be harmed because they made the (wise?) choice of taking philosophy, and

b) philosophy departments can’t put themselves at risk by discouraging students from taking the subject by sticking to pre-2012 grades when every other dept is handing out 1sts / As very willingly (or whenever you personally think grade inflation got noticeably worse – I pick this date due to the university tuition fees increase in the UK, which definitely didn’t help).Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  PrinceGoGo
2 months ago

Once one gives in and joins a race to the bottom like this, it becomes very difficult not to see it through until the end. When you replace academic and pedagogical values with the drive to separate students’ parents from their money while giving the students (and society) much less in return, you change the students’ expectations and the disciplinary culture in ways that quickly become hard to alter.

The only thing that safeguards what remains of worthwhile undergraduate education is the refusal of some of us to keep dumbing down our standards to win these kinds of races. There will always be ways to dumb things down, and it will always be profitable to do so if the name of the game is to attract students by lessening the amount they have to do. But, despite the fact that entering college students are worse-prepared than ever, they do less and less work in an average week the longer this goes on. Throwing up our hands in philosophy and getting with the race to the bottom will accelerate that trend.

Already, I see many students taking the highest number of courses allowable despite the fact that they are working so many hours outside of school, and socializing, that they spend only a few minutes per week outside of class on any of their courses (by their own admission), and spend almost all their time in class on their computers and phones, paying little to no attention to what is going on around them. Some of the more unprincipled deans and higher administrators would love it if we all found ways to give those students As without a quibble: if enough schools did it, then the accreditation boards could be persuaded that the new batch of students can handle even more courses at once, and the colleges and universities could shake even more money out of the students’ pockets for nothing, and more quickly. Meanwhile, it would be easier to handle the coursework, which would allow entrance requirements to be dropped, which in turn would allow the school boards to dumb down their curricula for similar reasons while still boasting record-high college admission rates. This, in turn, would lead to even worse-prepared students in our classes at university (there is no bottom), and the cycle would continue and accelerate. The end result will not be good for civilization or for us.

The best solutions for the problem involve strong and uncomfortable pressure against those people, departments, and disciplines that would dumb down their standards in pursuit of their lucre and unprofessionalism.

If we can’t get that, we should make what we can in a principled manner. Departments have the power to enforce their own anti-grade-inflation standards in many ways, and they should do this.

Some students may choose to abandon their long-term interests in favor of some other departments that offer easy As. Let them go! Those students are, in essence, dupes. They are willing to blow their one big chance to develop their intellect and habits on fluff for the benefit of a few years’ leisure. But what they get out of it is a sham: a degree that will not do much to help them in the fifty-odd years of work ahead of them (just to focus on work for the moment). There are always serious students to be found who want to make the most of their time at college. The more we can cultivate and cater to them, the more we will attract the right kind of students while developing an undergraduate culture among our majors that can otherwise be lost. And the existing majors will take courses with newer students, and the influence will rub off.

It’s a longer game, but ultimately a more successful one. And if enough of us stand back and do it while other disciplines join the race to the bottom, the reputation of a philosophy major will continue to grow among employers and advanced programs while the reputations of other majors sink into ridiculousness.Report

George
George
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 months ago

It is all technical.Socialy coloured Smart ideas(?)
But I noticed that you are talking about everything exept philosophy. Though you contradict yourself. you mentioned that
Philosophy is not very practical, in short is it waist of time but you understand that we, as society need people who think(?)😀
To pull out some benefit from this contradiction would not be useful to start
whith a question:
What is Philosophy?Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  PrinceGoGo
2 months ago

Your parenthetical remark raises the question whether this is an international phenomenon (if indeed something more than anecdata) or one confined to particular countries/types of university, etc.Report

Jason Brennan
2 months ago

I don’t regard it as my job to rank students for future employers. (Indeed, I was even able, after years of effort, to get the business school at Georgetown to stop using a curve.) The empirical literature on grades is overall pretty depressing and suggests that grade assignments inhibit learning.

For that reason, I use a “teach-to-mastery” method in my classes. I tell students that as long as they pass in an assignment on time, they may revise their work as many times as they want until they get the grade they want, with a cut-off date around the end of the semester. I have no formal rules for resubmission other than “respect your time and and mine”.

Since I’ve been doing this, students have stopped complaining about grades. Getting a C on a paper is no longer a death sentence but an invitation to improve. Even students who get As often revise their work even though it cannot improve their grades.

Teach-to-mastery is the method one uses when it’s actually important to learn the material. In, say, insurance adjusting, GEICO doesn’t pass forward new trainees who understand 82% of the material. They either understand it all or they don’t handle customers. Similarly, in my classes, I create an environment where everyone can and for the most part, after some effort, does do work that I consider an “A” by undergraduate standards.

(Also, in before someone chimes in that this post demonstrates and/or reminds them that libertarianism is a thoroughly amoral doctrine and that my views are silly.)Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

I’m almost as surprised as you probably are to find myself saying this, but I actually think you’re 100% correct on this one. I’d add that something like this is pretty much the norm in most community college humanities classes, especially for professors under about 50.Report

ajkreider
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 months ago

Is it the norm? Certainly not at the CC I teach at. Any data on this?

One obstacle, addressed by Brennan below, is the seeming work involved. My load includes about 450 students per year, and I like to include lots of lower-stakes assignments (in addition to papers). Given the struggles most of my students have with longer written assignments generally, I view this technique with good deal of trepidation.

Honestly, I’d be more welcoming of this method in a pass/fail regime.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

I really like this idea but it seems difficult for larger classes and/or classes that include assessments other than papers. Are there any good resources/articles that explain this method, ideally including ways to use it for a wide range of assignments?Report

Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
2 months ago

Brennan’s approach seems like a version of “specs” grading. As far as I know, the most detailed resource on it is Linda Nilson’s, Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty timeReport

Joshua Mugg
Joshua Mugg
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
2 months ago

I use a similar method as Jason’s, though I usually only allow one ‘retry.’ A couple things to note about the time issue. First, you would be AMAZED how few students take you up on the offer to redo their work. Second, I ask my students to submit a ‘track changes’ version of the paper–which is very helpful in most cases, especially since I now tailor my comments to students to which portions they need to rework.Report

UKpostgrad
UKpostgrad
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

How many students do you have? Lecturers at my university have courses with 60-80 people. Imagine a continuous revision of 60, 2000 words essays. That’s assuming a lecturer only does one course.

I like the idea, but wonder about how feasible it is in broader practice.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  UKpostgrad
2 months ago

I usually have 120 students per year. I typically assign 4-5 “deliverables” per class, including op-eds, essays, analyses of this or that, tests, and an open-ended experiential project I do with every class.

I admit that’s a low number and someone with a 3-3 load and 300 students would have to do more work. (At the same time, that person probably gets evaluated on teaching much more than I do, while I have very strong institutional incentives to reduce my teaching time as much as possible.)

One thing that helps a lot, for me, is that I don’t nitpick assignments. I don’t mark up essays sentence by sentence or word for word. Instead, I typically give students 2-4 big bullet points about what was good and what needs to be done better.Report

Harry b
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Jason’s practice of giving 2-4 billet points far far better than the frequent practice of nit-piciness or, worse, comments aimed at justifying a grade. Students simply cannot absorb all the nitpicky points even if they can understand them (which they often can’t). All feedback should be about how to improve, and realistically they can improve in 2-4 ways.Report

Observer
Observer
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Is a “deliverable” the same thing as an “assignment”? If so, careful not to drink too much of the KoolAid your business colleagues are passing around.Report

Matt L
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

It sounds like a good idea, and one that no doubt shows a strong interest in students. It’s less plausible, of course, in places where a class must have a minimum of 40 students to be considered viable, and where that would be marginal. (That’s so where I teach, and I think it’s so for even many of the top Australian universities for undergraduate classes.) Most classes where I teach, in the program I’m in (law) have more than 100 students, and as many as 600 isn’t unusual for lower-level classes. The two classes I teach most often have averaged 230 and 185 students respectively for the last few years. So, even if only a small amount took up the option, it would be largely impossible.Report

Aaron Goldbird
Reply to  Matt L
2 months ago

In all the Australian unis I worked at the larger classes had a bunch of casual tutors/markers who sign contracts with maximum marking hours based on averages per assignment (eg. 1 essay x 40 students x 30 minutes = 20 hours). There is much less freedom to vary marking practices in those cases. Though I do wish I had thought of/heard of the open revision practice when I was teaching (around 5 years ago) since it would have given me some concrete alternative to agitate for.Report

Matt L
Reply to  Aaron Goldbird
2 months ago

That’s right on the marking – and it’s also the case that it’s difficult to impossible to do adequate marking at all in the amount of time that is paid for it. The University of Melbourne recently had to pay many millions of dollars in back pay and fines because of this – a type of wage theft. It’s also the case that top-down direction is a lot more common here. (I got an email today “inviting” me to take part in a program to think about how we can make the assignments in all of the classes in the university more similar! It’s unclear to me why we’d want to do that, but it’s taken as obvious by many of the admin, and a surprisingly large percent of the teaching staff where I am.)Report

William Lewis
William Lewis
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Jason, I tried something like this and got a lot of “sandbagging” or “test-ballooning”: students turned in shoddy work to see what grade it would get on the first pass. Have you noticed the phenomenon? IF so, any strategies to prevent it.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  William Lewis
2 months ago

I think I’ve had this happen with maybe one student in one class. I’m lucky in that nearly my students all want to get As and don’t want to do extra work to do it. So they try pretty hard on the first pass.Report

William Lewis
William Lewis
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

thank you, I understand more how you structure it now.Report

Nicole M Wyatt
Nicole M Wyatt
Reply to  William Lewis
2 months ago

One way you can prevent this is to institute a minimum level of performance on the first submission as a requirement for revision. You can also limit the number of revision opportunities per assignment or over the whole class. Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time was recommended above and has some good suggestions. Dennis Earl also has a nice paper in the current issue of Teaching Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.5840/teachphil20211118154Report

tenure track
Reply to  William Lewis
2 months ago

William,

I work at a college where many students want to put in as little effort as possible, which is often zero. So, this is a serious worry. One thing I’ve done in logic classes is allow for a chance to earn a portion of missing credit back. This allows for improvement, which also making it matter what the initial grade is (the cap for the improved grade is proportional to the initial grade). I think this would work for re-written papers as well.Report

Harry b
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 months ago

Not a libertarian myself but I do exactly the same thing with all my smaller classes. There’s an additional advantage that you don’t mention: it allows students to write more intellectually ambitious papers, knowing that if it’s a disaster they can salvage it by writing a safer one. And it’s really good for my non-philosophy-trajectory first year students who are very intimidated by the first couple of papers. I haven’t encountered the problem mentioned below of shoddy work.

But I have 20-50 students/semester in small classes I teach, so that is much more manageable than for people with higher teaching loads.Report

the facts
2 months ago

Where I last worked they circulated the distribution of grades in the department, listed by course and professor. There were some colleagues who gave high grades – students loved them, but I do not think they were effective teachers. I think they were courting the students (one of these easy graders even dated a student). I think what you will find if you decide as a group to grade a little easier (use those high grades), the quality of work will go down. First, you will be giving As for things that before you thought deserved Bs. Then you will be attracting new students in – weaker students, and you will find yourself giving them high grades too. Soon you will be reading great piles of weak work, and hating your job.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  the facts
2 months ago

Incidentally, I realize over the past year that we can opt out of student course evaluations at my school, so I did. (I sent the email to do so as a sort of fun stunt during a Northwestern Law symposium about the invalidity of SETs.) We’ll see what my school does in response, since SETs are pretty much the only thing they use to evaluate teaching effectiveness. So, at least for me, I’m not using this method to boost my merit raises, even though, frankly, I think it should!Report

Ian Cruise
2 months ago

I’ve been worried about this problem for a while. On the one hand, we don’t want to scare students away from our classes. On the other, we want to maintain rigorous standards in writing assignments. What I’ve started doing is grading students as I normally would (high standards, lots of feedback). I then give students the opportunity to revise their work in light of feedback for a replacement grade (I read revisions quickly and offer few if any comments so that the grading burden isn’t much higher than not giving students the opportunity to revise). This strategy has the double benefit of maintaining rigorous standards while simultaneously raising the final average of the class (because students almost universally do better after revisions). I think students end up improving more too because they actually take my feedback seriously instead of just looking at their grade and moving on. My limited evidence is that final paper grades (which I don’t have time to let students revise) have been higher since I started doing this than they were before.Report

Sam Duncan
2 months ago

I think we need to make some distinctions here. There’s a difference between maintaining standards and setting arbitrary numbers for how many students should fail or get A’s. There’s also a difference between maintaining standards and using supposed high standards as a defense for one’s bad teaching. I want to be clear that I’m not saying anyone here is doing this but I found myself doing it when I first started teaching and I find that some professors have done this their entire careers.
All of which is to say that if philosophy classes have lower grades relative to other humanities or social sciences we can’t make the assumption that this is due to our rigor or high standards or the inherent difficulty of our subject. It might just be that philosophers are relatively bad teachers. It also might be that we set arbitrary standards that have little to do with actual competency in the material the course covers. We need to be very careful here since blaming students for one’s own incompetence or subjecting them to arbitrarily demanding standards are both horribly unfair.
It seems to me that we need to have very clear ideas about what exactly we want students to learn in our classes and to give any student who actually displays mastery of that material an A. The first one is really important and overlooked. I had only the vaguest idea what specifically I wanted students to know when class ended when I first started teaching and no one set me right. Honestly, a lot of my own professors taught and probably still do teach that way. We also need to give students multiple chances to acquire and display this and we should treat papers, tests, and the like more as learning tools than measuring sticks. There are a lot of ways to give students chances to improve and to use assignments as learning aids that aren’t labor intensive. (I do or have done this stuff with a 5/5 and 150 students a semester so if you’ve got less you’ve no excuse). Offering the chance to revise but giving minimal comments as Ian Cruise does is one way. And it’s the one I always opt for in classes with longer writing assignments. There is also the option of requiring students to come by office hours to discuss their draft and assigning provisional grade at the end of that discussion, which they can improve by revising. This is very common practice at CCs. To do it one usually cancels a few lecture periods to make way for more office hours. This also has the advantage that one meets students and has a conversation with them. The logistics are a bit tough and it eats class time, so I go back and forth on this one. In the age of Zoom where meeting has never been easier I think I might opt for it in the future though. In logic classes one can give students who do badly on a test the chance to do another test that covers the same material. Coming up with multiple tests is of course work but you only need to do it once. I usually make my tests take home and open book (and consequently pretty hard) so scheduling isn’t an issue. Anyway those are just a few ideas. I’m sure others have more and quite likely better suggestions.Report

Ian Cruise
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 months ago

Just to be clear, I give a ton of feedback on the initial submission and then much less on the revised submission. I don’t think there’s any point in just giving a grade without much feedback and then sending students off to try to figure out on their own how to improve. Can’t tell whether that’s what you thought I do or not from your post.

I agree with you that there are many ways to maintain high standards, promote learning, and raise grades. I’ve found that students usually do better with written feedback than verbal feedback, but that may vary from student to student, and both can certainly be helpful. I’ll also note that I’m skeptical that philosophers are systematically worse teachers than others in the humanities, as would have to be case for bad teaching to explain lower grades (on the assumption that it’s true that grades in philosophy classes are on average lower than in other humanities classes). Of course, there are bad philosophy teachers, just as there are bad English teachers and bad history teachers. But it would be surprising if philosophers were on average worse teachers than these others.Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Ian Cruise
2 months ago

Yes that’s what I meant. I give a lot on draft one and minimal on 2. Sorry. That post needed another draft I suppose.Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 months ago

While I know of many philosophy professors who are amazing teachers, I do strongly suspect that as a field we have subpar teaching. The main reason is our veneration of “talent”. Every book I’ve read on good teaching is unanimous in saying that lousy to mediocre teachers put a lot of stock in talent while good ones don’t and instead emphasize work and growth. There’s also the fact that analytic philosophy is, in my experience, pretty intellectually conservative and pretty dismissive of other fields. This isn’t all bad in that we end up resisting the dumber education theory fads like “learning styles”. But it also means that a lot of philosophers blithely dismiss results in education and psychology with a lot more empirical grounding in ways our colleagues in say English or Rhetoric don’t.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 months ago

Once we started using Zoom, I started scheduling 15 minute meetings with every student every time they turn in a paper. This is plenty of time to actually discuss what an undergrad needs to hear about a short paper, and much more effective than written comments (and also prevents me from procrastinating on grading).

This time does definitely add up if you’re teaching a lot of students, but so does any form of grading and giving feedback.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Sam Duncan
2 months ago

This is a good point, Sam. We can’t use overall grading rates, alone, as a way to determine someone’s honesty as a grader.

Still, they are often good signs for further investigation. Let’s say that three colleagues of mine teach the same course. Time and again, the average grades assigned by the first two are in the mid-B range, while the third professor habitually turns in final rosters in which every single student ends up with an A or A+. Now, one possibility is that the third professor is just amazing at teaching, and manages to get every single student to learn to be outstanding (A), or more than outstanding (A+) in handling the course content at that level, leaving the other two professors in the dust. But that sort of result seems awfully implausible if any of the students apt to take the course are apt to be thoroughgoing slackers who never do their readings, habitually skip class, and spend only a few minutes each week on the assignments. Particularly at a college without astronomically tough admission standards where the course in question is often taken by non-majors, I’d put the odds of this at very close to zero.

I think the best thing in such cases is to have some sort of examination of what’s going on. What sorts of things are the students in that section expected to do, in comparison with the other two professors’ sections? If you look at a random paper that the professor has given an A to, does it really show outstanding achievement? When students who take those lower-level courses go on to a more advanced course in the department for which the first course is a prerequisite, is there any difference in the success rates of the students who completed the different professors’ courses? What do the students themselves say about the amount of time they spend on the course in an average week? (Many students nowadays seem to admit quite openly how little time they spend on coursework if asked in the right way).

I think you’re right to point out that grade distributions don’t tell the whole story. But they are at least suggestive of something worth looking into, if one wants to maintain standards in one’s department.Report

Marc Bobro
2 months ago

I think that the perception of low grades is a minor obstacle to attracting majors. My department (at a medium-sized community college) has had 50+ Philosophy majors every semester for at least 20 years. I think that the perception that Philosophy is a useless, or at least financially austere, degree is far more damaging. I’ve noticed, for instance, that interested students who are not pressured by their parents to get a useful degree are happy to become Philosophy majors, whether or not the classes are tough. That subject never comes up in my conversations with students who are trying to decide on a major. Anyway, while Philosophy grades are comparatively lower than other departments—there have been numerous studies that show this—this is mainly in relation to the Humanities and Social Sciences, with the exception of Economics. STEM classes remain difficult to achieve.Report

PPE Philosopher
Reply to  Marc Bobro
2 months ago

I teach in a PPE program and many of the students join the program because they love philosophy but feel pressure from family to major in something ‘useful.’ The ‘E’ in PPE presumably addresses this familial worry.Report

Matt L
Reply to  PPE Philosopher
2 months ago

When I was a grad student at Penn (and a TA for several PPE classes), the biggest increase in the PPE major came when the Econ department increased their math requirements. Perhaps there’s a parallel with the discussion here.Report

Junior woman
2 months ago

Just to add to UKpostgrad’s comment above, in my experience in the UK (compared to my experience in the US), lecturers (i.e. professors) mostly don’t have the same flexibility that US professors do – there is much more centralization of assignment deadlines and grade submissions, and grades are often required to be independently moderated by other faculty members (to ensure standardisation and fairness). TA’s/graders are also much more unusual. For all of these reasons, the highly flexible revision model described by some commentators here is sadly less likely to be feasible. But it’s also my impression (though I’m happy to be corrected) that the problems under discussion aren’t as bad in the UK in the first place, namely the problems of lower grades in philosophy and grade inflation more generally (there *is* a problem of grade inflation, but my unsubstantiated impression is that it’s not as bad here). This is partly because we don’t have a liberal arts system – the last two years of high school are more specialised and advanced in around 3-4 subjects, and then students apply to university for a degree more or less entirely made up of courses within their chosen subject (e.g. philosophy) – and partly because the ‘class’ degree system is less fine-grained than GPA’s. And partly because grading is almost always moderated by multiple faculty.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Disappointed grad student
Former UK Grad
Former UK Grad
Reply to  Junior woman
2 months ago

This chimes with my experience. When I TA’d courses as a UK PhD student, as well as when I took courses as a grad student there myself, there seemed to be a much higher standard for an “A” (70+). Now that I am teaching in the US, an A seems to be the expected grade for very good but not outstanding work.Report

Grad Student
2 months ago

I can testify that this was the case in my former Israeli university several years ago. What I learned from conversations with other humanities students is that this is mainly due to very low standards in the rest of the humanities. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the prizes were not shared with the rest of the humanities faculty.
What I think ought to be done is a little revolutionary: We need to push philosophy out of the humanities. What we do in philosophy, at least in the analytic side, is much closer to what they do in math and computer science, and I would take linguistics and cog sci with us as well. Our field being counted as part of the humanities does not work in our favor.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Grad Student
2 months ago

There are some schools where philosophy is housed with the social sciences already.Report

Dan
Dan
Reply to  JDRox
2 months ago

At the University of Edinburgh, it’s in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.Report

Marc Bobro
Reply to  JDRox
1 month ago

Definitely. The University of Arizona is one.Report

Zvi Cohen
2 months ago

The observation is true in my experience and I’m as “guilty” as anyone. My persepective comes from the experience of having been a phil graduate student and teaching assistant, then assistant prof until about 2007-9; subsequently, i transitioned to teaching (Hebrew) language at universities and high schools, as well as some modern Jewish history. My thoughts: the easy answer is that if what we do in phil courses is teach students “doing philosophy” rather than “about (the history of) philosophers”, it’s probably the most difficult, mind-changing subject in college. (Family of subjects really, encompassing logic, ethics, metaphysics, existentialism, etc.) If that’s the point of the course, we’d be lying to them and to ourselves if we did not grade critically. My colleagues and I as TA’s at Pitt designed a sort of hybrid multiple-choice with explanation/short answer approach to testing. The idea was that basic memomrization skills and studiousness could suffice for a normal GPA (get you up to the A range), but A+ required some ability to make connections, analyze, think with originality or creativity.Report

Evan
2 months ago

There is a rich literature on the ethics of grading in philosophy of education. But putting that aside to be more pragmatic, how ‘harshly’ you should grade depends on the class level. If it’s an introductory class, then it’s unreasonable to grade them harshly as you would more advanced leveled classes where senior philosophy majors are taking them. These seniors have had years to practice and learn and so the expectations are higher.

Unfortunately, many schools still allow novices to take an upper level philosophy course for the first time. I was one of those students. I never took an intro class because the Minds, Brains, and Metaphysics class I took sounded too interesting to pass up.

Unsurprisingly, our class had many first time philosophy students. But fortunately, my professor was so good at explaining things and her class was not hard to get an A in because she was lax about the content of our essays. As long as we followed the instructions, memorized the arguments, and did a satisfactory argument, we could get As. I think she knew most of us were first time philosophy students too; she didn’t expect us to be as seasoned as senior philosophy majors.

Being a good teacher involves being attuned to the intellectual levels of your students. But if you do have first time students taking an upper level class, it’s wise and ethical to lay out your expectations for your students and tell them how difficult it will be to obtain an A. It’s important to be straightforward and transparent at the beginning of the semester so they can decide to stay or not stay.Report

Evan
Reply to  Evan
2 months ago

I would like to add that I don’t find the claim that other classes are dumbing down convincing. Perhaps a small amount are, but I doubt in general for several reasons. First, many of these classes are quite familiar to students already e.g., biology, math, English, etc., and so they had time to harness certain skills and knowledge.

Second, each of these STEM classes mostly require completion of lower level/introductory courses in order to advance to the next level. As such, students in upper level classes are more prepared to get A’s.

Third, and this ties in with reason two, students’ at these majors and departments are on general mixed well with their peers who are of similar intellectual background. Professors do not have to feel like they have to grade each students the same or give extremely tough questions to newbies since most or all students are expected to be on similar levels. Once you take Organic Chemistry, it’s expected that you have basic and general knowledge about General Chemistry and that you should be able to handle Organic like the rest of your peers. There’s not much incentive for professors to “dumb down.”

Last, and I’ve written about this before on the Cocoon, STEM departments have more tutoring for students compared to philosophy. So that increases the likelihood of students in these fields getting more A’s than philosophy students.

Given these reasons, I’m highly skeptical of the claim that these departments are dumbing down or that there’s a “grade inflation” (whatever that really means). If we admit that on the whole, these departments are more equipped and resourceful to allow students to get more A’s than philosophy students, then the fact that non-philosophy students do have more A’s is unsurprising. At least, to me.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Evan
Jamie
Jamie
Reply to  Evan
2 months ago

Those would be plausible explanations for why students in STEM departments have higher GPAs than students in philosophy, except for one thing: they don’t. They have lower GPAs.Report

Evan
Reply to  Jamie
2 months ago

Yes, but STEM + these other non-philosophy departments. If we include introductory STEM classes, then that adds to the amount of A’s non-philosophy students have. There are many easy lower level STEM classes as well as other humanities classes. If this was mainly comparing STEM vs. philosophy, then perhaps you are right. I’m just trying to figure out all the other causal factors at play here.Report

Nate Sheff
2 months ago

I’m pretty sure hardly any professors, in any department, receive any pedagogical training. If that’s true, should that affect our answers to (1)-(4)?Report

Nick
2 months ago

A few years ago, I was UG director for my department, and I noticed that the highest mark in a large second year course (250 students) went to someone who wasn’t a philosophy major (the course was mandatory for philosophy majors, and about half were 2nd year philosophy students). I emailed the student to let them know they got the best mark and to ask whether they had ever considered switching to philosophy, given that they were obviously very good at it. The student emailed back that they were very surprised because they thought they were actually crap at philosophy, as their mark in that course was low relative to their marks in other subjects. This made me realise that insofar as marks tell students information, we need to speak the common language.

That said, I also think it is extremely common for work that deserves to fail to be given a passing grade, sometimes even a decent mark, eg. a C or even B. Students in philosophy classes often think — and are right to think — that they can skip tons of class, do almost no readings, write what is basically garbage full of misunderstandings, and still pass the course. If they tried that in any subject in the sciences, they would fail very badly, and even many humanities subjects imo have higher minimum standards.Report