HSE University has been discussing the problem of grade inflation since the middle of this spring. A number of solutions have been proposed to address the issue, including some mathematical methods like rationing or distribution over a scale. Fuad Aleskerov, a leading expert in decision-making and the Head of Department of Mathematics in the Faculty of Economic Sciences, believes that mathematical models should not be used to assess student performance.
First of all, I should say that grade inflation is a very serious problem, and it is very good that HSE is addressing it now. We cannot possibly delay a decision on this matter any longer: this issue directly affects the University’s reputation. HSE University has had an impeccable reputation for many years — and we all know that it is much easier to lose one’s reputation than to gain it.
From my perspective, the solution to this problem should by no means be single, top-down, and one-size-fits-all. Personally, I am against grade rationing. We deal with individuals, not viruses or production materials. Working with people requires an individual approach.
Looking at the mid-term and end-of-the-year results of my students, I’d say that I myself tend to inflate grades. However, I won’t correct any of the grades I have given. It just so happens that this year I’ve got some wonderful students. It is mainly because we apply a system of elective course. Students who came to my seminars and didn’t drop out demonstrated extraordinary results. The course paper of some second-year Bachelor’s students will soon be published by a journal indexed in the Web of Science, and some other papers appear to be of similar high quality — we just need to touch them up a bit and they can be published as well. We should be glad we have such great students and we cannot possibly use a single, uniform approach.
I’ve had the opposite experience, too—it was the only time that I was teaching a course for Bachelor’s students (other than that, I have always taught Doctoral students). At the end of the semester, I gave As, Bs, or Cs to 43 out of 127 students. The rest received Ds.
I would agree that an exam score is a relative thing. But when I assign grades, I know what performance students are supposed to deliver to get a 10 (A) and what deserves a 6 (D). Suppose the majority of a group receives 6s from me. Why should I inflate or deflate their grades? What for?
At the same time, I’d like to reiterate that we should fight against grade inflation. In my opinion, grade inflation is essentially related to online learning. When I was in Cambridge 10 years ago, I heard that online studies did involve some degree of academic dishonesty — I was told that online courses triggered the appearance of some companies (many of them were established outside England) offering services of writing papers for students. However, an effective solution was found quickly: a rule was introduced that students were supposed to defend their papers offline and answer a number of questions.
I think this is more or less the way for us to go forward. Restrictions or rationing are less likely to do the job. A survey conducted in the USA at the beginning of the pandemic showed that the majority of teachers (86%) were against proctoring, as ‘it undermines trust between students and teachers’.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that is right. I usually look up at the ceiling when I am contemplating something so that nothing disturbs me. Now suppose a proctoring system is watching me during an exam and says that my behaviour is suspicious. I would take it as an insult and I would never have confidence in either the system or the instructor who didn’t believe me.
To avoid any academic dishonesty in online courses, I ask my students to complete an individual exam task within a time limit. Another effective way to understand who works on their own and who cheats by resorting to their mates’ help is to arrange elective mini-quizzes based on the students’ homework during seminars. If the student’s work looks great, but he or she is not able to answer the questions, then an A can easily turn into a D. Moreover, I believe that we need to document somewhere that the instructor has the right to ask students additional questions if they suspect cheating. I know that the Student Council is trying to challenge this requirement. However, I think it would be better if the Student Council focused more on supporting the University’s image as well as effectively assisting lower achieving students by arranging additional consultations with instructors or higher performing peers, etc. That said, the instructor should be able to check student’s knowledge and have discretion in deciding what grades to give.
And why this might not as good as it seems
I can tell you a story based on my personal experience. When I was a second-year student at the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (MSU), Boris Demidovich, a great teacher and an outstanding mathematician, taught us mathematical analysis. At the end of the first semester, we had to take an exam in this subject, and Boris Demidovich was the examiner. The exam was difficult, but I managed to answer the questions and I went on to solving the given tasks. I thought everything would be perfectly fine—the examiner was looking at me favorably and I was proudly delivering a lengthy well-prepared speech. Suddenly, when I was explaining the eighth or the ninth task, I got carried away and I said, ‘Here I made a transformation, I don’t quite remember what the value is, but this is a standard integral.’ I was just showing off—we were cool second-year students studying differential equations, so I thought that standard integrals were something too simple and not worthy of our attention. Of course, I remembered everything as we had been taught very well.
The examiner said, ‘If you don’t remember, you’ll get a D.’ I yelped, ‘I do remember.’ But he said, ‘It’s too late’. I remember walking down the hall looking very said. But then I remembered how his eyes had smiled when he was giving me that D. He must have seen quite a lot of students like me in his life.
A week later, I received an A from him, but I did learn a lesson. He was right to give me a D—you have to be serious about your major subject and you shouldn’t show off. This was the lesson I learned once and for all. Nowadays, a student would probably have complained about the examiner to the Dean’s Office… I know we should think about ratings and discounts, but we shouldn’t forget that exams are part of our moral upbringing.