Grade Entitlement

February 21, 2009

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about grade entitlement. Having taught for a number of years (too many) now at MIT, I’ve had a lot of issues with this. Every semester, when grades are given out, the complaints begin. It usually starts with an email expressing bewilderment over a grade (B+, amazingly, most commonly prompts the complaint) and emphasizing the students tremendous effort over the course of the semester. They did all the work, they expected an A, and they got sandbagged.

I’ve never, though, been able to put this experience into larger context, as my teaching experience is mostly limited to MIT, and MIT as a school is an outlier. I teach social science courses at an elite science and engineering school that is very selective (less than 10% of applicants were admitted this past year). To make matters worse, MIT does not record +/- grades on its permanent transcripts (everything is A,B,C), so there is some reason for the recipient of a B+ to be unhappy. So it is interesting to see that the phenomenon of grade entitlement is common at other schools as well.

By “grade entitlement” I mean the belief among students that showing up for lectures, doing the assignments in good faith, and (to a certain extent) doing the readings entitles them to an A. In other words, if you do a certain minimum amount of work, you should be given an A in the class.

I do think that this is especially the case teaching social science classes at MIT. The courses I teach are not taken as seriously by the students as their core science classes. Usually they are taken only to fulfill a requirement. Besides being less important to them, there is also the widely held perception that the social sciences are easier than the ‘hard’ sciences. Also, I think in most of their classes, which are in the sciences, there is a stronger relationship between effort and grade. More of the work in those classes involves rote learning. In the social sciences, there is an element of creativity involved when it comes to working with the concepts and theories covered in a class.

But if this sense of entitlement appears across subjects and schools, then there has to be another explanation at work. This article really doesn’t offer much in terms of an explanation, but the quotes from students are telling and worth reading in and of themselves.

It may just be (and I suspect this is part of the explanation) that today’s college-age generation was raised to feel a lot of pressure to achieve, and that that pressure has produced in them a sense of entitlement. But that’s only speculation, and in itself isn’t much of an explanation.

I also think that there’s a self-promoting aspect to this. I have to admit that it is all too easy to give into the pressure to give out higher grades. This is not so much from changing grades after complaints, but from anticipating complaints to begin with. Who wants to give out a B+ is you suspect it’s going to be challenged? It’s all too easy to look for ways to make it an A-. This doesn’t happen consciously (at least not in my case!), but I’m certain that there is a subconscious effect. This grade inflation only serves to raise expectations the next time, of course. Who wants to be the only instructor giving out B+’s? Especially when teaching quality is largely (actually, solely) evaluated according to student surveys.

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