Where's my bike tire pump?

Apr 26 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

So here's a question for the blog peeps: what percentage of the students in classes you have taken or taught get A's?

In my classes I probably hand out somewhere between 10-25% A's depending on the class. Is it because I'm an asshole and expect unreasonable standards?

Maybe. I guess it all depends on the comparison. Friend of the blog, Namnezia, let it be known on twitter this evening that his 130 student mid-level class has a 65% rate of A's and 90% of the students "earn" a B or better.

To me, this is mind blowing. I don't know where Nam teaches, but perhaps it's the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning but I've been at a few universities in my time. I've even taught a few undergrads.

So my question to you is whether, in places I have not inhabited, it is common for 90% of the students to master 80%+ of the material? Or, could we be looking at a case of ridiculous grade inflation?

Perhaps I'm way off base here.

46 responses so far

  • BugDoc says:

    Are you talking about grad or undergrad? In our grad classes, students have to get a B or better to pass. So in that case, it would not be unusual to have 70-90% of the students get a B or better. Undergrad is totally different. I take the top 3 numerical scores, set that at 100% and that's the curve. I would say that average grade is about a B- for undergrad classes.

  • Dr Becca says:

    In the class I just finished teaching, we had just over half the class get As or Bs, with more Bs than As.

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    30% with an "A-" or better in my undergrad genetics course. I feel like this is too high personally.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm talking about undergrad classes. The only reason to talk about grad grades is to debate why we even have them.

    Of course if we're handing out As to undergrads just for showing up, perhaps that debate is wider still. Perhaps we should go to a new grading system - Star, smiley face, carebear.

  • fusilier says:

    I have a passing rate (C or better) of about 50%. 8-10% earn A's.

    That's pretty much the national average for Human Anatomy and Physiology courses allied health students take to prepare for their program courses. I'm at a community college; our enrollment is 650 students/semester (maxed out room usage, I could double that number without much problem if I had the resources.)

    In most cases this is one of the first college-level courses my student have ever taken, and in all too many cases it is the first science course they have ever taken.

    There are no prerequisite classes. The nursing program faculty refuse to let us require stuff like HS-level chemistry or general biology, since that would interfere with the "two year degree" promise they make.

    James 2:24

  • geeka says:

    I was under the impression that since C=Average, then an average number of students get Cs, so the bell curve should center on a C.

    If too many students are getting As, that means that they aren't being challenged enough or there is some significant teaching towards the test.

    (the above is for UG major classes only. I expect there's some shift w/ grad and 'core' classes)

  • Sarah says:

    At my undergraduate institution, the average grade for large classes had to be a B or lower. In two humanities classes I took, all of the exams were curved down after the initial grading to fulfill this grade distribution requirement.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Things I tweeted from last night that are relevant:

    The most common grade given at American universities is A. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/the-history-of-college-grade-inflation/

    B, D and F have stayed more or less constant over the years, while Cs are dropping significantly. Private institutions are more likely to give As than public ones, and grade have been increasing more there.

    A blog post about what the distribution should look like: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-grades-should-look-like.html

    And, because my grades are public record anyway, here is a spreadsheet and graphs of grades I've given in classes I have taught: http://t.co/vjhQbUHm

    Bottom line: There's no agreement or standards from place to place. Comparing GPAs is a mug's game.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Related question: What score do your students have to get to earn what grade? Where are the break points in the distribution?

    In my department:

    A = > 90%
    B = 80-89%
    C = 70-79%
    D = 60-69%
    F = < 60%

  • fusilier says:

    @Zen Faulkes:

    Those are my grade values.

    No bonus points, no "rounding up."

    In the trade we have what we call The Gurney Test: "Someday I'm going to be wheeled in on a gurney and I want to look up and know you got an A in my problem."

    James 2:24

  • minion says:

    Australian university: 7% HD (equivalent to an A?); 15% Distinction, 25% Credits; 50% Pass.

    Not sure how these translate exactly to A, B, C & Fails.

  • minion says:

    Just saw Zen Faulkes' breakdown, here:

    HD: >85%
    Distinction: 75-84
    Credit: 65-74
    Pass: 50+

  • Namnezia says:

    I don't see the point in having a curve so that you hit an ideal grade distribution. In my view, grades in a college course should reflect mastery of the material not relative ranking of students. Thus there is no reason why 100% of the students can't get an A. To grade on a curve simply fosters competition between students, creating a cutthroat environment that lends itself to cheating and such, rather than to collaborative learning. Since in my school there are only A,B,C and F grades (no D's) the cutoff for a B is a 75%. Can I say that 90% of the students understand 75% of the material. Sure, and I consider this a success, not a problem as PLS is suggesting. I see the students work hard, ask questions, participate in class and in discussions and I have no issue saying that they are smart. Mind you, this is not an intro class, has several prerequisites and is not really required unless you decide to major in my discipline. So all the students in the class are quite motivated to be taking it.

  • Namnezia says:

    And now looking at Zen's graphs (for his Neuro class, which seems the most equivalent to mine) and based on the different scales A,B,C,D,F vs A,B,C,F we would end up hitting very similar numerical grade distributions.

  • pyrope says:

    I was 'raised' academically at private universities where grade inflation is the norm. I think that this makes me a much easier grader than many of my peers (I'm now at a public U). One of my classes is lab and exam based, so the grading is pretty cut and dry. But, the other classes are seminars with papers and presos and I have a hell of a hard time giving them anything lower than a C...actually, I have a hard time giving them Cs - the average grade in those classes was probably a B+/A-

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Since in my school there are only A,B,C and F grades (no D's) the cutoff for a B is a 75%.

    Then you have an institutional scale already in place to artificially inflate grades. I'm sure it makes the place look good. No matter what letters you remove from the alphabet, since when does a 75% = B? Basically you are saying that 90% of your class is in the top 25% of the class. YAY, stars and glitter for everyone!

    Dude, I'm teaching upper level classes with motivated students too. I'm not blaming you for following institutional patterns, I'm just not sure I buy that students have gotten so much smarter in the last 15 years that everyone deserves A's.

  • Natalie says:

    UG Intro Biochem class I helped mark: 40% had grades of 80% or above (B or higher).

    I'm not sure what the A-B divide looked like, but I'm guessing 15%-ish for As and 25%-ish for Bs. Class of 155.

  • It changes from year to year, mostly due to the quality of the instruction in the foundation course the semester before mine. This year the grades have shifted down a bit and will be about 15% A; 40% B; 40% C; 5% D or F.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Can you imagine something like this happening these days? In the mid 1950's the University of Texas was overrode with undergraduate geology majors. There is a series of required courses. I am in class with 300 others. The first day of class, the professor tells us, "There is room for only 120 students in the next class, therefore only 120 of you will receive a grade of C or higher and be able to advance to the next class." OK, everyone digs in. About two weeks before the end of class, the professor tells us that he wants to spread the grades out to be more fair, and will give us the hardest test he can make up. Test is given. Next class period, the professor comes in and just shakes his head. "The average on the test was 89.5%. Your course grade will be determine by your lab instructor." I got an A, which I suspect 120 of us did, and advanced to the next course.

  • Namnezia says:

    Basically you are saying that 90% of your class is in the top 25% of the class. YAY, stars and glitter for everyone!

    No, it doesn't mean that. The grade reflects mastery of the material, not ranking of students against each other.

  • profguy says:

    I teach at a highly esteemed private institution. We have major undergrad grade inflation. Most students get As or Bs, I believe, though I don't know the exact numbers.

    I think whether to grade on a curve or not is not simple. One does hear the argument that rather than a symptom of grade inflation per se, our high grades do in fact represent mastery of the material - our U is very hard to get into and so one hears the argument that "all the children here are above average" made quite seriously. This can be taken too far but is it entirely ridiculous? If we accept that argument, would we not then want to give our students harder material to challenge them? Then if they don't get 90 on the test, should we punish them for having been good enough to be worthy of the harder material?

    Another point about curves in hard math or physics classes (my area): in these classes one has to assign difficult problems with lengthy calculations. I don't think it makes sense to decide on an absolute scale ahead of time. One can have mastered the material pretty well while still failing to get all the problems completely right - it's just hard to carry out those calculations so quickly, but even harder to give good exam questions that are less lengthy or difficult. So we give really hard problems and just see how far the students get. In this situation it is hard to avoid using some kind of curve. When I was an undergrad in such classes a 50/100 would often be a respectable grade on an exam, and it still is in some of my classes.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    So, there's two issues: 1) Institutional inflation (if you compare the GPA or transcript of one of my students, even if they got the same % score as Nam's wunderkidz, you would conclude that they were not as good a student), and 2) whether a course is tweaked for the current population. I would imagine that class adjustments are easier with smaller classes.

    Profguy kinda gets at my point: If your students are soooo amazing that they can handle what you are throwing at them with absolute ease, then doesn't it make sense to beef things up?

    I have taught my main class three times now. The first time my expectations were not well aligned with my ability to get across all the material I out into the course. The students did not perform as well as I hoped and I made some adjustments along the way to compensate for my short-comings as a teacher. The second time I delivered the material more effectively and the class ended up at about a 77% average (a C+ in the real world). This year the average will likely be in about the same range, but slightly higher, because I am adjusting the depth of the material to meet what I think the students can handle.

    If my average was in the high 80s, I would make significant changes - but not because I don't like a high average. I would give the students more depth and challenge their ability to synthesize the material while giving them the material they need to develop that skill. Some classes deal better with this than others and I'm finding I can challenge them more as I develop my ability to teach more effectively. My grade split will probably be close to:

    A 15%
    B 35%
    C 30%
    D 10%
    F 10%

  • Ewan says:

    Public U, "notoriously hard" intro behavioral neuro class if you believe the student feedback and/or ratemyprofessor..

    A 10-15%
    B 15-20%
    C 20-30%
    D ~10%

    W (withdraw, dropping class generally to avoid an F) 30-40%

    F very few, <5%, the cases who refuse to believe mathematics after the second midterm grade..

    In the advanced class that follows:
    A 15-20%
    B 30-40%
    C 30-40%
    D <10%
    F <5%

  • yvr_fca_osl says:

    I work in a humanities field at a faculty where we take suppression of grade inflation as a point of pride. In 100 level first year courses, a curve simply emerges naturally, one doesn't have to impose it. No more than 10% of students can get an A. C is the standard grade. The whole "C means average work, adequate but not spectacular" is taken very seriously. By the time we get to 400 level seminars, it is much more common for a good chunk of students to get A's, but even then it usually doesn't go above 1/3 of the students. It is hard t get an A here, and it really means something as a result.

    There is another faculty here that has a particularly poor reputation because they have the lowest scores at the University for incoming freshman, but also the highest average grade per class - 40% or so earn A's, even in the first year courses. This is taken as evidence of their bad standards and poor teaching.

  • PUI Prof says:

    It depends: My large, lower level intro class that is a prereq for a health related program (see Guerney test): Average is firmly 75-78% year after year.

    But the seniors (average 7-12 per class) average much higher, prob 80-90% As. But they really ARE ALL doing EXCELLENT work. If you weed out the below average students in a rigorous program, then the class averages DO go up.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I usually taught one of the general education courses to 186 people at a whack. One summer I taught it to a class of six people. They all did well and all got A's. So I am an advocate of improving teaching outcomes by having smaller classes. Incidentally, I am told my university no longer teaches general education courses in large sections.

  • Isabel says:

    "it is common for 90% of the students to master 80%+ of the material?"

    It should be. Especially since we know that they will retain even less after the semester is over.

    Unless you are saying this mastery is not important. Either that or you want to weed out vast numbers of students right from the get-go.

  • B says:

    PLS: I highly endorse teaching students more if they can handle it. However, this should not necessarily be reflected in the end-of-term grades*. If a student in a "bright" class receives a B for work that would typically earn him/her an A within a more typical class, the grades no longer are useful indicators of a student's actual knowledge. This is what I would want in looking at a student - "Do they know the subject well," as opposed to "Were they in the top x% in a class in their year?"

    The main problem with my argument is that it's asymmetric. In practice, professors do not penalize entire classes for failing to meet their requirements - instead, the course slows down and less material is covered. In principle, if this happens, no students should receive As - but of course this would cause trouble.

    * - somewhat orthogonally, there's the question of how to motivate students if they understand that they will still get an A even if they don't master the most challenging material. This definitely was a problem in one of my advisor's grad classes, since he's a notoriously easy grader.

  • Socal_dendrite says:

    Can I ask a stupid question..? What sort of tests/exams are these scores based on? Are they multiple choice, short answer, calculations, or essay-based? I ask because it seems like it would be harder to test excellence in students (ie achieve a spread of results from the test) via some methods than others. I'm not familiar with the US undergrad system and would appreciate knowing more about how it generally works here in the biological sciences.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Namnezia says he test by multiple choice, I do a combo of short answer and essay.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Socal_dendrite: It depends. Introductory courses tend to be multiple choice, short answer sorts of things (due to number of students); more advanced classes are more likely to contain essay questions and term papers.

  • fusilier says:


    My lecture and lab quizzes (5 pts, every class there isn't a major exam on the calendar) and lecture exams are Multiple Guess, Matching, and Ture/Flase. ;^)

    Lab exams are identification/ short answer, and spelling does count. The ilieum and the ilium are not the same thing.

    James 2:24

  • fusilier says:


    the "ileum"

    sorry for the phumbling phingers

    James 2:24

  • Dan says:

    Much of this disagreement seems to be about what grades are about. Rather than force everyone to have the same standard, what about simply providing some context to those reading a transcript.

    UNC is going to start including median grade for all students in the course on the transcript along with other contextual information: http://alumni.unc.edu/print.aspx?sid=8213

    I teach at a private SLAC with relatively low grades relative to peers- this seems like a great idea for us.

  • CSgrad says:

    What is this idea that an 80% average is just so meaningful and the only valid grade ranges involve 10 percentage points? When I was an undergrad, the big required classes had a C or a C+ average, and upper-level classes had a B or B- average for the most part. But only in a few classes was there any of this 90-100% is an A, 80-90% is a B stuff. I took at least a few classes where the cutoff for a B was in the 60-65% range, and some where the cutoff for a C was below 50%. Believe me, it wasn't because the only grades were gold stars and Care Bears. It was because the professors wrote difficult exams. This was at a famous "Institute of Technology", where the students had nearly all been academic superstars in high school, and they ended up on academic probation for failing to get a C average for the semester or pass enough units pretty regularly despite profs not adhering to some arbitrary idea that you must have at least an 80% to get a B.

  • Alex says:

    Yeah, before I know whether 80% or whatever is a good grade, I need to know:
    1) How hard are the questions?
    2) How lenient is the partial credit policy?

    Without those pieces of data, I have no basis for evaluating whether a given percentage is a good grade or bad grade.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    More stories from the Lower Cretaceous. First semester of freshman biology, I went blank and blew the final. I received the second high grade out of 300 and was the high B. Second semester did not go as well. Come final time, I figured I needed a 76 to get my B. I worked on the final until I had 82 points and handed it in. My lab instructor came running after me asking why I did not finish the final. I explained. That summer I saw him on campus. He called me over and told me in confidence, 'The grades were so bad that for the first time in history, the Biology Department curved grades. You did get 82 on your final. If you had finished and gotten an 85, you would have received an A."

    Moral of the story is don't outsmart yourself.

  • aprofessor says:

    My breakdown for an intro physics course: 22 A's, 33 B's, 26 C's, 9 D's, and 10 F's. But about 5 of those F's gave up and stopped coming to class at one point or another.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    CSgrad: That's a good question, and a might be part of a bigger issue: do grades mean anything?

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said something like, "Look at the most influential people right now. The real movers and shakers, creatives, and so on. Did they all have 4.0 GPAs in university? Of course not. You know they didn't. So why do we put so much effort into pretending it matters?"

  • Paul Agapow says:

    From my (Australian) undergraduate, I recall a variety of patterns but usually the percentage of A / 7 / High Distinctions was in the single figures. The typical mark was around C / 4-5 / Credit. As for honours year, first class was tough, with a lot of 2a and 2b's, although some departments were notably more generous than others. Teaching later in the UK, it seemed that things had gotten easier (although the standard riposte was that the students were just better ...)

  • anon says:

    PLS - you post a 10% failure rate in your class, which seems high. Isn't that something that would concern you? Do you encourage 10% of your students to drop the class, or do you call these students to your office to figure out what's going on?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm including fails and drops in that number. Part of this is due to certain programmatic requirements of the major that results in some "less interested" students in the class.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I started out wanting to be an aeronautical engineer. We had a freshman convocation. The Dean of Engineering addressed us and told us to look at the person on our right and the person on our left, because neither of those students would receive an Engineering degree. I am not sure if I was on the right or the left.

  • Dr. BPD says:

    25% seems very high to me (highly ranked public institution).

  • Mark P says:

    Mid level Required core course in Cell and Developmental Biology--size 100-200 students (we have three core courses all Bio majors must take). Our Dept policy, which we largely do a good job of adhering to, is no more than 50% As PLUS B's. so about 25% As

    Upperlevel course that's very competitive to get into and has some of our Depts best seniors and advanced juniors--size 35 students--40-50% As--also had 22% C's

    We just had a data review and discussion of grade inflation--Biology and Math are the only two Departments totally holding the line.

  • Namnezia says:

    In all truth, I'm all for all courses being pass/fail.

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