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At the beginning of this school year, Princeton University changed its contentious grading
policy. The university had previously limited the number of students who could receive A
grades, but rescinded for a variety of reasons, including fears that the lower GPAs
disadvantaged Princeton students on the job market and discouraged the top students
from applying to the university in the first place.
Grading can feel like the cruelest part of the semester for teachers and students alike. And
no one seems to have quite gotten it right. Commentary on grading brings to mind the
story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like the porridge that is too hot or too cold or the
Does England Have the Solution to the Grade-Inflation
In America, more and more universities are imposing strict grading curves or abolishing
grades altogether. The UK takes an entirely different approach, and it’s working.
Students in Brighton, England, receive their A-level results in August 2014.
OCT 20, 2014 | EDUCATION
bed that is too big or too small, grading policies are either too lenient or too harsh. Top U.S.
universities have come under fire in recent years for grade inflation. A grades have been the
most common grade at Harvard for 20 years, and the median grade there today is an A-.
There’s even a website that has tracked grade inflation in American schools and
universities over time.
On the other end of the scale, France is currently figuring out how to reform a high school
system that gives out overly punitive grades. A 16 out of 20 on a baccalauréat exam is
currently an exceptionally high result.
Students,teachers, and employers can all find their way in a
system where grades are nottoo high and nottoo low, butjust
So how do we find Goldilocks’ ‘just right’ for grades? The discussion circles around
disagreements about what grades actually mean and who they are for. Are grades signals to
students about their mastery of content and the skills of a discipline? Are they ways for
professors to establish credibility or purchase popularity? Or are grades meant to send
messages to future employers, rather than to the students themselves?
One reaction to this puzzle has been to simply abolish grades altogether. At least 10
colleges in the U.S., including Bennington and Reed, don’t give students letter grades
(though Reed records them at the registrar’s office). The schools say they are encouraging
students to focus on the intrinsic value of learning rather than the letter they’ll earn at the
end of a course.
If abolishing grades seems too much like a relic from the 1960s, there’s also the dual track
system. Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, gives students two
grades. One grade appears on their transcripts, and the second reflects what Mansfield
believes that students actually deserved.
Other schools have taken the opposite approach, implementing a campus-wide quota
system. Introduced in 2004, Wellesley’s policy mandated that the average grade in
introductory and intermediate courses with over 10 students must equal a B+ or lower.
The policy change only affected humanities and social science departments, as grades in
science departments were already being given in keeping with those quotas. One study
showed that student enrollment fell by 19 percent in courses where the cap was newly
implemented. Students were also less likely to major in those subjects than they had been
A final suggestion draws inspiration from the country where I pursued my own
undergraduate education. Why not simply have fewer grades and accept that the majority
of students might receive the same mark? The United Kingdom’s system only has three
classes of grades: first, second, and third (although second is split into 2:1 and 2:2). A first
denotes work of outstanding quality. In 2012 to 2013, 19 percent of students graduated
with a first. An overwhelming 76 percent of students received a second-class degree (51
percent earned a 2:1, 25 percent a 2:2). Only 5 percent were given a third.
The U.K. is not immune to disputes about grade inflation. But it’s telling that the most
common grade by far is still a second, not a first. When employers all accept that a secondclass
degree already provides a stamp of quality, it removes the narcissism inherent in
minor differences. There are also fewer incentives for professors to assign higher grades if
students recognize that the majority of them will receive the same mark. And sticking to
four grades hasn’t harmed the UK’s stellar standings in global university league tables.
This approach might be called the Goldilocks principle of grading. It suggests that
students, teachers, and employers can all find their way in a system where grades are not
too high and not too low, but just right. And that might mean the majority of students get
exactly the same grade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HEIDI TWOREK is a lecturer and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the History Department
at Harvard University.
TwitterAs a doctoral candidate interviewing at a liberal-arts college some years ago, I rambled,
waded through pages of notes, and completely lost my train of thought at one point during
my job presentation. Even though I was eventually offered the position, I was keenly aware
that, despite interviewing for a job in which I’d have to stand in front of students day after
day, I’d never been trained in giving a lecture—and it showed.
But that lack of training is not unusual; it’s the norm. Despite the increased emphasis in
recent years on improving professors’ teaching skills, such training often focuses on
incorporating technology or flipping the classroom, rather than on how to give a traditional
college lecture. It’s also in part why the lecture—a mainstay of any introductory
undergraduate course—is endangered.
For some years now, students in MIT’s introductory physics classes, for example, have had
no lectures, and physics departments at institutions around the country have been
following suit. But while the movement to eliminate the college lecture first gained traction
among physics professors, including the Stanford Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and
Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?
As schools incentivize innovative research, quality in-class experiences can fall by the
JUL 14, 2016 | EDUCATION
Michaela Rehle / Reuters
Harvard’s Eric Mazur (a proponent of “peer instruction” who has compared watching a
lecturer to learn physics to watching a marathon on TV to learn how to run), it has
expanded beyond the sciences. Getting rid of the college lecture entirely is the mission of a
broad group of educators.
Educators and administrators alike argue that active learning yields superior results to the
lecture. Wieman recently issued a fresh plea to educators to stop lecturing. For Wieman,
who sees himself more as a kind of cognitive coach than the traditional “sage on the
stage,” the college lecture is like bloodletting—an outdated practice that has long been in
need of radical reform.
But is it the college lecture itself that’s the problem—or the lecturer?
“Many college lectures today are deemed dull—and with good
Concerns about the lecture derive from anecdotal impressions as well as research data,
including one meta analysis of 225 studies looking at the effectiveness of traditional
lectures versus active learning in undergraduate STEM courses. That analysis indicated
that lecturing increased failure rates by 55 percent; active learning—meaning teaching
methods that are more interactive than traditional lectures—resulted in better grades and a
36 percent drop in class failure rates. High grades and low failure rates were most
pronounced in small classes that relied on active teaching, supporting the theory that more
students might receive STEM degrees if active learning took the place of traditional
Still, although proponents of the movement to move away from the lecture cite data on its
ineffectiveness, the debate has failed to take into account the fact that academics are
rarely, if ever, formally trained in public speaking.
Many people think riveting lecturers are naturally gifted, but public-speaking skills can be,
and are, taught. The art of rhetoric was practiced and taught for millennia, beginning in
ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago; oratory skills were a social asset in antiquity, a way to
persuade, influence, and participate in civic life. “For most of the Western tradition,
oratory was not regarded as a separate subject, but as a part of rhetoric, which was about
the artful design and presentation of something through language,” says James Engell, a
professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard who taught a popular course on
rhetoric for over a decade.
Early European universities taught rhetoric as one of the core liberal arts—the trivium—
alongside grammar and logic, as did their American counterparts. John Quincy Adams was
Harvard’s first Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory; for him, the persuasive
individual was essential to democracy. By the 19th century, elocution lessons had become
as standard as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
During the first half of the 20th century, the field of rhetoric and its like all but
disappeared. The decline began at Harvard, as successive holders of the Boylston chair
began to emphasize English literature over classical rhetoric, and other universities rapidly
followed suit. Why the dramatic shift away from teaching people how to speak well? Engell
explains that two phenomena contributed to its eventual decline: the invention of the
telegraph and rise of the newspaper in the mid-19th century and the professionalization of
disciplines at universities beginning around the 1880s. Newspapers became the chief
medium through which information was transmitted, and increased specialization at
universities meant people now concentrated specifically on rhetoric, poetics, or
composition, whereas the earlier general assumption was that “this all fell under the
purview of a large umbrella approach,” Engell says. “Specialization tended in some
respects to reduce the importance of these divisions relative to a larger context, and when
things are divided they tend to be easier to marginalize.”
Oratorial skills were regarded as unfashionably practical, while rhetoric was increasingly
viewed as dishonest and irrelevant, drawing as it often did upon human emotions to
inspire the listener, unlike a more cool-headed scientific approach. Eventually, even
Harvard’s professorship of rhetoric and oratory shifted toward creative writing; since
1949, every person holding this prestigious position has been a poet.
“There is a lotto the concept of a ‘flipped classroom,
also very much an elite-institution idea.”
Oratory, like writing, emphasizes the ability to formulate coherent thoughts into
compelling and well-crafted arguments. The decline of both in academic settings comes
from their diminished stature and training opportunities. According to Engell, this trend
began at elite institutions, where the teaching of public-speaking skills was often dismissed
as being utilitarian rather than aesthetic. Now, at those and some other institutions, if it is
taught at all, it is often taught by untenured instructors who are not high on the salary
scale. This area of study is simply not considered prestigious, though some institutions,
particularly land-grant universities whose charters and mission emphasize the cultivation
of public and civic responsibility, have tended to retain courses on public speaking. Today,
public speaking is predominantly associated with schools of communication, sometimes
with schools of government or business.
Molly Bishop Shadel, the coauthor of Tongue Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal
Persuasion, explains that very few colleges offer public-speaking classes because many
faculty members haven’t been trained in how to teach it. In addition, the classes are laborintensive
and expensive to teach. “Well-designed public-speaking classes are small, to
enable students to speak as much as possible, and offer individual critiquing and
videotaping for students,” she tells me. “That kind of instruction requires a substantial
time commitment from the professor, on top of an already busy workload.”
It is probably not a coincidence that as teaching public speaking fell out of favor, so too did
the quality of the average college lecture itself. Many college lectures today are deemed
dull—and with good reason. In 2014, in a highly controversial move that infuriated
faculty, researchers for Harvard’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) secretly
photographed lectures to assess attendance and concluded that attendance declined over
the course of the semester by nearly half. While the reasons are unclear, it’s hard to deny
that professors are contending with a tenure system that overwhelmingly rewards scholarly
research over good and exciting teaching—even if they want to cultivate their lecturing
skills. Hence the commonly accepted wisdom that lectures are ineffective and should be
jettisoned in favor of newer innovations that have been developed to take their place.
But this is an accepted wisdom that many academics challenge. “The lecture was a
highlight of my own education,” Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history
professor who wrote a New York Times op-ed last year defending the lecture, tells me.
“Some of my most powerful experiences in the classroom as an undergraduate and
graduate student were in lecture halls. To draw this bright line between the traditional
lecture and active learning totally misunderstands the lecture. Done properly it should be
an active experience, one that fosters critical skills but also conveys information and
models the art of argument.”
According to Worthen, many faculty are under pressure to experiment with active learning
—“shorthand for things other than the lecture.” But, she says, “many of these activelearning
modules assume students can be asked to do more outside of class, such as watch
videos online.” There’s a limit, though, to what one can expect students to reliably do
outside the classroom. “There’s just no getting around the efficiency of a great lecture as a
mode of conveying what students should know.”
Tim Hacsi, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, agrees. At his
school, students hail from diverse backgrounds: In 2016, graduates came from 112
countries on top of the United States. International students accounted for a fifth of the
institution’s population; more than half of its graduates were first-generation college
students. Instructors contend with a hugely varying degrees of skill sets and Englishlanguage
abilities in their students; they cannot assume, for instance, that their students
have learned how to assiduously take notes on what they’re learning. While a robust body
of evidence argues that the traditional college lecture may be unfair for students from
underprivileged backgrounds because they often lack the background knowledge that their
wealthier peers have that allows them to make sense of and retain the content they hear,
lectures can also be a particularly important teaching tool precisely for this population of
“There is a lot to the concept of a ‘flipped classroom,’ but it is also very much an eliteinstitution
idea,” says Hacsi, referring to a model in which students view lectures outside
of class and focus on homework elements inside of it. “You are assuming the students are
full-time students who can spend a lot of time outside of class working on what they are
working on. We have students who could do well pretty much anywhere if they didn’t have
a 25-hour-a-week job. You don’t know going into a class who will have time outside of class
to work on the material.”
Today, the shape of the lecture is evolving, due in part due to decades of research showing
that students tune out after around 15 minutes. (No longer than 45 minutes, and often
shorter, is generally a good span of time to aim for, says Engell, though “attention spans
are like muscles and you can exercise them.”) Many instructors report doing a hybrid sort
of lecture: mini-lectures interspersed with discussion (or “change-ups”) and the liberal use
of multimedia and online resources.
“Every lecturer has offdays, butthe good moments are
These new technologies are also, ironically, highlighting the importance of oral
persuasion. Electronic media—online speeches, televised political debates, blogs with
embedded video, TED talks, and so forth—has sparked new interest in cultivating oratory
skills. This recent surge of interest, according to Eugene Tobin of the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation, also reflects new initiatives promoting undergraduate research (and oral
presentation of that research) for all students, not just honors students. It is increasingly
clear that superb communication skills are essential across a wide range of careers.
Active learning has its place, too. Danielle Allen, a professor of classics and government at
Harvard, cautions the need for perspective. “Often, when people talk about flipped
classrooms they think they’re inventing something new. But it’s important to recognize
that both the lecture format and the seminar-discussion format date back to antiquity. It is
true that the lecture is undergoing more rapid evolution. But both are ancient practices,
totally durable, and both will evolve as social conditions change.”
Not only that, Allen continues, “Both of these are absolutely critical parts of the
democratic process. We need that small group discussion because it’s the essence of
deliberation, but people also need to know how to speak, how to listen, how to evaluate
whether a lecture is supported by a good argument or not. Lectures in a campus classroom
can help people acquire the standards for judging that kind of public performance.”
In his book The Art of Humane Education, the philosophy professor Donald Philip Verene
asked, “How would wisdom speak, if not eloquently?” It was out of the tradition of oratory
that great speeches that changed the course of history were born: Imagine the world
without Winston Churchill’s impassioned call in 1940 for Britain’s “blood, toil, tears, and
sweat.” America would be a very different country without the speeches of Abraham
Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The combination of hard-earned
knowledge, eloquence, and passion endows the lecture with a singular power: the power to
move and change its audience.
Every lecturer has off days, but the good moments are sublime. Christopher Martin, an
astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology who has been teaching for nearly
30 years, would never give up the lecture format. “A lecturer can take students on an
intellectual journey at the speed of thought. It is a performance and the ideal is to excite
and inspire, create something out of nothing in front of the students’ eyes, a form of
magic.” He continues: “Remember, the staggering advances in science, engineering, and
technology in the last two centuries were made by former students who attended, and
sometimes slept through, the old-fashioned lecture. If progress is our measure of success,
then the need for change is overstated.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHRISTINE GROSS-LOH is the author of The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About
the Good Life.