Easy A’s and Rising Grades

February 24th, 2011

This story won a national journalism contest for its analysis; it was honored at the (NICAR) Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference on Feb. 24-27 in Raleigh, N.C.

By Ameesha Felton and Mark Newton

RICHMOND, Va. — VCU freshman Wade Angeli says he lucked out last semester. He and a friend enrolled in the same history course — but with different professors.

“We compared, and she has all the assignments — and I only have a midterm and a final. I think her teacher is asking for a lot more, so I got the easier one,” said Angeli, an art foundation student.

Those faculty members may have vastly different grading standards as well: Wide disparities in the distribution of letter grades exist among academic departments, among courses and even among professors who teach the same course, according to an analysis of VCU data.

Consider, for example, PSYC 101. The Psychology Department taught its introductory course 11 times during the 2009-10 academic year, with an average of 270 students per section. One professor gave A’s to almost two-thirds of the students in his two sections, with an average GPA of 3.3. Two other professors gave A’s to only about 10 percent of their students; the average GPA in one section was below 2.0.[Here’s a tool for you to search the data.]

Besides grade distribution differences, the analysis of the data, obtained under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, highlighted another trend: VCU instructors are awarding more A’s now than they used to.

A’s made up 37 percent of the 180,000 letter grades issued in the 5,500 undergraduate courses taught at VCU last year. The grade point average for all those grades was 2.9 — a solid B.



In contrast, a decade ago, fewer than 34 percent of the grades given at VCU each semester were A’s, and the GPA for all those grades was 2.7 — a B minus.

Differences in Grading Patterns.

Some of the variations in grade distribution are easy to explain. Honors courses, for instance, are taken by students recognized as VCU’s best and brightest; you wouldn’t expect their grades to follow a bell curve. It’s no surprise that 87 percent of the grades given in Honors courses taught since Fall 2006 were A’s.

Likewise, some academic units or courses have stringent admission requirements — and you’d expect the admitted students to perform well. Over the past four years, for example, 69 percent of the students who have taken applied music courses in VCU’s selective School of the Arts received A’s.

Other factors may be at work, too: Some disciplines may lend themselves to more rigorous or more objective grading. And courses offered at certain times of day may draw more motivated students.

But in other cases, grades may vary widely because some professors are hard graders and others are soft.

In Fall 2007, for instance, VCU began offering a new course for incoming freshmen — UNIV 111, or Focused Inquiry I. Since then, 451 sections of UNIV 111 have been taught, mostly in the fall, by 65 different instructors. Of the 8,900 grades issued, 34 percent have been A’s.

Seven of the UNIV 111 instructors have given A’s to at least 60 percent of their students. Ten others have awarded A’s to fewer than 15 percent of their students.


Other examples abound, according to the analysis of grades data for the past four years:

* In Biology 101, two professors have given about half of their students A’s; three others have given fewer than 15 percent of their students A’s.

* In Math 131, seven instructors have given at least half of their students A’s; four others have given fewer than 10 percent of their students A’s.

* In Chemistry 101, two professors gave more than 60 percent of their students A’s; three others have given just 15 percent of their students A’s.


Various reasons may account for the differences in grading, said Dan Ream, an associate professor and director of outreach and distance education at VCU Libraries. He said the data don’t mean students are being treated unfairly.

“If grades were purely based on achievements or outcomes that can be measured in an exact way, then that would be true – there would be an unfairness there,” said Ream, the immediate past president of the VCU Faculty Senate.

“But there are several factors — for example, judgment. A professor with more rigorous judgment may be harder on you as a writer, and that may affect your grade.”

Moreover, Ream said, professors who have high grading standards often are excellent teachers.

“I think grades are not just this whole measure of a professor’s quality,” he said. “Sometimes a professor can be really hard and grade very difficultly and still be fantastic.”

Ream said students should seek out difficult instructors — because they’ll learn more in those classes.

“In some cases, I think, the professor that grades harder may be a better teacher, in that he’s urging his students to improve their work, assuming that he’s critical and constructive.”





However, many students say the grading disparities can put them at a disadvantage: Your grade could depend more on who your teacher is than on how much work you did or how much you learned.

Students are unlikely to complain about easy graders — professors who award a preponderance of A’s. Since Fall 2006, about 1,500 VCU instructors have awarded at least 100 grades in undergraduate courses. About 100 of those professors gave A’s to at least 80 percent of their students.

Students may be more concerned about hard graders — instructors who rarely award A’s. Of the professors who have issued at least 100 grades over the past four years, about 30 have given A’s to fewer than 10 percent of their students. For 34 faculty members, the average GPA of all the grades they’ve awarded is below 2.0.

That troubles students like VCU sophomore Steven Center.

“If everybody gets an average of 1.8 in a professor’s class, then I feel like that says more about the professor than the material or the students,” said Center, a business major.





More Than One-Third of All Grades Are A’s.

Though reasons may vary for grade distribution disparities, one trend is clear: Grades as a whole have been on the rise at VCU.

Of the 108,000 letter grades awarded in undergraduate courses during the 1999-2000 school year, 33.6 percent were A’s. A decade later, during the 2009-10 school year, the proportion of A’s had crept up to 37 percent.



In 20 academic programs at VCU, at least 60 percent of the undergraduate grades issued since Fall 2006 have been A’s. Those programs range from physiology labs and social work to undergraduate nursing courses and the School of Education‘s Teaching and Learning Department.

Ream says one problem may be that there’s not enough emphasis on being a good teacher at VCU and other big institutions of higher education.

“Large universities in general put more emphasis on research than teaching,” he said. “And as a result, you get people who are very smart in their subject but who aren’t skilled teachers.”


About the Data for this Report

The data used in this story was acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request sent to VCU in November. The university provided grade distribution data for 30,607 courses taught between Fall 2006 and Spring 2010.

The reporters filtered out graduate courses and pass-fail courses. The analysis focused on the 21,931 undergraduate courses (100- through 400-level) in which letter grades were awarded.

Some caveats about the data: To protect students’ privacy, VCU redacted (deleted) data for some courses with small enrollments. The instructor’s name field was blank on 467 undergraduate courses. If a course was team-taught, only one instructor was listed.

The reporters prepared this report as part of MASC 644 (Computer-Assisted Reporting), a course in the multimedia journalism master’s program at VCU’s School of Mass Communications.

Nearly a decade ago, a group of VCU journalism students had done a similar investigation, by obtaining and analyzing grade distribution data for Fall 1999 through Spring 2002. This report examined that data again and compared the grading patterns over time.

As allowed under the Freedom of Information Act, VCU charged $45 for the grade distribution data — because it required one hour of programming and data processing to fulfill the request.

Some universities across the country routinely provide students with free access to such data.

For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides on its website massive PDFs charting the grades given in each section of each course for each semester, back to Fall 2007. The reports do not list instructors’ names, however.

The University of Indiana goes a step further, allowing users to search departments, instructors and class numbers. The interactive database shows not only each instructor’s grade distribution but also the average GPA of the students enrolled in that particular section. Students and other users can freely download the University of Indiana data for further analysis.

In the spirit of transparency, we’ve created a tool for you to search VCU’s grade distribution data.

Mark Newton, one of the reporters on this project, has created a series of charts to help visualize the data patterns. Here is one such chart:

Average GPA by VCU Departments Many Eyes



This report was produced by VCU Multimedia Journalism students, Ameesha Felton and Mark Newton in a computer-assisted reporting course. CAR promotes the use of social science methods, such as data analysis, in journalism.

Also featured in the Commonwealth Times

2 Responses to “Easy A’s and Rising Grades”

  1. I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  2. mark says:

    Keep up the good work!

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