The Easy ‘A’

As a teacher’s assistant at UCSD, I often see undergraduate students selecting courses based on how easy the professor grades rather than on the amount of knowledge they will be able to glean from the course.  Why is this?  Arnold Kling gives a four main reasons in his “College Customers v. Suppliers” post on the Econlog website:

  1. The consumers are basically right. Most courses are not really worth taking for most students, so the easy A is the best choice. 
  2. The course that offers the easy A still gives the student the option to learn something, but the course that requires learning does not give the student the option to earn an easy A. So the option value is always with the coures that offers the easy A.
  3. Consumers are myopic, and their preference for an easy A is irrational. (This is the view that many professors hold implicitly.)
  4. Grades are measurable, and real learning is not. Consumers think grades are more important than they really are, because what is measured and reported is more salient than what is unmeasured.

Is there a solution?  Kling suggests external examinations:

“I should note that one potential solution to a competitive race-to-the-bottom in terms of rigor would be to have external examinations. When I was a student at Swarthmore in the Honors program, our exams were written and graded by professors from outside the college…With the exam exogenous, my grade-motivated students would want my course to be rigorous rather than easy.”