Do Unusually High Average Grades Indicate Faculty Giving Unjustifiable Grades?

By Peter Connor

Dysfunctional Illusion of Academic Rigor #3

Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards. Unusually high average grades are the result of faculty giving unjustified grades.

—Craig E. Nelson

“This was a view I advocated well after I began teaching,” states Nelson regarding the third dysfunctional illusion cited in Tomorrow’s Professor Msg. #1058 (2010). The logical conclusion being that if student inadequacies are responsible for low grades, massive grade improvements could only occur through an overall lowering of academic standards.

Treisman (1992; Fulilove & Treisman, 1990) drew other conclusions, however. In a UC Berkely faculty survey requesting hypotheses and solutions for why 60 percent of African-American calculus students were earning Ds, and Fs, or withdrawing from the class, the overwhelming conclusion was that there was “something wrong” with them. Faculty cited everything from lack of ability and/or preparation to difficult socialization issues and too much outside employment.

It turns out that such was not the case. Those who studied by themselves, using the standard two hours outside for every one hour in class study formula, tended not to do as well as those whom Treisman placed in honors homework sessions requiring regular group work. In fact, those doing the required group work showed extraordinary improvement; previous deficits were largely erased. The D, F, and W rate dropped from 60 to 4 percent.

Nelson’s viewpoint necessarily changed: There’s bad grade inflation and there’s good. Good grade inflation, as a result of applying appropriate pedagogical methods, needs to be heralded.

The following tips explore two more basic dysfunctional illusions of rigor and the alternative views that Nelson suggests might be more realistic.


Fillilove, R.E., &Treisman, P. U. (1990). Mathematics achievement among African American undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley: An evaluation of the Mathematics Workshop Program. Journal of Negro Education, 59(3), 463-478.

Nelson, C. E. (2010). Dysfunctional illusions of rigor: Part 1 - basic illusions. In R. Reis (Ed.), Tomorrow's Professor: Msg. #1058. Retrieved from

Treisman, U. (1992). Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362-372.


Thanks to Dr. Erica Suchman, Assoc. Prof. in the Dept. of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University for this Teaching Tip suggestion.