Tuesday, January 24

Guillaume Kosmala: Easy-A classes perpetuate a broken, grade-centric educational system

Valree Catangay/Daily Bruin

Valree Catangay/Daily Bruin

Students are under a huge amount of pressure to find new ways to distinguish themselves in an increasingly oversaturated job market. As a result, they naturally gravitate toward any available shortcuts, such as easy-A general education classes. Unfortunately, this results in a world where students sacrifice intellectual exploration in favor of gaming a broken system for a high GPA.

That’s the wrong way to think about education. Spending hours learning meaningful and challenging material and receiving a B is far more valuable to an individual’s intellectual development than getting A’s in easy classes covering useless material. UCLA, as a top educational institution, bears a responsibility to steer students in the direction of the former. The most promising solution is to place a flexible, department-determined cap on the amount of A’s given in so-called “easy-A” classes – perhaps around 50 percent.

Last year, the Daily Bruin analyzed and plotted different GE’s in order of the percentage of students receiving an A. At the top of the pile were classes like Scandinavian 50W, English Composition 5W and Ethnomusicology 50A. Many readers will recognize these classes as popular choices for UCLA students looking for an easy A and the statistics prove the same. An absurd 89 percent of students received an A or A- in Scandinavian 50W and the class size is limited to only 21 students. This means that competition to get into this class is fierce. Ethnomusicology 50A and English Composition 5W fare just a little better, with 79 percent and 77 percent of students in each class receiving A’s, respectively.

When it comes time for students to choose electives, they focus more and more on the grade distribution than the material they will learn. It is evident that easy A’s can have the perverse effect of pushing students at top schools towards less intellectually challenging material for fear of lowering their GPA. For example, Victor Martinez, a third-year biology student, and Melissa Trieu, a third-year molecular, cell, and developmental biology student, both took Scandinavian 50W and Ethnomusicology 50A, and both said that they took the classes just to boost their GPAs. Eric Rosenbower, a third-year business economics student, stated that he wouldn’t have taken the class if it didn’t have such a high grade distribution.

Placing a cap on A’s could be an issue, for example, if almost everyone gets the same raw score – a rare occurrence usually found in STEM classes. In fact, Princeton ended up backpedaling on the policy because they found that the cap was too prohibitive at 35 percent and not flexible enough for certain departments, especially those in STEM.

The cap should be more flexible at UCLA, with each department setting its own cap, with none higher than 50 percent except under extraordinary circumstances where grades are highly clustered. In the Princeton example, just starting a discussion on this topic was enough to deflate grades as professors became more cautious while grading.

Perhaps a cap would make the atmosphere overly competitive and discourage students from studying. However, a UCSB study indicated that average study time would be about 50 percent lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an A than in the same course taught by the same instructor in which students expected a C. Less studying, and therefore learning, is done in easier, less meaningful classes. This means that the intrinsic good of general education classes as a tool to open one’s mind to the wonders beyond one’s major is lost when too many A’s are given in those classes.

Students and faculty should view education as a natural outgrowth of human curiosity, not as a marketing tool to appeal to employers. However, students don’t have much of a choice when education as a whole refuses to tackle grade inflation and while GPA weighs so much in employer decision-making. The trend is inexorably pushing us towards a grade-centric view of education aimed at generating marketable students who are inevitably resigned to this new reality.

Students should profoundly care about this topic and bring it to the fore on campus as we are ultimately the big losers from easy-A classes. In a world of grade inflation, every decimal point on one’s GPA matters and as a result intellectual exploration and challenge become risks rather than the rewards that they should be for having been accepted to a world-class university.

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