Guillaume Kosmala: Easy-A classes perpetuate a broken, grade-centric education system
Students are under enormous pressure to find new ways to distinguish themselves in an increasingly saturated job market. As a result, they naturally gravitate towards any available shortcuts, such as easy-A general education courses. Unfortunately, this results in a world where students sacrifice intellectual exploration in favor of playing a faulty system for a high GPA.
This is 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 earning A’s in easy courses covering useless material.. UCLA, as an institution of higher learning, has a responsibility to steer students in the direction of the first. The most promising solution is to place a flexible cap, determined by the department, on the number of A’s given in so-called “easy-A” courses – perhaps around 50%.
Last year, the Daily Bruin analyzed and plotted different GEs 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 courses 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 class size is limited to just 21 students. This means that the competition to enter this class is fierce. Ethnomusicology 50A and English Composition 5W fare slightly better, with 79% and 77% 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 distribution of grades than on the material they will learn. It’s obvious that easy A’s can have the perverse effect of pushing students from top schools into less intellectually challenging subjects for fear of lowering their GPA. For example, Victor Martinez, a third-year biology student, and Melissa Trieu, a third-year Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology student, both took the Scandinavian 50W and Ethnomusicology 50A, and both said they took the classes solely to improve their GPAs. Eric Rosenbower, a third-year business economics student, said he wouldn’t have taken the course if it didn’t have such a high cast.
Placing a cap on the A’s could be a problem, for example, if almost everyone gets the same raw score – a rare occurrence typically found in STEM classes. In fact, Princeton ended up backtracking on the policy because they found the cap to be too prohibitive at 35% and not flexible enough for some departments, especially those in STEM.
The cap should be more flexible at UCLA, with each department setting its own cap, with none exceeding 50%, except in extraordinary circumstances where grades are heavily clustered. In the Princeton example, just starting a discussion on this topic was enough to deflate the grades, as professors became more careful when grading.
Perhaps a cap would make the atmosphere too competitive and discourage students from studying. However, a UCSB study indicated that the average study time would be approximately 50% less 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 study, and therefore learning, happens in easier, less meaningful classes. This means that the intrinsic good of general education courses as a tool to open one’s mind to wonders beyond one’s major is lost when too many A’s are given in these courses.
Students and teachers should consider education as a natural outgrowth of human curiosity, not as a marketing tool to seduce employers. However, students don’t really have a choice when education as a whole refuses to tackle grade inflation and GPA looms so large in employers’ decision-making. The trend is pushing us inexorably toward a school-year-centric view of education aimed at generating marketable students who are inevitably resigned to this new reality.
Students need to care deeply about this subject and bring it to the fore on campus because we are ultimately the big losers in the easy-A classes. In a world of grade inflation, every decimal point of one’s GPA matters and therefore intellectual exploration and challenge become risks rather than the rewards they should be for being accepted into a world-class university. .