Yes, But Harvard Students Know a Lot More Now

December 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Headline in the Crimson today.

For comparison, here is the grade sheet from a 1940 Government course.*  The mean and median are a C+, so the B- by that fellow in the K’s is a shade above average.

(Click on an image for a 
clearer view.)

We professors can, and often do, go on at length arguing about the problem of grades, the purpose of grades, the effects of grades, and so on. But the trend is unmistakable. Grades have gone up, and much more so at private universities than at the publics.  Harvard is different in only in degree.

Yes, the most common grade at Harvard is an A, but the most common grade at universities generally is an A (the graph below ignores the + and –).

(The graphs are from

For the record, this is not what my gradesheets look like. But I suspect that if I went back and looked at my gradebooks from when I started, I would find that I too give higher grades now than I did years ago.

* I mentioned this to a friend who had been chair of her department at another school. “How did you get a gradesheet now from a course JFK was in?”
“The teacher was late turning in his grades,” I said.  She laughed. . . a lot.  Maybe you have to have been chair to really appreciate the joke.


Paulo said...

Doesn't that mean that the work should get harder over time as well?

Jay Livingston said...

Paulo, That’s a great question. Is Harvard 2013 more difficult than Harvard 1983? If so, then even the kids-gone-soft curmudgeons grumbling about “entitlement” might agree that those A’s are deserved. But I know of no data measuring course difficulty. (Such data may exist; I just don't know about it.)

Also, what is "harder"? In math and the sciences, there may have been problems that were very difficult thirty years ago but that today’s students can solve – not because students today are smarter or harder working but because of the progress in their field. Does that mean they deserve a better grade?

PCM said...

There were only four B+'s or higher in that GOV class. And zero A's. That seems a bit harsh, by any standard.

The real scandal is that today (at at least one of them fancy schools) TAs are forbidden to give anything lower than a B+. Even an "unsatisfactory" on an assignment involves an email to a dean.

Admin may have their hands over too much in our schools, but I've never felt any pressure on how to grade (nor do my students complain about grades).

I just looked at all the grades I've ever given (n = 1151). B+ is the median. 44% get A- or higher. 16% get C+ or lower.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, it was the era of the "gentleman's C." That was then. As for now, if you didn't see this in Sunday's Times, take a look.

PCM said...

The Gentleman's C became the Gentleman's B. I'm fine with that because I'm used to it. I just don't want it to become the Gentleman's A-.

When I was in college (1989-1994) I used to joke that it was easy to get a B at Princeton. But you really had to work for an A or a C.

The only C I remember getting in college was in Graduate School. And at the very aforementioned Harvard, of all places. At the time I didn't realize what an accomplishment a C at Harvard was!

I got my C in Intro Dutch. I was happy there was a semester of Intro Dutch, but I had missed the first week of class because I was in Amsterdam. So in class I kept making the same ignorant spelling mistakes on quizzes. But rather than point out there were rules of spelling in Dutch covered in Week One, the prof just marked me down. Again and again.

It still kind of makes me a little angry.