Competency versus Mastery: Are You Inflating Grades?

“C is for competent; it’s good enough for me.” I sometimes sing this little parody of Sesame Street in my head. What this means to me is that, getting through the day without screwing anything up is, in my book, a level of success that should be celebrated more often than is acknowledged.  It is a rare day when I could honestly say that I was outstanding in everything I attempted, from driving, to teaching, to parenting.  It would be a similar outlier to suggest that I fail at everything I put my hand to – even on the worst days, something has to have gone right, or I wouldn’t still be here.

The same is true for academics.  Much has been debated about the ‘scourge’ of grade inflation ( and the role of adjuncts as epidemiological vectors ( but I think we need to situate a large part of the problem within the minds of our students – who have been led to believe nothing but an A will suffice, yet have been given no clear guidelines as to what an A might represent.  Working our way downwards, an A is supposed to represent “excellence,” while a B represents “above-average,” so there is nothing standing in our way of explaining that a C denotes competency over the material.

I like to go over the concept of the bell curve in my class, and show how most of us will fall in the middle (or the average) no matter what we do, because that is how the norm is defined for most of us.  Taking the time to differentiate between the mean (arithmetic average), the median (middle value), and the mode (most likely outcome), I point out that getting a C (usually represented as somewhere around 75 percent) means they have “beaten” half of the class.  This is important information for two distinct populations of students: the too-worried, and the not-worried-enough.  The too-worrieds have no internalized benchmark for success; they tend to dramatically over-estimate the performance of their peers, and suffer disproportionate anxiety as a result of what they see as poor performance.  Explaining to them that their performance was “average” may not be the cherry on the sundae of their day, but it can go a long way toward relieving acute stress.

The not-worried-enough, on the other hand, have the opposite problem.  They think that their work is just fine because they don’t see the wide distribution of performance that we do from our Olympian perch.  The bell-curve model is not as helpful for them, because it seems somehow “rigged.”  Keeping in mind these are often the weakest and least motivated students in the first place, coming from a system that keeps the product moving along regardless of merit, they lack many foundational understandings we may hope to take for granted in our students.  For this population, concrete evidence is best.  Group work, paper exchanges, detailed outlines of expectations for assignments, post-exam analyses and explanations, can all contribute to their comprehension of what competency, and beyond that, mastery, entails.  Still, for the least motivated, attaining a C may be all that they seek, and as educators, though we may not like or understand this stance, we have to respect it as a legitimate strategy.

Can a student achieve an undergraduate degree with a C average? Absolutely.  Do employers check grade point averages? No. It’s a useless bit of information.  The only time a GPA comes into play after college is when seeking post-graduate education.  It is good to make sure that students understand the ways in which mediocre grades can hamper future plans, but beyond that, students have to make their own choices. Since we have a grading system that sets C in the middle, as the median, then we need to start treating C as the norm it truly is.

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