Monday, May 21, 2012

"I've Become Comfortably Dumb." (A First Year Student's Lament)

I know followers of this blog will recognize that the title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek (a play on the title of a great Pink Floyd song) and not intended as a negative portrayal of every high school graduate’s experiences at college or university. As the school year heads to its conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about the transition that happens for some of our most successful students and reflecting on past conversations. 

Conversations that have occurred with top end academic students who have let me know halfway through their first year how much they are struggling and how they have received their first low grades. Or the recent conversation with a friend who let me know that his child was receiving a mark of 108% in a high school course. These have led me to consider if our current approach is doing enough for our most academically able students or if we are lulling them into a false sense of accomplishment. If we are, in essence, allowing them to become “comfortably dumb” knowing full well that what lies ahead will stretch their thinking and not reward “compliant behavior” or provide bonus marks.

According to a report by Statistics Canada, approximately fifteen percent of first-year students won't make it to their second year of university. Success in high school doesn't seem to translate to preparing students for university. A study by the University of Manitoba suggests that even former high achievers in high school, those kids who graduated at the top of their class with straight A's, are at a high risk. The study indicates that nearly one in four of those students will be asked to leave, thanks to failing grades. First year students are often shocked to see their marks drop as much as 15 percent from what they were used to earning in high school. Nearly two-thirds of students end up feeling uncertain about what to study, with many changing their majors.

And here’s the kicker from the Statistics Canada report - those high school students who tend to succeed at the post-secondary level are those who have already developed good work and study habits. It’s not the students we have over-rewarded and acknowledged for being very good at what we want them to do or what they already know. Students who receive 108% might be better served by being challenged and stretched in things they don’t know and get a lower grade rather than being given more of the same. The problem of grade inflation at the high school level suggests that students have been given an inaccurate assessment of their performance and the consequence of this is pretty clear early on in their post-secondary career.

There are also financial repercussions. In 2008, Maclean’s surveyed the rate at which students who received entrance scholarships kept the necessary grade point average to maintain their scholarship going into second year. The author’s (Ross Finnie and Felice Martinello) provide data showing the rate dropping into single digits for some institutions. These two economists state, “the highest achieving group (in high school) has the largest decrease in grades.” Students entering university with an average of 90 percent or higher experienced a drop of 11.9 points. Students with averages in the 60-79 per cent range had a drop of only 4.4 points. Of course, there are the significant challenges of the entry requirements to get into university. Twenty years ago a solid B average was sufficient. A decade ago it shifted to an A average. Today, an average in the low 90’s is not a lock for entrance. This may be a contributing factor to the push by a student to maximize their results and might be a part of the grade inflation conundrum. 

So, where does this leave us?  The more information we have before us, and the more accurate the data is, the easier it should become for us to change what we are doing. In my recent book one of the central themes is this – if we can predict it, we can prevent it. This theme might also hold true as we look to help our strongest academic students prepare for the challenges ahead.


  1. I had a couple of thoughts as I read your post. First, it highlights the problem of grades at all levels academia - In particular, grading practices not rooted in best practice. There may be as much grade inflation in secondary Ed as there is grade devaluing in the post secondary world (many professors still grade on a bell curve). Either way, the solution ultimately lies in a shift away from "numbers" to report achievement.
    I also agree with your sentiments related to work habits- if the process is in place, the product will follow.

  2. Thanks Johnny! Your comments are very accurate and I appreciate you identifying that the grade inflation may have more than one source.