A good class to B in


Professor Dale Richards presents audio projects produced by his class during his College Writing I class, Dec. 3, 2014.

Emily Mills

Junior integrated language arts major Abbi Wright took College Writing I with English professor Katherine Orr in Spring 2012.

The class was one of the best she’s taken at Kent State and also one of the easiest, she said. Even though she only spent about an hour a week on homework, she earned an A in the class.

“We had five papers due that contributed to our grade,” she said. “The final one was a class reflection paper. We had a research paper that wasn’t even too complicated, but of all projects it was the most major.”

High grades like Wright’s are the norm for the majority of College Writing students.

In the 2013-2014 academic year, 77 percent of College Writing students earned an A or B in the course, and the number of students earning As or Bs has consistently increased each year.

In contrast, 9.41 percent of students earned a C, and only 6.47 percent of students received a D or F in 2013-2014.

Gerry Winter, assistant coordinator of the Writing Program and College Writing I professor, admitted grade inflation is built into the class.

“Do we have grade inflation? Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t know what percentage of (the As and Bs) it is.”


Thom Yantek, a political science professor who has researched grade inflation in higher education, said nearly four in five students earning an A or a B is statistically impossible.

Typically, grade distribution looks more like a bell curve, he said. Forty percent of students will earn C’s, while only about 30 percent earn an A or B.

“I would say more than half (of the 77 percent) essentially didn’t deserve those As and Bs,” he said. “Most students should get a C because a C is defined as an average grade, and by definition, it’s statistically impossible for most students to be above average.”

However, Winter said she does not believe in the traditional bell curve method of grading.

“I’m not a believer in the old bell curve,” she said. “I don’t start out and say, ‘Okay I’ve got to have one A, two Bs, three Cs.’ I just don’t do that.”

What College Writing I is

The English department’s Writing Program designed the course, which requires professors to build their syllabi around six standard learning outcomes: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading and writing; knowledge of composing processes; collaboration; knowledge of conventions; and composing in digital environments.

College Writing I courses, which are for students who earn a 25 or below on the ACT, all include four papers and one reflective essay.

The essays, which help students develop practical writing skills, are the most important aspect of the course, said Dale Richards, an English professor who teaches College Writing I.

Professors have a lot of freedom in choosing paper topics, course themes and other assignments, Winter said.

Themes can include a number of other topics, including community, race and sustainability. Other assignments can include article, movie or book responses and multimedia components.

“Each of us does it our own way,” Winter said. “We’re very much on our own to develop our courses as long as they meet all the requirements.”

Professor subjectivity

Professors agree grading essays can be subjective. One professor might read a paper and give it a B, while another professor might grade the same paper with a C.

“We are all from our own backgrounds (and) emphasize different things,” Richards said.

However, all of the professors said the English department conducts assessments to keep these disparities to a minimum.

Assessment scores have indicated a consensus on what was considered a “good” paper and what was not, Winter said.

Overall, the professors agreed “A” papers have strong theses, main points to support it, comprehensive conclusions, few errors and evidence of critical thinking throughout.

They also all emphasized a paper does not need to have perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation in order to receive a good grade; the emphasis is in content.

“It has to be grammatically pretty sound but that’s not the primary thing you’re looking at,” Winter said. “If it is, you’re not teaching writing; you’re teaching grammar.”


Another variable is the class’ revision process. Students revise their papers after turning them in, potentially allowing students to receive higher grades in the class.

But even the revision process can vary from professor to professor, Winter said.

Some, including Winter, use the portfolio method. Students turn in papers throughout the semester that are not graded on content; students get points simply for turning them in. The portfolio, including students’ revised papers, is graded at the end of the semester.

Winter said she doesn’t grade the individual pieces. Instead she looks at portfolios as a whole.

“I sit and read the entire portfolio; I don’t even have a pencil in my hand. I don’t mark it; I don’t do anything,” she said. “When I’m finished, I know the sort of (writing) I’m seeing. I don’t think one paper necessarily represents what a writer does. It’s a body of work that tells me what they can do best.”

Others, like Linda Piccirillo-Smith, have College Writing I students turn in papers throughout the semester. Students turn in revisions a few weeks later, which replaces the initial grade.

“Especially first semester freshmen, everybody comes from someplace different,” said Piccirillo-Smith, whose class is part of the Pan-African Studies program. “The way people perceive their own writing can vary vastly from what the standards are for college writing. So I put the grade on (the initial version) so that they know that for the standards that are the expectation for college writing.”

Still others, like Richards, do not keep points at all. Richards said he gives feedback on the first version students turn in, but doesn’t give a letter grade until after revisions are submitted.

Michele Wollenzier, an English lecturer who teaches College Writing I, averages the student’s original score and the revised score together for the final score.

All revision methods result in students earning higher grades on each essay, ultimately leading to higher overall grades.

Richards said he feels revision helps students strengthen their writing skills.

“They can revise as many times as they want and resubmit work,” Richards said. “I feel that, and I think many people would feel that, in the process of revision is when a great deal of learning occurs.”

But Yantek said there’s a tipping point where revisions become a harm instead of a benefit.

“I think there’s definitely a place for revisions,” he said. “In the real world, often you’re allowed to revise your work. But there’s an extreme point that you can reach where it becomes counterproductive… That’s not really demonstrating a mastery of a subject… Rewriting a paper over and over and over is just learning about that narrow subject, that narrow exercise.”

Piccirillo-Smith said she understands how the revision process affects the apparent grade inflation, but feels revisions create an opportunity for learning.

“The benefit of doing revision is that you learn from every step in the process,” she said. “For students who are invested in the process, they can literally see how their writing improves over time.”

But Yantek said too many students receiving good grades cheapens the educational system and results in a collective action problem.

“This is what we call in public policy a collective action problem, when individually rational decisions add up to a collectively irrational outcome,” Yantek said. “And this is an irrational outcome, when we’re inflating grades that nobody trusts them.”

He said it’s becoming an issue for employers who no longer accept grade point averages as a mark of achievement, and the effects are trickling up, influencing the government as a whole.

“Now we have to engage in a whole other set of exercises called outcomes assessment which requires an entire layer of higher educational bureaucracy,” he said. “This is costing tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars just because college professors won’t do their real job, which is to distinguish the truly outstanding from those who don’t get it.”

Richards, who also teaches College Writing II, said he sees some issues when he gets students who might have breezed through College Writing I too easily.

“I do encounter students in there who seem not well prepared for the expectations of the course, but I have no idea what grades those students got previously,” Richards said.

However, Wollenzier said she thinks students who work hard deserve As and Bs.

“Do (77) percent deserve As and Bs? Maybe,” she said. “I’ve had classes where definitely (77) percent deserved As and Bs… If I do my job right, then shouldn’t (77) percent have As and Bs?”

Contact Emily Mills at [email protected].