I know somebody who works in a department that discourages giving students A's. Basically, a few years ago, there was a professor giving everybody A's. The department was labeled as a "vacation spot" at the university. This led to a hardline stand on giving A's that is in effect to this day. If a teacher gives too many A's they have to first explain themselves to the Dean. If this continues next they talk to the VP of Academics

The problem is that there are students doing excellent work. However, my friend is worried that if too many students earn an A he will not be able to convince the department of the students' merit. Yet there is an ethical concern of artificially forcing down the grades and giving some poor chap a B+ due to political pressure.

Any suggestions?

  • 5
    This does not really answer the question, but if a course, or a couple of courses are so trivial that everyone can get A's with just common sense, the courses should probably be scrapped or reworked to be substantial.
    – Sumurai8
    Apr 30, 2016 at 15:35
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    AFAIC, if you disclose what it takes to get an A at the start of the semester, and all of the students in the class meet that metric (assuming it isn't too easy), then they should all get A's. Granted, the chances of that actually happening are very small.
    – user8762
    Apr 30, 2016 at 17:57
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    Assuming that's not a one-sided conversation, your friend could simply ask what the rationale is. If there's some reasonable rationale, he'll find out from the horse's mouth. If there isn't, I suppose he can grade on the curve, which makes about as much sense as "too many A's" without a justification. (does anyone grade on the curve anymore?) I'm not sure what the pleasantness of such a conversation has to do with anything.
    – user8762
    Apr 30, 2016 at 22:59
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    An A should be achievable, if they do excellent work, then they earned their A. For example, English 1, has established goals for learning, and an instructor should not teach hand out English 2 material just to keep the number of A's down, nor should they dumb down the work for under achievers. The proof is in their assignments,tests, and quizzes as to whether they earned it. Take copies of your test,quizzes, assignments and say are these questions hard enough, but yet fit within the learning goals, if yes you have proved there rights to an A.
    – cybernard
    May 1, 2016 at 18:31
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    There are definitely occasions when I have looked at a final exam (by people whom I'll leave nameless) and remarked to myself that someone could get 100% on the exam and I still wouldn't know whether this student has earned an A or a B. I have also had grad students who earned close to straight As as an undergrad and were simply not capable enough to succeed in our graduate program. May 2, 2016 at 5:59

6 Answers 6


Take special care defining the rules, previously, and stick to them. You should have a specific list of objectives and the associated grades. This is implicit on tests, more explicit on projects. For instance, when elaborating written exams, I usually try to cover the whole syllabus (for that part), with questions of different difficulties, for instance, 4 questions, one easy, two moderate, one harder. That way I can easily see who really knows the content and who is just coasting by...

If a student reaches all predefined objectives, that person earned an A. And you can easily prove it by showing that he indeed reached the objectives. It would be highly unethical not to give a deserving student an A for political concerns of some suit....

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    'A's really ought not equate to "fulfilled basic objectives". This is what 'C's are for. 'B' should be fulfilling the goals beyond basic competence and an 'A' should really be reserved for exceptional performance. So I disagree with that part of the answer. The part about the ethics of setting your standard and sticking to it, irrespective of politics is absolutely right.
    – The Nate
    Apr 30, 2016 at 17:55
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    @TheNate There are two kinds of grading systems. If you get 100% points from exams, projects, homework etc, you have by definition reached all predefined objectives. In some grading systems, that gives you a high grade, e.g. 'A'. In other systems, 100% performance is only enough for the equivalent of a 'B' or 'C', while higher grades are reserved for those exceeding the expectations. In my experience, the former is more common in courses, while the latter is used for theses and other open-ended projects. Apr 30, 2016 at 18:37
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    @TheNate I didn't say 'basic'. I agree with you, but 'A' needs to be reachable. Apr 30, 2016 at 23:38
  • @TheNate: Should, perhaps, but that's just not how grades work any more or how people read grades. Unless you expect your school to send a letter with every transcript (which a handful of schools do), your grades are simply not going to communicate what you mean to say. May 1, 2016 at 3:27
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    As should absolutely be achievable, they just shouldn't be achievable easily by an average student. The average student should have to really strive for As. That's all I'm saying. (Fs shouldn't disappear, either) Set the bar too high, and you're doing different damage to the meaning of your grades... and the reputation of the educational institution.
    – The Nate
    May 1, 2016 at 12:41

There's no way to answer this based on the information given in the question.

Suppose, for example, that the course we're talking about is French 100. Students are learning how to conjugate être and so on. In this course, there is effectively a ceiling on what the students can do: they can succeed on 100% of the test questions.

But let's say instead that it's a creative writing course. A student's grade is based on short stories they wrote, and these stories are expected to show creativity, originality, and style. There is no ceiling here. It would be perfectly reasonable for the department to say that their threshold for an A in this course is very high.

There is a continuum of possibilities between these two extremes.

The problem is that there are students doing excellent work.

Doing "excellent" work doesn't necessarily make someone entitled to an A.

  • The creative writing course is not the best example of an objectively measurable grade, and thus makes comparison a bit difficult. Apr 30, 2016 at 16:24
  • @O.R.Mapper: The question doesn't say anything about whether the course has highly objective content. The examples I gave were extremes, and there is a spectrum in between. For example, a freshman calculus course would require a lot of algorithmic computation, but it might also include some more difficult work requiring mathematical creativity.
    – user1482
    Apr 30, 2016 at 16:27
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    At my university, the "A" letter grade is actually formally defined in the faculty handbook as representing "Excellent" work (exactly that one word). Apr 30, 2016 at 17:07
  • 10
    For me A != ceiling.... In this case, an 'A' means that the student reached (or surpassed) a specific, pre-defined, level... Otherwise, if you get a genius in the classroom, everybody else fails, which would be stupid :) Apr 30, 2016 at 17:18
  • 9
    Well good grief, if excellence doesn't merit an A, what does?
    – Anonymous
    May 2, 2016 at 3:57

Retain copies of student work. Use it as a basis for a discussion about department standards versus your standards. If your expectations align with those of your department, and if you have students earning A's, then you can use the student work to defend your grades to the dean. If expectations don't align, then you can make an effort to bring them into alignment. This includes both the criteria for earning the grades (which should be clearly explained in the syllabus) and the level of difficulty of the work required (which can be somewhat subjective). It may be too late this semester, but going forward you can do change. Of course, you can in principle exercise your rights of academic freedom, which includes setting standards in your course. This may not be without consequence for yourself or the department.


I recall hearing of the chair of a department giving every student an A. For multiple quarters, every student or nearly every student got an A. (I was fortunate to be one of those students.) We were a small class, just 8 students. Many of us has significant background experience, some professionally. (One common trait, though, was that we lacked educational degrees in the field.) She spoke to the dean.

She said, "these students do deserve it."

She fared well. The next year, she got more students, and those students got different grades.

I'm glad she defended what we rightfully earned.

Later, I became a college instructor. The college was giving As to nearly every student. Yet, they were not being masters of their work. I started creating my own quizzes/tests/exams. This resulted in lowering some GPAs. I didn't feel one bit guilty about that impact, because the GPAs were previously higher than what was rightfully deserved. (That was still an issue after I started making the gradual change, but at least it was better. Since there was some grumbling/minor uproar from the shock of what was being implemented, I didn't feel like I was moving too terribly slowly at addressing the issue.)

The only good way to lower grades is to let students be aware of what standards are, and adjust standards. Anyone who successfully meets standards ought to get an A. Anything else is not right/honest. If too many students are meeting standards, then adjust standards early enough that the students have time to adjust, or just give them the grade that they earned and make adjustments to try to do better for the next round of students. Don't deprive anyone from what they deserve.

Don't wimp out due to fear of meeting a dean. Someone (possibly the dean) will respect your willingness to meet a challenge in order to do the right thing. Cowering behind the apparent safety of avoiding the meeting is more likely to haunt your conscience years later, after the situation is clearly unfixable. Always do your best to do the morally right thing.

  • This brings up a good point that someone should look at more than one section at a time. If the OP has any prior semesters to look back on, they can hopefully hold the entirety of their track record up as a defense against giving out to many A's. May 1, 2016 at 17:00
  • 2
    Interesting points. I keep a spreadsheet that gets a new row added every semester, showing the class size, and numbers of A's, B's, C's awarded. I once had a section with 8 students, and I gave out 7 A's. That was a bit of an anomaly – I just happened to get 7 bright, talented, hard-working students in my class that term. I suppose if that sort of thing happened semester after semester, one might allege that my standards aren't high enough, but my data shows that isn't the case.
    – J.R.
    May 2, 2016 at 3:21

The factors that determine a grade delivered from a test in a course is a combination of several factors. The teaching, the course content, the nature of the assessment, the quality of the grading as well as the work performed by the student all are factors that influence the result.

A course can contain, for example, too little material or material at too low a level for the students abilities. Then many students could find it easy to get higher grades. If the material was too complex or not communicated well the the grades might be depressed. Equally the test could contain question that are too simple and not reflective of the level of the taught material; again a higher result profile might be witnessed.

If a high proportion of students are getting A grades it may be that the students are all excellent, but it may equally mean that they have not been set material of sufficient depth or examined deeply enough to resolve their differing abilities.

If the students concerned are only getting a high proportion of A's on one course and not on others it might indicate that the course was not constructed well enough to be able to distinguish the differing abilities of the students. If the students got A's on all the courses then it might indicate that a particularly good cohort was admitted that year. If a high proportion of grade A's were delivered for many courses every year then it might indicate that the whole programme had endemic quality issues and affect their reputation as a whole. This is why the mark profile of courses and programs are monitored as part of a quality process in academia. It attempts to diagnose any drop in standards and rectify them.

Your friend should not be artificially altering grades but should be truly reflecting on the assignments and tests given to the students to see if they were able to truly discriminate between students of differing abilities. It is something that can be experienced by those less experienced setting assessments. Sometimes such assessment depend too much on rote learning and recall and less on application of knowledge. Having the correct balance of knowledge recall and application of knowledge is what makes a good assessment. The students don't just have to know something, they have to demonstrate how they can use that knowledge in unseen situations.


What you describe has be conceptualized under the name Macabre Constant by the french educational researcher André Antibi. And indeed, he describes teachers peer pressure as a major cause for rating students lower than they should be objectively.

As a commenter said, André Antibi proposed to just communicate the elements of knowledge that need to be assimilated before an exam to get the maximum grade, and just rate with the same scale you provide then. /EDIT: this is also known as criterion-referenced grading.

This solves the "fairness" of evaluation for students, but not the peer pressure for teachers. Unluckily, I am not aware of any way to avoid that. Up to you to see if you prefer to be just and eventually pay the price (at the very least you will have to explain yourself to the Dean, at worst it can become ugly...), or be unfair and raise the chances that your course gets rated as "hard". It's a hard choice, even more so because it may put you at risk of losing your job...

  • I've never heard of the macabre constant. Very fascinating but it's the same as norm reference grading May 2, 2016 at 14:35
  • Very interesting, thank you Darrin, I didn't know about norm reference grading. From what I read here and here, although the main concept is similar, the macabre constant is also interested in finding the root causes, such as peer pressure, which does not seem to be covered by the other concept. But both are definately related, I'd see the norm-referenced test as one of the consequences of the macabre constant, which is more a edu-sociological phenomenon.
    – gaborous
    May 2, 2016 at 20:54
  • This the frustrating thing about different academic fields. We develop a concept only to find that our neighbor in a different field developed a similar idea May 2, 2016 at 21:13
  • Haha, I'm working in a very transversal field, I see duplicate concepts (with very different names of course) almost every days... But hey, better have duplicate concepts than none! If several people come to the same conclusion, then there must be some truth in it ;)
    – gaborous
    May 2, 2016 at 21:15

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