Grade Inflation and Peace of Mind

May 28, 2005

I recently gave a quiz to my evening MBA students that turned out to be harder than they expected. Actually, it was harder than I expected it to be too. So, I have been receiving a flurry of emails and concerns about it. To not think much about this would be callous, and there is no getting away from worry, even if it is someone elses.

That everyone found the quiz hard (as I know from grading it) means that relatively speaking, no one has actually done as badly as they think they have. In fact, since grading is relative, it is true to say that most have done better than they think they have.

The format of the quiz, since it did not follow closely the back of chapter problems, but rather, my presentation in class, might have thrown folks off. But, each and every question was specifically based on something I repeated more than once in class. I set these quizzes with a view to them being a summary of the most important concepts. In my mind, the role of a quiz is to provide a break point for study (consolidation and closure) and to give feedback on what students know and do not know.

Students work very hard, and I can see why it is disappointing to not crack a quiz after lots of work. In addition, being evening students means many have to deal with job idiosyncracies, making education a harder slog than it should be. So there is a great worry about getting grades below a B+. In fact the average cut off to graduate is a B.

We use scores to rank students (so its relative), and then decide cut off scores after calibrating for the level of difficulty entailed in the course. If the test is hard, it just moves the average, but not the ranking. And now for the statistics: unless a student knows close to nothing (a C grade or worse to me), we have the following range of grades to work with: A, A-, B+, B, B-. If we center the distribution on B+ (which is also the cut off GPA for meeting certain requirements) then 25% or more of the class will be below the required level. That clearly is untenable as it seems to me that MBA programs across the country target the percentage of students failing to meet requirements at less than 5% (maybe even less). So where do I need to center my distribution so as to make sure that across many classes only 5% of students get below B+ on average? Turns out it needs to be quite high, making a B- very far out in the left tail of the distribution. And therein lies the dirty secret of grade inflation.

Of course, it takes little to realize that grade inflation does not make students “feel” better – it only makes them feel worse, for two reasons: (a) it leaves them wondering whether they really deserve the high grades being handed out, and (b) it makes everyone think a B stands for Bad. When I went to business school I got loads of Bs and a C too. I ranked high in the program and my GPA was only 3.4! If you simply compared our grades to today, we were relatively a bunch of miserable underachievers! But we did not have to worry about grade inflation. I am not sure when these grade cut offs entered business schools, but they cannot be a good thing. They seem to be a way to correct for admission errors, but end up imposing harmful externalities on all students. Professional degrees are better off being managed on a pass/fail system. Last time you went to your doctor, did you ask for his/her GPA?


Email is Evil – II

May 5, 2005

A while ago I wrote about the evils of email, primarily about its ability to destroy productivity. Today the San Francisco Chronicle

reported on the results of a Hewlett-Packard study that showed that overuse of email results in an IQ loss of 10 points. In comparison, regular marijuana use only drops IQ by 4 points. About 62 percent of respondents felt obliged to reply to their emails within an hour, and indeed they almost all did. Professor Debra Myerson (Stanford Business School) suggests that simply “being available at all times is a source of stress.” Following the study HP has dissuaded employees from bringing laptops into meetings, and also advised against one-line emails saying “thanks” or such other response.

Well, all this is not what I plan to write about. But it is symptomatic of the extensive ills of continuous electronic engagement. So apart from the loss in intellectual productivity I wrote about in an earlier blog, and setting aside the deleterious effects on our IQs, I have over the past week, found that email has a huge personal emotional cost to me. There is this new disease which I think needs definition, which I will call EAD, for Email Attention Disorder. The major costs of this disease are emotional.

I found that I was trapped into dealing with emails as a response to any lull in my day. It has worn me out completely. What I now realize is that a lull in the day should remain just that. Rushing around trying to fill it up responding to emails is no way to relax. Moreover, the lull is important, because it is like the pause to catch one’s mental breath before feeling renewed, and then plunging into a new task with renewed vigor. Email sucked away any real vigorous renewals I might have had, and I have decided to make a call on that one.

As an experiment, I decided I would strictly restrict my accessing of emails to once a day. Not at any fixed time or anything, but just when I needed to send some emails out, then I would take care of all the email business at that one time, and then, never log in again at all for the rest of the day. It has worked like a charm, but mainly in two important ways. One, I am feeling hugely relaxed for I have stepped off the treadmill and I hope I never ever have to get back on. Two, my creative energy has come back, and I am being able to write again, with little distraction. So, if once in a while, we are blessed and get lucky, this must be one of those times.

There are now blocks of time that I suddenly have wherein I can write well. Of course, by definition this is true. A block of time is one stream of uninterrupted moments in which to immerse oneself into good work. By default, if email keeps interrupting, there cannot be a block of time. There are then only chips of the old block, and what good are those? Fragmentation of time breeds severe emotional discontent. Moral: stop that email, de-fragment your time.

In case I did not say this often enough – email is evil – it destroys (a) your productivity, (b) your IQ, and (c) your emotional well-being.

I was away in India two months ago and was very busy but still felt entirely relaxed. And I realize now that a good part of the relaxed feelings came from not accessing email regularly, but only a few rare times on my visit.

The other major byproduct of limited access to email is an improvement in conversational quality. Having reduced my access, something unusual that is now occurring is that my conversations are deeper, longer and more meaningful. I am not just trying to respond in a knee-jerk manner, something that becomes second nature after extensive email usage. Modern technology has changed human interaction from fewer periods of extended interaction, to hundreds of periods of miniscule interaction. Just read that last sentence and ask which one you would prefer. No wonder most of us are confused about what happens with our time.

But, the big catch is that even if we all agree that too many short interactions are bad, we do nothing to stop it. In fact, we perpetuate it by idolizing those “always-on” people as being “productive” – why? Because it is really easy to be productive in this way, and so the lowest common denominator prefers it. The “democracy of the busy” wins over the “minority of the productive”.

Email has become the great new “passing the pillow” game. Its so easy to pass the buck when you don’t need to speak to someone. Imagine playing this game every hour you are tethered to your desk. No wonder it makes us physically and emotionally tired. While cell phones also force you to be always on, they still contain a human element, whereas email is simply dehumanizing.

The instant response element of email also means that most often we reply without thinking clearly. We all know how often we have wished we could retract that last email we shot off. I find that accessing email but once a day means that I take my time, deal with each email more calmly, because I have set aside the time for it. I am no longer trying to respond to an email while in the middle of something else. It makes for better communication by far. The quality of my email correspondence has improved and the quantity has declined, both very welcome developments.

So there are two modes in which we may choose to live with email – synchronous and asynchronous. It seems the bulk of the population is converging on the former, which means we are heading for an equilibrium in which life speeds up incessantly. The emotional fallout of this is likely to be large. Hopefully more of us will opt eventually for the asynchronous mode, and bring life back to a calmer, more welcome pace. I am doing my bit for now.