An alternative to grade inflation

Rui Shi

Last week, a column in The Daily Texan suggested that universities should inflate grades in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses to satisfy worker shortages in those fields. This argument, however, is fundamentally flawed and does a disservice to the integrity of higher education. Filling spots in technical fields with unqualified workers and hoping for the best is a cop-out solution, which would make a bad situation worse.

All STEM fields have bottom-up approaches to teaching, which means that classes taken later in one’s degree plan build on the fundamentals learned in earlier ones.

The reason that STEM majors have high dropout rates is because students are unable to grasp the fundamentals. If a first-year student is unprepared and unable to pass an entry level “weed-out” class, then the University has no reason to bail him out by inflating his grades. By inflating grades, the University does a disservice to both the student, by proliferating his shortcomings further along his education, and to itself, by damaging its reputation of producing qualified employees.

Once a graduate enters the industry, he can longer fake his way through important assignments and projects. While on-job training can ameliorate the situation, it is a poor substitute for a rigorous education. An electrical engineer will use the four Maxwell Equations he learned during his first years of college for the rest of his career. But if he was able to avoid learning the material and was passed on regardless due to grade inflation, he will be unprepared for his future career, setting him up for failure.

The reality of STEM fields is harsh because tech companies and research institutes expect entry-level employees to know their stuff. If students are unable to fulfill the minimum requirements of their majors, then there is no reason for them to stay in that field because UT has to uphold its reputation of being one of the top producers of quality scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

UT, however, can improve the situation in STEM programs with an alternative approach: by restructuring the undergraduate course schedule.

The current course schedule follows the conventional method of requiring students to choose four to five classes for 12 to 17 hours per week. While this system is the norm at the majority of U.S. universities, it has certain problems ­­­­­— namely, the fact that students can feel overwhelmed juggling multiple course loads at once.

With the regular schedule, students are forced to divvy up their focus and are unable to completely concentrate on any one subject. Rather than becoming an expert at a certain class, students become the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none. This reduces their chances to completely grasp the critical fundamentals. To solve this problem, UT should shift toward a block plan.

Following the model at Colorado College, the block plan is as follows: A student takes fours “blocks,” or classes, per semester one block at a time with each block lasting three and a half weeks. Each class typically meets from 9 a.m. to noon but can last as long as necessary, with labs scheduled in the afternoon. At the conclusion of a block, students get a four-and-a-half day break.

The block plan allows students to get the most out of a class because they are able to completely immerse themselves in a particular subject area. Students are therefore more focused and attentive, which will help them achieve a deeper level of understanding of the fundamentals. This system also allows for greater flexibility, as students will have more time in labs and will have the chance to get hands-on experience and to pursue individual research interests.

Each course will be the most important course that a student takes because he or she will no longer have to prioritize competing assignments and tests. Students will no longer have to cram for four tests at once. Rather, they can focus all their energy on understanding the material for a single test. On top of all this, students will receive a more personalized experience and more one-on-one time with their professor because they meet every day.

The block plan has many merits, and UT should give it some serious consideration. Instead of downgrading the quality of higher education for the sake of quantity, universities need to look to alternative ways of improving retention rates while maintaining quality.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.