Jamie goes to pick up her final grade, excited, hoping beyond hope that she got the grade she wants. She picks up the paper and jumps for joy, she got just low enough for a C-! But why? Why was she so excited to get below a C?
According to the University website, students should repeat a course when “[they]wish to demonstrate on their official record that they understand the material better than their grades indicate.” This seems like a laudable policy, one that allows students who weren’t quite able to show their expertise in a topic to set the record straight. The problem comes from how we attempt to implement this goal in the real world.
As most people know, the University has just announced that the retake policy will be modified so that the only people eligible for this retake opportunity will be students who get a final grade of C- or below. Again, this itself seems to be a fine policy, in theory. It is supposed to limit students from retaking a class simply to add a little to their GPA, while still allowing those who have failed to demonstrate their aptitude to take the class again. In practice though, what can we expect from this new policy?
It seems apparent that this policy leads to a host of bad incentives, something that shouldn’t be ignored. For one thing, we can expect students to plan ahead based on the idea that grades below a C will be the only ones that qualify for a GPA modification. So for example, if I am about to take the final for my class and I need to decide how much effort to put into it, there is a difference between my attitude now and my attitude before the policy change. Before the change, if there was a chance I could get anywhere between a C- and a B in the class – depending on how the final goes – I would still be incentivized to put hard work into the final and try to get the best grade. If I mess up and get a C or C+, I would still have a chance to retake the course. However, under the new policy, I am in fact incentivized to sabotage my final exam so that I have the opportunity to retake the class later on. It very likely wouldn’t be worth the risk of getting a C or C+ in my effort to get a B- or B – instead, it is now safer to just take the original bad grade and fix it later.
But the problem will leak beyond just the students looking to game the system. In general, we can expect a certain number of students in the C range to inexplicably have a drop in their grades towards the end of the semester as they realize they should be perversely aiming lower, not higher. In curved classes, this means we will see a gradually lowering curve as the bottom percentile shifts ever lower. While some students may cheer for this development, administrators and professors should be wary of the unintended consequences that could come from this. Perhaps the most important implication of this cause-effect relationship is the potential for grade inflation that stems from this retake policy. Students in these curved classes will already be receiving higher grades than they originally would, something that should be offset with the lower grades bringing down the curves. However, when these students retake the test, their grades will be replaced with, likely, higher ones, offsetting this curve and leading to generally higher grades than there would have been over the course of a few years.
It is surprising that no one brought up these concerns when the policy was being drafted, so it must be assumed that the administration believed they weren’t important enough to be considered. However, to those that believe this policy won’t have the effects just outlined, or that not enough students would actually consider gaming the system in this way, be forewarned. It is often the case with new policy that intangible externalities fall by the wayside and are replaced by supposedly tangible benefits. It is only years later that, to the architect’s dismay, the true effects are realized.