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MAUGHAN: Does not compute. 

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: do we place too much emphasis on grades?

DUCKWORTH: How much of college is trying to get a perfect G.P.A., and how much of it is actual learning?

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, there’s a question from a listener named Allie that strikes close to the heart for me, and I’m going to read it to you. Alright? “Dear NSQ, at the risk of sounding like a super grumpy adult, help me understand: why is academic grade inflation on the rise?” So, I have to say that, as you know, my daughters, Amanda and Lucy are in college, and I am shocked at how many A’s just seem to — it’s sort of like it’s raining A’s.

MAUGHAN: That’s because you’re their mother.

DUCKWORTH: No, but you know what? I’m saying this, not just because of their own transcripts — which, by the way, are not entirely A’s. But they’ll ask me to review the resumes of their friends, because, you know, they’re all on the job market and, you know, the first one I get and I’m like, “Holy smokes, this kid’s gotten, like, practically all A’s and A-minuses!” But then I get the next one and the next one, and then I’m like, “Wait, is everybody getting A’s and A-minuses?”

MAUGHAN: Or are you guys just really good at picking your friends?  

DUCKWORTH:   But,  I’m guessing you’ve seen the headlines, right? Like, there was that article about Yale recently in The New York Times.

MAUGHAN: Yes, an amazing article by Amelia Nierenberg that came out in December of 2023 that showed that nearly 80 percent of all the grades given to undergraduates at Yale were A’s or A-minuses. And Yale maybe is an outlier, but maybe not, I guess, is what we’re saying.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think it’s an outlier. I think there’s some statistic about Harvard. 

MAUGHAN: Right. Seventy-nine percent of all grades given to undergraduates over the ‘20 to ‘21 school year were A’s or A-minuses at Harvard. And a decade earlier, it was 60 percent. So, it’s gone from 60 percent to 79 percent in 10 years.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, the question of whether grade inflation is a thing, or are we being lured by one or two salient examples? I was forwarded that very article you’re talking about by many people. So, I did what I always do, which is I went and looked at the research literature. I was like, go to Google Scholar. So, I found this research report that was done just a year or two ago. And it’s by ACT, the standardized test. Did you take the ACT, because —.

MAUGHAN: That’s what I took. Yeah, I think it’s much more common in the West.

DUCKWORTH: And may I say Midwest? I think it’s like a — like a Midwest thing. Like, you don’t take the SAT, you take the ACT. Anyway, so, I find this article. It’s called, “Grade Inflation Continues to Grow in the Past Decade.” And what they say is that what a lot of people believe is that since the pandemic, grades have increased because we’re getting, like, softer on young people. We’re just so worried about their mental health.

MAUGHAN: But also it’s true, I think, that many organizations, be it high school, college, etc., during the pandemic basically said we’re moving away from grades. It’ll be pass-fail for a while. So, it was this real shift.

DUCKWORTH: We don’t know if you have a good WiFi connection, so if, you know, that’s impairing your ability to learn. By the way, I don’t think many districts did that for long, but right. I mean, everything was different during the pandemic.

MAUGHAN: But it’s like when you went to work from home for all these businesses. There’s kind of no going back. And I wonder if the same thing is plaguing academics, right? You can’t totally go back.

DUCKWORTH: Well, what this report published by ACT says is that grade inflation is not only a thing; it far precedes the pandemic. High-school senior G.P.A.s in national samples have risen between 2010 and 2021. It says the average high-school G.P.A. increased .19 grade points — I mean it doesn’t sound like a lot, but on a 4.0 scale, it is a lot — from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021, with the greatest grade inflation occurring between 2018 and 2021. And they say, “Grade inflation is real, it is widespread, and it weakens the value of student transcripts as a single measure of what students know and are able to do.” And I haven’t seen any study saying the opposite. So, let’s assume that high-school grades are going up and up and up and that they have been since well before the pandemic. That leaves open the question about college though. And it sounds to me like you’re seeing news articles that suggest that college grades are also a rising tide. Is that what you’re seeing?  Because I see a little bit more mixed evidence there.

MAUGHAN: There’s a really interesting thing that I read about this. You may be familiar with Stuart Rojstaczer. He’s a retired Duke University professor, but he created a website called

DUCKWORTH: I’m not familiar with or — what’s his name? Roy?

MAUGHAN: His name is Stuart Rojstaczer.

DUCKWORTH: Like Worcestershire, but with an R.

MAUGHAN: Well, yes, and spelled differently.   And Stuart Rojstaczer, he wrote a piece called “Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities,” and he goes over 50 years of the rise of the A grade, and the biggest shift he shows was from 1963 to 1973, and it was during the Vietnam War. Before the Vietnam War, the average grade in the United States on college campuses was a C. But during the Vietnam War, it rose dramatically. And I wonder — I mean, it’s very different than the pandemic —.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, why? Well, he’s got to have a theory.

MAUGHAN: It’s the same type of idea that during the Vietnam era there is so much pressure and other things on mental health. And I think if you had better grades you were less likely to be drafted.  

DUCKWORTH: Ah, so the professors were trying not to send the 18-year-old boys, like, off to war.  

MAUGHAN: Yeah. Then, what I’m seeing, the data that I’m seeing, for example, I’ve got a figure that shows the average undergraduate GPA from 1983 to 2013, based on data from a wide swath of universities from Alabama, to Indiana, to Minnesota, to Harvard, to BYU, to Wisconsin, and William and Mary. But it’s showing the rise of G.P.A.s at those four-year universities over that 1983 to 2013 time frame — at public universities, the G.P.A. inflation is much lower than at private universities. But still both going up.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, that’s what I mostly am seeing. Grades are going up in high school. They’re going up in college. It’s not just the pandemic. So, let’s assume it is a thing.  

MAUGHAN: You know what’s really interesting about this? Going back to Stuart Rojstaczer. He talks about this really interesting shift that happened, which I had not thought through. He said that we’ve moved from the era of students as learners to the era of students as consumers. And when you treat students like consumers, then the customer is always right. And so, you’re more likely to give them good grades. I just want to read this one thing from him. “Professors faced a new and more personal exigency with respect to grading. To keep their leadership happy and help ensure their tenure and promotion, they had to keep focusing on keeping students happy.” I’m sure you’ve seen this old meme where there’s a kid in elementary school — it’s not a meme, just a cartoon — but comes home with a grade,   and it shows the parents kind of getting angry at the child. And it says, like, “1970.” And then it says “2020.” And then the next image is of the parents yelling at the teacher.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was gonna guess that even though I hadn’t seen that. There’s another article that was in Perspectives on Psychological Science, one of my favorite journals, and it’s called, “Why Good Teaching Evaluations May Reward Bad Teaching: on Grade Inflation and Other Unintended Consequences of Student Evaluations.” And basically, what this argument is, is that there’s another customer, who wants to be happy, and it’s not the student. It’s the professor, because professors basically — and this is true for me too — like, we get graded. So, we get teaching evaluations. Typically what happens is close to the very end of the semester, students fill in these multiple-choice questions on how good they thought the class was, how good they thought the professor was, how difficult they thought the course was, etc, etc. Many universities, including mine, basically force the students — like, you can’t get your grades until you fill out all your course evaluations. So, why this matters is that, for example, when you go up for tenure, the course evaluations are part of your package. They’re also public. So, like my class — you know, I was recently confessing to you that my course evaluations didn’t come out the way I thought they would for my M.B.A. course. That’s public. And that creates an incentive for professors to get good course evaluations. And then, here’s the rub. And it’s kind of obvious, but it’s a fact that professors who give out lenient grades, who give out a lot of A’s and A-minuses, well, they’re making their students as customers happy. Guess what the happy customer students do? They give their professors high ratings. And so, there’s a positive correlation between professors giving out high grades, professors getting good ratings, and that’s another force, right? So maybe all the forces — you know, high grades keep the students happy, high grades lead to high ratings, that keeps the professors happy. There’s been another argument that it keeps the university administration happy because if the grades are higher, fewer kids are dropping out. If fewer kids are dropping out, that means more kids are in, paying tuition. So, you know, I want to be the kind of professor who holds students to a high standard and who will fail them when they need to fail them and who will give them a C when they deserve a C. But, there isn’t a lot of incentive in the system, and I think the kind of courage to be that really tough love professor or teacher, I think it’s rare, and I don’t know, I guess the statistics say maybe it’s getting rarer.  

MAUGHAN: I will say this. I mean, you have to fill out your course eval before you get your grade, usually. And one of the regrets that I have — I had a professor in undergrad who would just slaughter my papers. I mean, he would redline them like crazy in a way that would make me better, but also in a way that I thought from a grade perspective was maybe unfair. And I remember that I wrote his evaluation and was like, “He nitpicks every little thing, it’s about, detail not learning.” And then, I get my grade, and I got an A, and I thought, “Oh, no, no, no, no. He was great. He was helpful,” right? And I, I actually to this day feel bad that I responded much more negatively than I probably would have in a course eval if I thought that I was going to get an A. Now, part of that, I think, to me, came down to this idea of fairness for the work and effort that I put in versus just, “Oh, I might get a bad grade.” But yes, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t incentivized maybe way too much by the grade and not enough by the learning, because he gave a great gift, which is that he spent enough time on our papers to tell us where they needed to be improved and where we could get better, and I think a lot of other professors just kind of skimmed them — or had their TAs. This professor actually went in, took the time, took the effort, and unfortunately was probably punished as a result.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Right. So, you know, how do you, Mike Maughan, think about this? I mean, you have to hire people. Do you care about their grades? Do you worry about grade inflation? I mean, isn’t that hard if you have, you know, 10 applicants from Yale and they all have A’s and A-minuses with a G.P.A. of 3.9? Because one of the only things that you could know about somebody is now, like, a noisier signal.

MAUGHAN: We do care about their grades, and that’s where it starts to get tricky though. Because I think professors know that grades matter, universities know that grades matter when it comes to hiring, and so they’re also incentivized to get their students jobs. So, part of that becomes on the hiring manager to see, okay, what do we think about the grades from this school? But it is harder to use that as a distinguishing feature, given that it appears that grades are going up across the board. I will say one thing that we have been doing for a long time — at times we will ask, especially of undergrads, obviously not so much of grad students, not only G.P.A., but what was your ACT or SAT score as well.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you do?! Wow, that’s interesting.

MAUGHAN: It was to the point where when I was joining, I was finishing my second master’s degree, and they asked me what my ACT was. And I thought, that was something I took so long ago.

DUCKWORTH: When you were hired at Qualtrics.

MAUGHAN: Yes. That was, what, 11 years, 12 years ago? But I think there’s this idea that you can almost balance them out by asking what was a standardized test. We’ve talked before, there are issues with standardized tests as well, but at least that’s maybe more transparent across the board than GPAs that can fluctuate.

DUCKWORTH: I want to say about my school, about Wharton — so I teach the kids in the — I shouldn’t say kids. I teach the “leaders” in the M.B.A. program and I teach undergraduate students. And at the M.B.A. level, there’s a forced curve. So, there is this computer system where we have to input our grades at the end of the semester. It quite literally will not let you finish the transaction of uploading your course grades unless the arithmetic average is 3.5. So, you could put in half A’s and half B’s or there could be, like, A’s and A-minuses and B’s and B-pluses. There’s a lot of different configurations, but it calculates what the mean is, and it won’t let you press the button to submit it unless you have exactly a three-point — or, of course, less. So, you could have a lower average GPA. And I think the administration wouldn’t have such a draconian policy unless they thought somebody was looking at these grades. And I do think that one of the functions of grades is a signal. It’s a little flag that goes up for an employer or the next school that you go to, should you be proceeding to get yet more degrees. And I think you  could argue that if everybody is getting A’s and A-minuses — and by the way, I’m not being all self righteous. I looked at my own undergraduate grades this last semester; so, not, not my M.B.A. course where I had a forced curve, but in the undergraduate class where Dr. Duckworth was allowed to do whatever she wanted, and guess what Dr. Duckworth apparently did? 

MAUGHAN: 3.9 average. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, mostly A’s and A-minuses. Oh my gosh, I didn’t even calculate it. I asked my TAs, I was like, “So, these grades that we’ve apparently already given to the students, the distribution is actually mostly A’s and A-minuses.” And then my T.A.s came back, and they were like, “Yeah, but, you know, the students did great.” And I was like, “Ugh, I’m so tortured by this, I hate it.” But anyway, I just want to say, like, I’m not preaching from some pulpit where I feel like I’ve got everything right. I’m tortured, because on the one hand, I think they are an important signal, and if everybody’s getting the same signal, it’s no longer a signal. 

MAUGHAN: It’s just noise.

DUCKWORTH: And on the other hand, you know, they already worked so hard to get into this selective institution. Something about a forced curve within that institution does rub me the wrong way, so I’m a mess.

MAUGHAN: One thing that I thought was really interesting came from an article I read called, “To Help New Students Adapt, Some Colleges Are Eliminating Grades.” The journalist Jon Marcus wrote this for the Hechinger Report. At Brown University in Rhode Island, students have a choice among written evaluations that they only see results of satisfactory or no credit, and letter grades of A, B, or C, but they can’t see their D or F — that’s not put on the transcript. M.I.T. has what they call ramp-up grading specifically for first-year students. And so, in the first semesters, they only get a pass without a letter grade. If they don’t pass, then no grade is put in at all. And then in their second semester, they get letter grades, but if you have a D or an F, that’s also not put on the transcript.

DUCKWORTH: Really? At M.I.T.? Whoa. Okay, wait, and then —.

MAUGHAN: And then after that it sounds like year two, you’re back in the kind of normal system, but they have this ramp-up grading system for first-year students.

DUCKWORTH: A lot of people don’t know this, but M.I.T. has actually become the cool university. Like, when I was in high school, it was not the cool university. It was a smart university, and very smart people went there. But you would never use the word “cool” at M.I.T. —. 

MAUGHAN: You’re saying it was the “nerd” university.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! Right? By the way, I love my own school, but M.I.T. is so cool. They made their courses free for people online. They’re like, “Oh, by the way, everything we do, if you want to just learn, you could just have what we do.” I mean, you won’t get a degree, but, like, they put, like, I think almost all their courses online. They have a really progressive and supportive and just cool and fun administration. Anyway, I just wanted to let the world know.  

MAUGHAN: M.I.T. is hip.

DUCKWORTH: So, when M.I.T. does something, you should listen or you should watch. So, Mike, this brings me to a question for our listeners. Both Mike and I would love to hear your stories about grades, maybe your thoughts on the pros and cons of grade inflation. You can record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and just email us at Maybe we’ll play your story on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like NSQ and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend about it or spread the word on social media or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: what happened when Angela tried to get her students to appreciate learning for learning’s sake.

DUCKWORTH: “Please send in the writing assignment that was due on Wednesday. It’s now Friday. I also reminded you on Thursday. We really don’t want to fail you.”

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about grade inflation.

DUCKWORTH: I have a pass-fail story for you. So, I had this conversation with a dean at my school — and now we’re going back, I think, like, five years. And I told them I wanted to teach this undergraduate course called Grit Lab. And I said that I was going to put everything I had as a psychologist into the course, not only in terms of the content — like, they’re going to learn about growth mindset, and deliberate practice, and the flow state — but also into the structure of the course. I’m going to use psychology to motivate the students to be engaged, to put full effort in, to be open-minded, and to do everything that every professor wants their students to do. So, you know, my mindset was, like, how much of college is trying to get a perfect G.P.A. and how much of it is actual learning? I don’t want to be an authoritarian professor who’s forcing my students because I have this big stick called their grades, right? And just cajoling them into doing the reading, and paying attention in class, and making a full-throated effort on the writing assignments and everything else. And I thought I would use intrinsic motivation, that I would draw them in and that the grades would then become a non-nuisance. So, this was all a wind up. The dean is like, “Why am I getting a sales pitch about an undergraduate course?”

MAUGHAN: Because you’re passionate.

DUCKWORTH: Well, no, because I needed them to approve a very unusual feature of the course, which is I wanted it to be mandatory pass-fail. And this dean, like, didn’t even understand what I was saying. They were like, “What?” 

MAUGHAN: Does not compute.

DUCKWORTH: And I’m like, “You know, you cannot take it for a letter grade. It’s not a choice.” So, then the dean had to check to see whether the computer system could actually handle this, because it’s not typical. And then, the answer came back. They’re like, “Well, technically, it’s possible.” So, that’s what I did. I made my class mandatory pass-fail. What do you think happened?

MAUGHAN: Well, my first reaction is that a course called “Grit Lab,” I would have thought, like, students want to come in because they’re taking it and want to show a lot of grit, learn about grit, which means they’re kind of these gritty people or at least have the ambition to be gritty people. Yet, knowing what I know about human beings, my guess is that when it became pass-fail — and we all respond to incentives — that the incentive to get a good grade was taken away, and as much as we want to say you’re in this for the learning not for the grade, there’s a lot going on in everybody’s lives. My guess is that they did not put as much time, effort, energy, and passion into the course as they otherwise would have with the no-grade option. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Mike Maughan, I have always thought that you were quite the psychologist, and I wish you had been talking to me at the time that I was doing a song and dance for the Dean trying to get the computer system to allow me to create a course like this. And the reason why is that you’re right. What happened is instead of having an authoritarian state, I had a nanny state. So, the poor TAs in the course, like the teaching assistants, oh my gosh, every week it’s, like, they’re sending email after email — “Please send in the writing assignment that was due on Wednesday. It’s now Friday. I also reminded you on Thursday. Now, you’re behind by two writing assi — hello! You have three writing assignments that haven’t been done. We really don’t want to fail you.”

MAUGHAN: Was the fail part not strong enough? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I have realized of late — I was interviewing this legendary high-school football coach. His name is Bob Ladouceur. And he coached I think the winningest high-school football team in history, the De La Salle Spartans in Concord, California. And he was telling me about his coaching philosophy. So, I was interviewing him because he’s what I study, you know, a paragon of grit, somebody who encourages grit in his athletes. And then, he’s telling me his philosophy of, like, how you get 16, 17, 18-year-old boys to become men, because he was like, “This is not about football. This is about life. This is about character. This is about learning to be accountable to the person who’s standing next to you,” right? And then, he says, “You know, a lot of it is love. But it’s tough love, because what young people need is somebody who demands of them what they cannot yet do.” And I’m thinking to myself, okay, I’ve got the “love” part. It’s the “tough” that I’m not doing very well. So, you’re right. I should have said to these students, “I’m not a nanny. You have to actually do the work. If you don’t do the work, “pass-fail” means you fail the class.” But I am no Bob Ladouceur. I was like, “Okay, TAs, maybe you could text them.” I didn’t fail anybody. I probably should have. Maybe you could argue that, you know, pass-fail would have worked if there was more “tough” in my tough love.

MAUGHAN: Well, the other thing you said that Bob said is that they’re accountable to the person next to them. And in this class, it’s just myself. And maybe, if my actions impacted everybody else’s pass-fail around me, or if I was awful, then they all failed.

DUCKWORTH: You know, this kind of innovative thinking, Mike — I mean, definitely Coach Lad, as he’s called, I think he would have loved that because one of the things he did in his coaching days, he’s now retired, is that he had this thing called the commitment card. So, he 100 percent believed that one of the most important lessons in life, and arguably the most important lesson, was to understand your interdependence with other people, how they rely on you and you rely on them. That’s why he loved football. So, he had this commitment card invention. And it’s a tradition that endures to this day. So, a commitment card is the lowest-tech possible device there is.

MAUGHAN: A three-by-five note card. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s an index card. And on the commitment card, at the top, you write your name. And then, you write three goals for the following week. It was football, so for his athletes and for the athletes who still play today on the De La Salle Spartans, it’s a game goal, it’s a practice goal, and it’s a conditioning goal. And then, at the end, this is the part I love, you write down, “I commit to,” and then you name another player. I think they did this at the night before Friday night, you know, football, right, Friday nights, Friday Night Lights. So, on the Thursday, they would have dinner at one of the players’ homes. And then, they have to, basically, stand up and read their goals aloud to the team, and then look at somebody in the eye and hand them the card. And Bob says, “You hand that other person a card. And you say, ‘Hold me accountable.’” And then, that other player carries around your card for the whole week. Right? I mean, come on. I was like, if there were a Nobel Prize for football coaches, Bob Ladouceur should absolutely get two of them. Like, this is genius. So, now you’re in a partnership, right? Like, you’re with this accountability partner for the week. You’re looking at them in the weight room, you’re watching them in practice, you know you’re being watched. And then, the next week, you know what you do? You stand up with your commitment card partner’s card in your hand, and you say, “Game goal,” and then you report on it. Like, yes. No. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. You know, “Conditioning goal.” “Practice goal.” And I was just interviewing one of his players, this amazing human being named Scott Hugo. And he’s now a lawyer, but he’s, like, an advocate for equitable housing in Oakland, California. And I was interviewing him, and it was clear that this commitment card had an enduring effect on him as a person for his entire life. And I asked him if that were true and he said, “Oh, I have a box of commitment cards in my apartment, and I’ll never throw them away. It taught me the lesson of responsibility. It taught me what it means to be a person.” So, anyway, the point is you know, how could I have young people think about work the way these 16-year-old boys thought about their commitment cards and what they were going to do in the weight room that week? It’s like almost — you can’t even imagine two more opposite images.

MAUGHAN: Well, it’s also, I think, partly the problem of scale, right? Bob can do this in his team and with his group, but it’s much harder across every academic institution. And to come up with something that is standardized enough that, again, it is a signal to employers. It is a signal to grad schools. And how does one do that? Just so you, Angela Duckworth, do not feel bad about your experience trying to innovate, I want to go back to this article that Jon Marcus wrote for the Hechinger Report, where he also talked about Johns Hopkins, the university, that reversed their policy of giving satisfactory or unsatisfactory grades to first-semester freshmen. So, they had sort of the same ramp-up thing. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, they reversed it?

MAUGHAN: And two of their deans, in a letter announcing the end of the practice, said this: “Covered grades,” meaning satisfactory-unsatisfactory, “merely delay development of study skills and adaptation to college-level work.”

DUCKWORTH: They were like, “Come on, this is life. You know, nobody runs a company and says, like, ‘Oh, I don’t care how you performed.’”

MAUGHAN: Exactly. And, “Oh, hey, you’re a brand new hire. We don’t really care for the first year, and we hope you ramp up on your own time in your own way.” To your point of this accountability of commitment cards, when you join a company, you are joining a group of people and everyone has to be accountable to each other and pull their own weight. And so, just, just saying that other people have tried what you tried, other very smart capable talented people.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so there was this article that I read years after I had sweet-talked the Dean into letting me do whatever I wanted. And by the way, I also reversed my decision, so I taught my class pass-fail. I ran a nanny state for four semesters, I think. And then, I changed it to grading, and for me, it wasn’t that hard of a choice, because I, I realized that if you’re going to change this, it’s very hard to be the only professor who has the pass-fail course, because then, you know, what are your students going to do? Like, they’ve got everything going on. They absolutely feel stressed. And you’ve got four classes that are graded and one that’s pass-fail. Like, what are you going to do, right? So, I felt like teaching my class and expecting students to do all the reading and put a full-throated effort into their writing was kind of like asking people to eat a salad in the middle of a bakery. It’s just psychologically dumb. So, I changed the class to be graded. I talked to my friend, Jamie Pennebaker, who’s a professor at UT-Austin, and he for a long time, was, like, the legendary professor of Psych 1, and he’s a world-class psychologist. So, he also put all of his psychology into the structure of the course. And he told me that the number one most important thing was: “I gave a quiz every week. There’s no midterm and there’s no final.” He was like, “That’s dumb, because, basically, what you do when you have, like, one midterm and one final is you incentivize the students to slack off for the six weeks before the midterm and the six weeks before the final, and they cram right before.” And that doesn’t lead to learning.

MAUGHAN: I have the clearest memory in college in, like, a — I don’t know, intro to biology course or something? And I had no idea what was going on the whole semester. And I was cramming in my freshman dorm room right before the final. And I remember thinking, “Whoa, this is all really cool, and it makes so much sense!” But I had not paid attention at all until I had to.

DUCKWORTH: Right! And so what you really want to do is you want to make “have to” more frequent. You want them to have to do the reading and have to pay attention a lot more frequently than twice a semester. So, I put in these weekly quizzes, and it was a freaking miracle. Like, halfway through the semester I was being asked by my students to teach more. They were like, “Yeah, we already saw that graph.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know, because it was in your reading.” And in my head, I was like, “But in my experience, nobody does the reading.” And they were like, “Now what do you have for us?” I mean, it was the only time in my life as a professor where my students were asking me to be harder, you know, to go farther. So, I have to say, I think my undergraduates learned more when it was a graded course than when it was pass-fail. It was, like, palpable. And so, this all happens to me — I, I have my little journey from idealistic pass-fail professor to slightly more sober graded professor with quizzes and so forth. And then, I find this article called “Making the Letter Grade: The Incentive Effects of Mandatory Pass-Fail Courses.” And it’s published by three economics professors at Wellesley. So, in the fall of 2014, they say Wellesley College began mandating pass-fail grading for courses taken by first-year, first-semester students. So, similar to those other policies, although instructors continued to record letter grades. So, they have this great experiment. And then, they run all these, like, fancy econometric analyses. And what they find is that: “Letter grades of first-semester students declined by .13 grade points.” And then, they go on to try to unpack this and they’re like, well, could it be because students are selecting different course — like, maybe professors didn’t teach as well. And what they conclude is that the effect is consistent with students not trying as hard. In other words, my personal experience may not be unusual. And this isn’t the salad in the bakery thing so much, right? Because all of their classes were pass-fail. But even without the competition of graded classes, like — maybe that’s because they were brought up in a culture that had grades and then all of a sudden you take the grades away. I don’t know, but  I do think it gives one pause.  

MAUGHAN: Right. We want people to learn for the love of learning, but people do respond to incentives and so do academic institutions and individual professors and like all things that means that there’s probably grade inflation along the way, as institutions want to make their students happy and professors want to have students like it, they’re incentivized for grade inflation as well. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. And I think we should experiment, and, like, we should try something that’s the analogy to commitment cards and stuff. But I also want to say this: you never really know until you do it. I thought my experiment was great. But, you know, sometimes it doesn’t actually work out the way you think it’s going to work out. If I could learn to be a little bit more like Coach Lad, I — it’s a resolution. I remember, like, hanging up the phone with Bob Ladouceur and I was like, I am no Bob Ladouceur.  Like, I think if I had to grade myself right now, I wouldn’t give myself an A, I don’t know what I’d give myself, but it would, I’m not, I’m not a 4.0 professor.

MAUGHAN: Well, in my book you get a big A for effort. 

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike and Angela say that it’s much more common for college applicants to take the ACT than the SAT in the American West and Midwest. That’s true of the Midwest and the mountain west, but not the west coast — the SAT is the more popular test in Washington, Oregon, and California. Then, Angela says that she believes that the retired coach Bob Ladouceur had the winningest high-school football team in history. Ladouceur is the winningest high-school football coach in California history with 399 wins over the course of his 34-year run with the De La Salle Spartans. However, Ladouceur is not the winningest coach in U.S. history. John McKissick, who coached Summerville High School football in South Carolina for 62 years, retired in 2015 with 621 wins.

Finally, Angela says that James Pennebaker — professor emeritus of psychology at University of Texas at Austin — gave his Introduction to Psychology students a quiz every week. Pennebaker and his colleague, psychology professor Samuel Gosling, actually gave students a quiz at the beginning of every class, three times a week. In 2013, they published a paper on the success of this regimen in the journal PLOS One. That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on fear.

Matt BECKWORTH:  Hi Angela and Mike. My name is Matt. Listening to your latest episode about fear, and my number one fear has always been a fear of heights. I’m okay if I’m 6, 8, 10 feet up or something, but more than that, I get really anxious, nervous, afraid. But a number of years ago, I wanted to see if I could get over that fear, and I agreed to participate in a fundraiser where you rappel down the side of a 14-story building. I did it. It took me nearly orders of magnitude longer than anybody else. But doing that has reminded me that I can do things that I’m afraid of. Great show. 

Maeve HERBST:  Hi Mike and Angela, this is Maeve from Ohio. I loved your episode on fear. I recently faced my fear of needles. It started when I was a kid. I was just really scared to get a shot or even a finger prick at the doctor. I’d cry and hyperventilate, and it was miserable for everyone, including the nurses and my mom, who didn’t know how to help me. I had accepted for myself that I’d always be scared of needles. Getting blood work done was my nightmare. So, it was inhibiting my health choices, but it really got out of hand when I went to the dentist as a 23 year old and decided to get a cavity filled without the numbing shot. I ended up reading a book that only had a chapter about forming new memories around fears — and if you can form a new memory with a fear in a safe way that it can help you just kind of break the ice. So I went to get a flu shot with my friend and realized without having had a needle poked in me for so long, I had really overestimated how much it hurt. So, since then, I’ve gotten blood work done, and I’ll get a flu shot. I was able to get my COVID vaccines, but now I’m actually regularly donating blood. So, getting exposed and getting used to it has been really helpful and it’s given me courage to face more of my fears.

That was listener Matt Beckworth and Maeve Herbst. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts about grade inflation. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

DUCKWORTH: Hi everyone, Angela here. I want to tell you about a special project Mike and I are working on. We’re planning a series of episodes of No Stupid Questions about personality. In anticipation of the first episode, we have a really fun quiz we’re excited to share. To check it out, and to learn more about your personality, go Take the Big Five Inventory, and get an immediate personality profile. Your results will remain completely anonymous. And if you have a question about personality, feel free to email us at We may be able to answer your question during the series. Thanks, and see you next week! 

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: when should you trust your gut?

MAUGHAN: Sometimes I just need somebody to look me in the eye and say, “Hey, you’re not crazy.”

DUCKWORTH: Or, “You are crazy.”

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin with help from Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH I remember visiting Brown with the girls. And by the way, at the end of the tour, I wanted to go to Brown. I think they have a club, I think it’s called, like, “Bobs’ Club” and, like, everybody who belongs to it, just their first name is Bob or something. Anyway, Brown is quirky and adorable. 

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  • Scott Hugo, housing justice attorney at Oakland City Attorney’s Office.
  • Bob Ladouceur, former head football coach at De La Salle High School.
  • Jon Marcus, writer at The Hechinger Report.
  • Amelia Nierenberg, Connecticut correspondent for The New York Times. 
  • James Pennebaker, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Stuart Rojstaczer, writer and former professor of geophysics at Duke University.



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