By Doug Ward

Grade point averages for University of Kansas undergraduates rose an average of 8.4% in the spring as instructors offered more flexibility after a shift to remote teaching and more students took advantage of pass/fail grade options.

Men saw a slightly larger increase in GPAs than women did (9.1% vs. 7.9%), although women’s GPAs (3.3) were already higher than men’s (3.09) before the coronavirus pandemic. Freshmen had a larger increase in GPAs in the spring (10.7% for men; 10.5% for women). As with undergraduates as a whole, freshman women (3.05) already had higher GPAs than their male counterparts (2.8).

GPAs for graduate students rose 1.3%, to 3.86 from 3.81, and have remained within a small range over the past decade.

Compassion, accommodations and concern

Those GPA increases are hardly a surprise, and many aspects of the semester will carry an asterisk to explain the dramatic changes that took place during the pandemic.

“Flexibility” became the guiding principle as the world figured out how to live amid a deadly virus. For KU and other colleges and universities, that flexibility included adaptations to class format as campuses were closed, an extended window for withdrawal from classes, requests to avoid use of attendance as a factor in grades. broader use of pass/fail course options, additional time for online exams, and widespread pleas for compassion in grading. There were also concerns, many of which were validated, that some students were cheating during remote exams.

All of those factors no doubt played a role in pushing up grade point averages in the spring. Among the schools at KU, spring grades rose the most in architecture and design (11.3%), followed by engineering (10.6%), law (9.9%), liberal arts and sciences (9.8%), pharmacy (8.1%) and journalism and mass communications (6.9%). Schools with smaller increases already had GPAs higher than the university average: business, education, music, and social welfare. (See the chart below.)

The meaning of GPAs

I have no national data to compare with KU’s data, and I offer the statistics mostly as a point of interest.

I was surprised by how high the average GPA was in some fields even before spring of this year, but that could be the result of many things (including better student work and more openness to rewarding good work). Between 2010 and 2019, the average GPA at KU increased about 2%, although it rose the most in engineering (5.9%), liberal arts and sciences (5.9%), and music (3.8%).

When I look at GPAs in this context, though, I can’t help but wonder about bigger questions:

  • What does a grade mean?
  • What should it represent?
  • Have grades outlived their usefulness? (GPAs are tied to credit hours, which have little or no meaning in a world of online and hybrid courses.)
  • How are grades connected to actual learning?

In a book chapter titled “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation,” Alfie Kohn says grades are too often seen in terms of a “marketplace analogy.” He asks: “Is the professor’s job to rate students like blenders for the convenience of corporations, or to offer feedback that will help students learn more skillfully and enthusiastically?”

In other words, how can we think less about grades and more about learning?


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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