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January 20, 2021

Are we getting smarter? College GPAs are at an all-time high.

Original image by Benson Kalahar, Flickr.
Original image: Benson Kalahar, Flickr.

The average American thinks he or she is smarter than the average American.

According to a new study by opinion research firm YouGov, 55 percent of Americans feel this way. Only 4 percent say they are less intelligent than most people.

There’s a good psychological explanation behind these very whacked-out statistics. Most competent individuals tend to underestimate their ability, while incompetent people overestimate it. This isn’t about rampant arrogance, but rather blissful ignorance; bad performers don’t often get negative feedback. They interpret the lack of comment as proof of awesomeness.

So, what does it mean to be average? Oversimplified, average is a midpoint between two extremes. Half are above, and half are below. However, average can also be interpreted as typical or ordinary. In today’s society, average is a shame-inducing word because no one wants to believe they are typical or ordinary. Anything less than extraordinary is dismal failure.

Recent trends in college grades seem to support the majority’s views about extraordinary intelligence. In 1991, the average college GPA was 2.93. In 2006, it was 3.11. According to academic researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses because instructors have gradually lowered their standards over the years.  “Students are highly disengaged from learning, are studying less than ever, and are less literate,” the researchers said in a 2010 report.  “Yet grades continue to rise.

Whoa, they’ve lowered standards? Students are studying less? Does that mean we aren’t as smart as we think we are?

Not long ago educators used A to signify exceptional performance, B indicated above-average, and C was average. However, today’s students, both in America’s high schools and colleges, are horrified and combative if anything less than a B appears in the gradebook. Why the backlash? I believe it stems from too few educators – at all levels – providing objective feedback.

I’ve spent many years as a college instructor, and I’ve seen my share of students who are upset about earning a C.  They complain and question their professors’ competency with, “I’ve never been given a C in my life.”


There is absolutely nothing wrong with being average or below average. There is nothing wrong with failure. Like it or not, you can’t master everything you tackle, and inflated grades help no one.

An 8th grade shop class resulted in me electrocuting myself while building a lamp and creating a wooden fishing rod holder looked like it had been used as a target for spear throwers. Needless to say, I failed many elements of the class, but my teacher’s feedback helped me eventually learn basic handyman skills. Despite Amazonian height, I was always the last one chosen for sports teams because my peers knew I’d knock myself out with a basketball before I’d get it in the net. Yes, I was a gym class pariah, but with feedback, I learned how to prevent those injuries and discovered sports I could actually do. I earned D’s on my first writing assignments with the university’s toughest journalism professor, and my first C scared my classmates because I released a few joyful expletive phrases when I got my paper back. She prepared me for editors who demanded “get it right the first time.” Many of my college algebra tests earned D’s and F’s, but thanks to a lot of extra tutoring, I managed to eke out the lowest possible C as a final grade and jubilantly danced out of that classroom at the end of the semester.

Today’s students and the 55 percent of above-average Americans don’t realize failure and near-failure can make you smarter. I learned more from those experiences than I did from classes that brought easy A’s. Those experiences made me realize knowledge can come from mistakes. They made me humble. They made me recognize and value different forms of intelligence and giftedness. They also made me a better person.

I give my students A’s and B’s when they are earned. I also give grades of C, D and F when they are earned as well. Some may say I’m too tough, but I have to disagree. Few people can master every assignment and every class, and mistakes are part of the learning process. I’m not doing them any favors by glossing over their errors or shoddy workmanship; their future employers will be expecting exceptional performance and won’t be giving them multiple choice options on the job. Frankly, it’s cruel send them out into the world without objective feedback that can help them improve or point them down a new path.

Fifty-five percent of Americans believe they are smarter than the average American. The typical college student carries an overall B average. Public education hammers that children should score above the national average on standardized tests.

We expect everyone to be above-average; however, that’s mathematically and humanly impossible. It’s also cruel because we fail to recognize intelligence comes in many forms, many of which cannot be accurately measured by a grade or standardized test or are realized later in life. We penalize mistakes and failure, when in reality, these things are the building blocks of real intelligence.


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