COLLEGE PARK - At the University of Maryland and other campuses around the country, the fine art of getting easy A's has become a science.
College students who once had to rely on rumor to find lenient professors are turning to a Web site, pickaprof.com, that provides detailed grading histories of faculty members.
Unlike previous sites where students could share opinions about teachers, Pick-A-Prof provides hard data. Students type in the name of a professor or course - and up pop the average grades given by the professor, as well as the rate at which students drop out of his or her course.
Just three years after its creation by two 1999 graduates of Texas A&M; University, students and campus groups at 51 colleges pay Pick-A-Prof's hefty fees for access to grading information at their schools. The secret to the Web site's success is simple: The founders discovered that the grading histories of professors at state universities are public record. They just needed to be assembled for use.
"We knew that there were bits and pieces of information that you can find in some basement or library room," said co-founder John Cunningham from his office in Austin, Texas. "We knew you could find all the A's and the F's and the drop-out rates if you dug for a while."
The arrival of Pick-A-Prof at College Park is causing consternation among some professors, who are unnerved by the idea of having their grading records online and having students choose classes based on how easy they're perceived to be. The site, they say, encourages the consumerist approach that many college students take and could exacerbate grade inflation.
"It's sort of anti-intellectual, in that students are apt to focus more on what they think teachers might give them than on learning," said UM math professor Denny Gulick, a former chairman of the faculty Senate. "I find that distressing."
The UM Student Government Association paid Pick-A-Prof $10,000 last year to place the grading distributions for university courses on the Web site. The association, which is funded by student fees, must pay $6,000 per year to keep the service - an expense that drew criticism in the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, which argued that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Student Government Association President Brandon DeFrehn defends the expenditure, saying Pick-A-Prof is a valuable resource for students looking for reliable information on how best to use their tuition. "I've gotten good feedback," he said. "When they find out about it, people think it's useful."
Students who have visited the site insist they won't abuse it, saying they choose classes based on a mix of factors, one of which is their likely success in the course. Still, they say, it's hard to ignore the information.
For instance, a student looking for a 300-level psychology course this spring could choose from, among others, Charles Sternheim's class on perception and Kevin Murnane's course on memory and cognition.
Pick-A-Prof offered this background for a student trying to decide: Students in Sternheim's class have averaged a C, with nearly a quarter dropping out. Murnane has handed out grades averaging higher than B+ in his course, with just 7 percent of students dropping out.
The site is equally helpful for students trying to decide which section of a large course to take, providing grading histories for each section's instructor. The site also offers student opinions on professors, which Pick-A-Prof screens for civility.
UM students believe that the service is used most by freshmen and sophomores, as most upperclassmen's course selections are limited by requirements in their majors.
The service is also useful, students said, for those seeking classes outside their majors to satisfy "core" requirements in various fields. For many students, the priority in choosing such courses is finding ones that won't drag down a grade point average - and might boost it.
"You have to have a few easy ones to keep up a good GPA," said Garret Black, a junior criminal justice major from St. Mary's County.
Priority is learning
Some students defend using the site by arguing that high grades reflect the ability of teachers to explain material well. The priority, they say, is learning, not getting A's.
"I wouldn't take something I wasn't interested in just because it's easier," said Jessica Hartranft, a junior psychology major from Columbia.
Site co-founder Chris Chilek agrees, saying focus groups done by Pick-A-Prof show that most students use the site not to find easy A's but to find professors who are effective. The drop-out rates are particularly useful, he said, because a professor with a high drop-out rate is likely not teaching well.
Other students take a more cynical view. The truth is, they say, students feel more pressure than ever to have high GPA's to get into graduate and professional schools, and to find good jobs. Some have more immediate concerns - for example, qualifying for undergraduate majors such as business, in which students must apply for admission, or not losing their scholarships, many of which require maintaining good grades.
"People care about grades," said Sandra Lerner, a sophomore family studies major from Chicago. "I think people care more about getting good grades than learning."
That's what worries some faculty members, who foresee students seeking out professors based on how they grade. This, in turn, could encourage junior faculty to raise their grades to draw more students to their classes and thereby increase their chances for tenure.
"Some faculty that are tenured and are tougher say they couldn't care less what students think. But for some, it could encourage grade inflation," said computer science professor Benjamin Bederson.
UM administrators were concerned about Pick-A-Prof, but after meeting with its creators they decided not to oppose it, a college spokesman said.
Some teachers are equally untroubled, saying the Web site is just another version of the tips that have informed course selections since the first "gut" science class was discovered. Patrick M. Fitzpatrick, math chairman, recalls that when he was in college, his pre-med friends "took great care over who was teaching organic chemistry, and it didn't have to do with how much chemistry they'd learn."
"There's nothing one can do about it," he said. "This is certainly not a good way for students to choose a professor, but this information was always available in less formal ways, and now it's available there."