Easy A's on the Internet

A surprising Cornell experiment in posting grades; plus a look at recent research into ethical behavior, service charges, and volunteer habits

In a striking example of unintended consequences, a move by Cornell University to give context to student grades by publicly posting median grades for courses has resulted in exactly the opposite student behavior than anticipated.

Cornell's College of Arts & Sciences originally set up a Web site in 1997 where median grades were posted, with the intention of also printing median class grades alongside the grade the student actually received in the course on his or her permanent transcript. Administrators thought students would use the information on the Web site to seek out classes with lower median grades—because, they reasoned, an A in a class that has a median grade of B-minus would be more meaningful than say, an A in a course where the median was A-plus.

Course Shopping Leads to Grade Inflation

However, when Cornell researchers studied about 800,000 course grades issued at Cornell from 1990 to 2004, they found that most students visited the site to shop for classes where the median grade was higher. Plus, professors who tended to give out higher grades were more popular. Students with lower SAT scores were the most likely to seek out courses with higher median grades.

This "shopping" in turn led to grade inflation, Vrinda Kadiyali, associate professor of marketing and economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management, one of the authors, explained in an interview. The study, which is undergoing peer review, has not yet been published.

So far, however, the university has posted the median course grades only on the Internet and has not yet put those grades on transcripts. According to an article in the Cornell Daily Sun, the school will start posting the grades on transcripts in the spring. School officials were not immediately available for comment.

The research team hopes the school follows through on its plans. "That will allow Cornell to hold itself to a higher standard because it lets potential employers know where students stand relevant to other students," says Kadiyali.

The presence of the median grade data is well-known to students but less well-known to faculty. The researchers themselves were prompted to do the study when one of them learned of the Web site from a student questioning grades in her course.

Kadiyali says the formula the researchers used to come to these conclusions could easily be applied to Internet teacher rating sites, such as ratemyprofessors.com. It's something educators should consider, she adds, to find out how these posts affect the decision-making of students and, thus, professors and their courses.

Research Eyes Ethical Behavior

Ethics has long been a subject of debate at business school. But recently even more business school researchers are doing their part to determine why people behave the way they do.

In a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Scott Reynolds, assistant professor of business ethics at the University of Washington, and doctoral student Tara Ceranic found that moral identity and ethical judgements don't always result in ethical behavior.

In two separate studies, the research teams surveyed about 500 students and managers about their ethical behaviors. One of the studies asked students about past cheating. Those who considered themselves to be moral—using words such as "caring," "just," and "honest" to describe themselves—and considered cheating morally wrong were least likely to cheat. But those who considered themselves to be moral and saw cheating as having ethical justifications were the worst offenders.

The second study asked managers about work-related ethical dilemmas. Those managers who viewed themselves as "moral" tended to take the most extreme positions in posing solutions to the dilemma.

"There are no bounds to self-deception," Reynolds said in an interview. "You can think you're a good person and because you're a good person, you can do anything. That's not the case."

Reynolds says the research proves managers cannot take people for granted and that ethical training is vital. People need to be told over and over again, says Reynolds, what's acceptable and what's not.

Meanwhile, "Max" Howard Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School has found that people commonly predict they will behave more ethically than they actually do and even remember behaving more ethically than they did, according to a Harvard Business School working paper.

The findings Bazerman has collected about ethics show people tend to favor the "in" group over the "out" group, overly discount the future (e.g., says Bazerman, we continue to use aerosol cans even though we know it damages the atmosphere), claim excessive credit for our work, and fail to sufficiently notice ethical violations of others.

Bazerman, co-author of Negotiation Genius (Bantam, September, 2007), says he aims to demonstrate that the ethics problem in business isn't just the result of a few bad apples. He wants to raise people's actual ethics level to their perceived ethics level by making them aware of their behavior.

Evaluating Service Time Value

In the cold of winter a few years ago, Dilip Soman, the Chorus Professor of Strategy & Marketing at the University of Toronto's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, accidentally stumbled on a new subject to study. He discovered his neighbor was upset because he had purchased a snow blower, and the store representative who came to assemble it finished in 15 minutes, which seemed too short a time for the price the neighbor had paid for the setup service.

This got Soman wondering whether longer service really means better service. He found that people used duration to measure quality when there was no way to measure output, simply because it was accessible and tangible. "The easier it is to measure something, the more likely it is people will use that as an evaluation," Soman said in an interview. But a longer duration of service doesn't necessarily mean you're getting a better deal. Sometimes, shorter service just means the service provider is more efficient.

The message for service provides is to highlight the value of efficiency to customers if the service is quick.

On the other hand, Soman found that if customers have to wait a long time for service to begin, the opposite is true: Customers want a shorter wait. Soman suggests starting the service as soon as possible by having customers fill out forms right away.

To come to these conclusions, Soman and his colleague Catherine Yeung from the University of Singapore conducted 12 studies that included 1,400 people, half of whom were in the field and half in the lab. The study was published in the August, 2007, issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Hourly Wage Earners Volunteer Less

People who earn an hourly wage are less likely to volunteer their time than salaried workers, according to a recent study by two business-school professors.

Sanford DeVoe, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior & Human Resource Management at the Rotman School of Management, looked at the results of the 2003 American Time Use Survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which included 11,000 respondents, and interviewed 85 people. He found that those who earn hourly wages and therefore put a precise dollar amount on their time allow these expectations to spill into their personal time.

In other words, they volunteer less often than their nonwage counterparts. In fact, DeVoe, who partnered with Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that hourly wage earners in the U.S. spent an average of 36% less time volunteering than salaried workers. And when salaried workers were asked to calculate their salary by the hour, they too were less willing to volunteer. In 2003, 59% of the U.S. workforce was paid by the hour—so the implications of the study—published in the August, 2007, issue of the Academy of Management Journal—for volunteerism are substantial.

Meanwhile, those who don't volunteer, DeVoe said in an interview, may be missing out on some intangible benefits. He believes volunteers are happier and healthier. "Volunteering has benefits that are hard to put a monetary value on," DeVoe says.

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