Sciences look at structure

Yale science professors are reviewing grading scales and requirements for undergraduate science courses, particularly those designed for non-science majors, in anticipation of the new distributional group requirements that will go into effect next fall.

The grade review is an effort by the professors who sit on the Science Council to make grading processes in science courses consistent and more in sync with those in humanities and social science departments, said council chairman Charles Bailyn, who also chairs the Astronomy Department.

But the discussions are informal, and any reforms the professors recommend will not turn into University policy, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.

“Since grading is the prerogative of the faculty, the college isn’t going to dictate to the faculty how to grade,” Salovey said.

Bailyn said he hopes the grading reforms will encourage non-science majors to experiment with more science courses.

“I think there’s a strong recognition that we don’t want students to be penalized for taking sciences,” Bailyn said. “That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to get an A — far from it. But we do want to be in the same universe as everyone else. We want to encourage students to take an extra science course.”

The informal review will not lead to a campus-wide grade distribution restriction like the one Princeton University established in the spring, Bailyn said. In an effort to curb grade inflation, Princeton officials in April asked academic departments to limit the number of A’s awarded in their classes to 35 percent of all grades.

Geology professor Mark Brandon, who teaches “Natural Hazards,” a course that is popular among non-science majors, said he welcomes the open dialogue about grading policies. Brandon said he is concerned that some courses are deemed “guts” by students for being less stringent than others.

“There was this discussion [among the science faculty] about, ‘What is our course? Does it reach a certain level as far as a challenging science course, or is it like those when I went to school that we called just a “clapping for credit” course where you watch movies?'” Brandon said.

An informal survey of grade distributions in science courses designed for non-science majors estimated that the median grade in such classes is a B+, with about five percent of students earning below a C-, Brandon said. He said grades in science classes tend to be lower on average than those in the humanities and social science courses.

Some professors are concerned that grading styles are not consistent between divisions of the college, Yale College Associate Dean Penelope Laurans said.

“I think it’s a special issue in the sciences because not all courses have the same kinds of curves that science and math courses often, but not always, have,” Laurans said.

Andrew Ly ’07, who majors in English and music, said he sees discrepancies between grades in science courses and those in other disciplines.

“I get the impression that if you really try in an English class and you write a paper and it’s bad, your professor might give you a good grade for trying,” Ly said. “But you can’t really get around solving a problem incorrectly and getting points for it.”

The Science Council intends to finish its informal review by the end of this academic year in order to coincide with the new distributional requirements that will go into effect beginning with the Class of 2009.

Under the new distributional requirements, which were recommended in Yale’s 2003 undergraduate curricular review and passed by a faculty vote last November, students will be required to take two courses each in the humanities and arts, social sciences and natural sciences. Students will also be required to take two courses focusing on writing skills and two in quantitative reasoning.

Some students remain after class to speak to the professor of the science course “An Issues Approach to Biology.” Several science departments are reevaluating their grading policies and distributional requirements.
Eric Seymour
Some students remain after class to speak to the professor of the science course “An Issues Approach to Biology.” Several science departments are reevaluating their grading policies and distributional requirements.

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