Graduate grading to stay same

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Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences voted Monday to keep the school’s current Honors/ High Pass/ Pass grading system, rejecting the more traditional A-F scale as proposed by the Graduate School Executive Committee last semester.

The decision reflected the opinions of about 72 percent of the 924 graduate students surveyed in a Graduate Student Assembly poll this month, who said they were not in favor of changing the grading system. As a result of the vote, Yale will remain the only graduate school in the Ivy League to use the H/HP/P system. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the vote failed by a margin of about six votes.

Butler said the faculty made their decision after hearing the results of the student survey and receiving a copy of an op-ed column by GSA spokesman Nicholas Goodbody ’10 that ran in Monday’s News. The discussion highlighted differences in faculty opinion about evaluating and assessing graduate work, Butler said, and professors’ votes did not fall along disciplinary lines, which surprised the faculty.

Butler said he thinks a new grading system would have made it easier to improve mentoring for graduate students, but he is still committed to making Yale a leader in student mentoring.

“No matter what grading system we use, we need to use the grading system better than we are currently using it, and we need to provide better feedback for the students when we return their work,” Butler said.

But some professors and about 87 percent of the students surveyed said they did not think changing the grading system is a necessary step to improving student mentoring. English professor Amy Hungerford said that while the focus on mentoring is a positive goal for the Graduate School, she thinks better communication between faculty members and students will come from detailed feedback on tests and papers and more meetings outside of class, not from adopting a letter grade system.

“I’m not sure that simply having more letter grades to choose from will automatically allow students to get a better sense of what they need to do to improve their work,” Hungerford said.

GSA chair Ian Simon GRD ’08 said he was definitely surprised by the negative student response to the proposal and even more so by the lack of division along departmental lines. While he initially thought science students would support the change more than students in the humanities and social sciences would, the poll showed a very slight difference between the three divisions. Simon said that in the end, science students thought that their research was the most important component of their graduate school educations.

“Science students felt that the importance of coursework is secondary to the importance of work produced in lab and for research papers and that the [Graduate School’s] focus should be on mentoring and providing feedback for those areas,” Simon said. “[Science students felt] the change would put an emphasis on classes and grades and diminish the emphasis on research.”

Simon said a vast majority of the students surveyed said they thought switching to an A-F system would increase competition within departments, which would be extremely negative for students, particularly those in smaller programs. Gwendolyn Branford GRD ’09, a graduate student in philosophy, said the possibility of increased competition would be a bad thing in such a small program.

“Competition in a small department is a toxic fume, and I really think that the letter grading system would at least open the door to that,” she said.

Branford said that she did not think a B+ would necessarily be more informative to students than an H or HP, and that grading would not necessarily be any tougher with a letter grade system. Professors would not give low grades freely “this late in the game,” she said.

GSA member Andrew Bellemer ’10 said he initially supported the proposed change because as a science student, it was difficult to explain what his grades meant in relation to the common letter grade system when applying for fellowships. But he said that after discussing the issue with many students and faculty members, he could not see much good coming out of a change and is pleased with the faculty decision. While he still thinks the issue of a foreign-looking transcript is a problem, he is glad that the professors took student opinion into account when making their decision.

Simon said the issue of changing the grading system has been tabled for this year, though it could be brought up again in the fall of 2008.

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