MAGDZIK: Grading and the purpose of the College

Making Magic

The committee on grading recently released a preliminary report noting the phenomenon of grade “compression” (read: inflation) at Yale. Last spring, 62 percent of marks were A-minus or higher.

The committee recommended both intra- and inter-departmental information sharing, hoping to encourage self-adjustment. But it went further, suggesting that we institute numerical grading in 1-point increments (59–100) and create suggested University-wide guidelines to limit high grades. The intended outcome? Princeton-style grade deflation.

My background is in the humanities and social sciences, so I admittedly have a limited perspective across departments, as will most of us. But it seems to me that the risks of such a strategy go beyond merely disadvantaging Yalies relative to Ivy League peers in graduate school admissions or job markets — they threaten the character of the College itself.

The committee believes that undergraduates are incentivized to put less effort into course work if high grades are easily attainable, and that their model encourages work.

But an abundance of great work already happens, thanks to a myriad of other incentives. Hard workers benefit from the intrinsic feeling of a job well-done (underclassmen might scoff, but older students might recall their pride in a particularly arduous project — a thesis, or research work for a graduate course). The sense of having truly learned something is a better motivator than any grade, and closer to the purpose of education — learning for the sake of learning, not to jump through hoops or pass tests.

Beyond this, superb work is still required for great letters of recommendation, departmental prizes, journal publication, portfolios or writing samples for prestigious internships, and respect among Yale peers. Many students believe their work has implications for humanity, whether on the local scale (like the Community-Based Learning program, where students apply academic principles while conducting work for local nonprofits and government) or on the global level (cancer research, etc.). Because of all these incentives, I suspect we’ve more or less hit the cap for outstanding work.

But let’s say that, for less outstanding students, a new grading policy would increase the average amount of work input. The committee cites a statistic saying students worked 40 hours a week in 1961 and only 27 in 2003, which is a problem if you accept their philosophy that more work is better.

Firstly, I’d point out that a large part of that may be due to the fact that we now have vast online libraries and keyboards.

But more importantly, incentivizing ”more work” in this way would be a disaster for the College mission. A numerical grading scale will see more quibbling, more stress over insignificant details of work, more unproductive competitiveness and more exasperation over frequent arbitrariness. Are there really meaningful differences between a 94 and 96 on similarly structured literature papers, or is it more likely to be attributed to how recently a novitiate teaching assistant refilled his or her coffee mug? Also, a harsher scale will simply exacerbate the adverse selection phenomenon — students will consider it even more important to find the right courses, the right TAs and the right paper topics, because variation will always exist.

Most tragically, the quest for each additional point will motivate students to sacrifice the enriching, nonacademic aspects of Yale life in order to compete with other universities’ students. A liberal arts environment is not for Ph.D.s-in-training. It is meant to teach us what it means to be servants in our communities, citizens in our polities, leaders in our organizations and humans in our time. It is supposed to impart character.

Character is not forged in the dungeons of Bass. It is cultivated when students learn to listen and engage, a skill acquired over hundreds of dining hall debates where no one is scurrying to the library. It comes as people spend time finding their calling, whether as public school interns or student newspaper journalists or doctors’ shadows. It is bred as we are socialized to others’ life experiences. You cannot internalize what it means to be black, an immigrant, Muslim, gay or bipolar just by reading. We need to experience friendships and relationships, passion and anger, in large doses unconfined to the Friday nights we can afford to carve out of our study schedules. And, just sometimes, we also need enough time to learn what makes us happy.

I, and many others at this University, will continue to work relentlessly for all the reasons I laid out before — already often at the expense of mental health. Before we make such a drastic change and bicker over implementation, it is important to first have a broader philosophical discussion about the purpose of the College, and whether this proposal fulfills it.

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu .

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