Forums revive grading policy discussion

After months of radio silence from administrators over grading reform, the ad hoc committee on grading has reached out for student opinions.

The committee was commissioned in September 2012 to examine a possible restructuring of Yale’s grading policies. In a series of three forums this month — one each for juniors and seniors in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — the committee and Yale College Dean Mary Miller solicited student feedback on their experiences with grading at Yale. With the committee slated to hand in their general recommendations to Miller sometime in the upcoming weeks, the open forums put Yale’s yearlong conversation on grading policy in the home stretch.

Though buzzwords such as grade deflation and grade inflation have been the focus of many student debates and protests in the past year, they did not figure heavily into the forum discussions this month, according to administrators and students in attendance. Instead, the overarching student concern was that letter grades can fail to provide adequate feedback of student work.

“The overall tone that emerged from these discussions was a completely responsible view of students toward how to make the most out of their education,” Miller said.

According to Miller, students at each of the forums, especially the social science forum, expressed a desire to use grades as an opportunity for further learning and for improving their writing and research skills.

Miller said students pointed to some English courses that assign multiple short papers — and in some cases offer the opportunity to revise and resubmit papers — as exemplary models of this sort of constructive grading.

Julia Mattison ’14, who attended the arts and humanities forum, said students expressed an overwhelming desire for comments in addition to grades on their end-of-term projects, which professors often do not hand back to students.

“Students turn in substantial pieces of work at the end of semester and all we get back is a grade on our transcript,” said Leah Sarna ’14, who also attended the meeting. “Students are looking to learn from teachers, and a great opportunity for learning is grading not by numbers but by feedback.”

The STEM forum raised similar concerns, according to Ike Swetlitz ’15, who said he attended the meeting in order to raise concerns that grades currently do not provide enough information to students.

Swetlitz pointed out that grades currently serve multiple functions, from providing feedback to students on their skills and competency in a certain field to providing information to prospective employers and graduate schools about the quality of applicants. Grades might be more effective if their different purposes were detangled and different metrics were used for each of their functions, Swetlitz said.

While Swetlitz praised the discussion as more civil and productive than the Yale College Council grading forum held last year, he also noted that the discussion failed to address the philosophical elements of the grade debate.

“We were working at the level of changing within the current system instead of asking questions like ‘What is success?’” Swetlitz said.

Miller said students at the STEM forum raised concerns about the deceptive nature of curved grades, through which students could be receiving one grade all semester only to see a different grade on their transcript.

According to Miller, only three students attended the social science forum. Mattison said around seven attended the humanities and arts forum, while Swetlitz said attendance at the STEM forum was around 10 students.

Sarna said she was disappointed by the poor attendance at the forums.

“If students want the administration to listen, we have to reciprocate by actually talking,” she said.

The ad hoc committee on grading policy is chaired by economics professor Ray Fair.

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