If there is anything I have learned about grading at Yale, it is the intangible difference between a B+ and an A-. In disciplines that lend themselves more to subjectivity than to objectivity, receiving an A- versus a B+ is often a matter of convincing your instructor that you are not the kind of student who would be happy receiving a B+ over an A-. In other words, although the objective difference between, say, a B and a B+ versus a B+ and an A- is the same, the subjective difference is not. In the midst of our third week of midterms, a column about the oddities of Yale grading is appropriate.
This B+/A- distortion afflicts the former Groups I, II and III more than IV, and lecture classes more than seminars, particularly when a teaching assistant is determining your grade. In non-Group IV courses, the instructor or TA tends to have more leeway in awarding grades because of nebulous class participation credit than courses in which there is often one “right” answer.
This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that we are all pretty smart at Yale. Barring some upper-level seminar in which you are woefully unprepared, if you come to class regularly, participate with some frequency, and work hard on assignments, you will get at least a B+ in the course. And according to a News poll of last year’s graduates (“Poll suggests grade inflation,” 10/4/06), the average student gets above that in most classes. The poll found that the median grade point average was between 3.6 and 3.7. While the poll’s authors acknowledged some of its flaws, namely that the poll relied on self-reporting (read: like invitations to class reunions, successful students are most likely to respond), let us assume that the poll was correct in reporting that the median GPA is higher than a 3.33. Although there are charges of grade inflation occurring at Yale, I think this figure is appropriate. Yalies worked extremely hard to get here and the majority continue to do so through their four years, so it seems appropriate that most students should have similarly high GPAs. In the spirit of the law and graduate schools, which do not use letter grading, the emphasis once we are here should not be on posturing ourselves relative to our peers, but on learning.
That being said, an A is quite different from an A-. Although both are considered “excellent” grades according to the Blue Book, an A truly shows mastery in a course. A’s are rarely borderline cases. They result from a combination of truly hard work and interest in the course, and usually few are given out. For A courses, you know what grade you are likely to receive coming out of the final exam or after handing in the final paper.
I suspect most students can relate. Most Yalies seem to do better on exams and papers later as opposed to earlier in the semester. This could result from working harder, understanding the material better or, more likely, figuring out what the grader wants to see. As your instructor gets to know you better through class discussion, e-mails and outside meetings, she begins to see you as a type of a student. Did this student participate frequently in class? Did he meet with me after I gave him a B on that first paper? At some point, that instructor will have to assign a final grade, and if it is a borderline case between a B+ and an A- which, as the News poll showed, occurs more often than not, she will have to make a subjective decision based on the intangibles.
But even if the subjective difference between a B+ and an A- is not very large, the numerical difference is, which explains why most students attend that extra office hour, send that extra e-mail, or make that extra comment in class. This creates needless competition for students in the gray area and annoyance for instructors overall. Since most students seem to average between a B+ and an A-, I propose that the difference be eliminated and replaced by a single grade: the B+/A-. It would count for a 3.5, a number most students could live with in classes in which they expected to get a B+ or an A-. It would still allow for the student who works extra hard, or who is that much more enthusiastic about the subject, to attain an A. Professors and TAs would receive fewer angry e-mails in December and May. But most importantly, it would make students concentrate more on the subject at hand and less on grade-grubbing at the fringes.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.