When students returned to campus after winter break, there were more than cold temperatures and their fellow peers awaiting them. All residential colleges held spring term registration meetings where students received their grades from first semester classes.
Those transcripts — and first-year academics in general — cause unnecessary stress. We are all familiar with stories of academic woes; even if you survived freshman fall unscathed, chances are you knew someone who didn’t. I urge Yale administrators and faculty to consider altering first-year grading policies.
Specifically, administrators should look to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the close of freshman fall, all MIT students receive the same grade point average on their official transcript: 0. The grades they receive in their first semester classes aren’t published or made available to outside parties.
Still, to ensure that students can assess their performance and receive feedback, freshmen at MIT still receive “hidden” grades. This policy affords students ample time to become familiar with college-level teaching and grading.
For the second semester, MIT freshmen receive A, B and C grades, while D and F marks are not included on official transcripts. This policy obviously raises some questions and concerns. Although I scoured the fine print, I’m still left with the impression that this policy incentivizes students to receive Ds or Fs rather than Cs that are publicly available to prospective employers and graduate schools. I also don’t know if it’s necessary for freshmen in their second semester at college to still receive such generous support.
But for all the unanswered questions and possibly flawed incentives, the MIT system should be lauded for providing its youngest students with a system that encourages academic exploration but also minimizes their stress by temporarily dispensing with the GPA system.
Such a program would surely promote wellbeing at Yale by making academics more manageable. Students could focus on tackling the other transitional challenges of freshman year.
While Yale selects students based on the academic rigor of their high school careers, incoming students are by no means uniformly prepared for Yale classrooms. Freshman counselors can only do so much in guiding their students through blue booking and registration. Students at Yale also have access to academic advising and additional resources — such as writing tutors — during all four years of study. But an adjustment semester with no permanent repercussions on one’s GPA would not only demonstrate Yale’s further commitment to students’ potential but also help level the playing field among students.
To be clear, a semester without grades would not be the equivalent of a 13-week version of Camp Yale. In fact, the absence of grades would provide valuable space for explorative learning where students could address difficult requirements and learn new subjects. This jibes with the aims of the current Credit/D/Fail option. It also enables students to do what both my dean and academic advisor suggested — to take “classes that would scare [our] parents” and learn to manage expectations in a new environment. The opportunity to study diverse topics would spur an attitude of exploration that would extend to students’ extracurricular choices.
Yale recognizes the need to better support incoming students. The relatively new Freshman Scholars at Yale program provides approximately 50 incoming freshmen with early access to Yale’s resources and opportunities through living and studying on campus for five weeks prior to freshman year. What if we all had one semester of experience before formally starting Yale?
I do not think that adopting policies similar to MIT’s current program would mean terminating FSY or that all students are equally suitable for such an opportunity. Instead, I see FSY as similar in form to MIT’s policies and an indication that the Yale administration can understand the underlying rationale for MIT’s grading policy.
Such a change would not be revolutionary. Yale Law School currently uses a grading system where students receive Honors, Pass, Low Pass or Fail grades. Students laud this system on the school’s website, noting “the flexibility and freedom” that it provides. Students are more likely to collaborate rather than compete for grades. This system should not be replicated for Yale College, but its existence demonstrates that the academic community and faculty at Yale can ascertain the merits of unconventional grading.
If recent headlines and student conversations are any indication, there are many issues afflicting our campus. Freshman grading may not seem the biggest priority. But it doesn’t cost anything and it can play a valuable part in improving the culture at Yale. As the University looks to diversify the student body, grading policies should help support students whose schools may not have adequately prepared them for college. The MIT model provides one example of how scholarship and student life at Yale could be meaningfully reworked.
Kelsi Caywood is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.