Every week, Hemali Shah ’16 spends 10 to 15 hours working in a chemistry lab. She receives credit but no grade, thanks to recent changes in Yale grading policy.
In April of last spring, the Yale faculty voted to pass a proposal drafted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading that all future independent study courses would be graded on a Pass/Fail basis without letter grades. If students wish to receive letter grades instead, they may ask the department’s director of undergraduate studies to petition on their behalf, but the only other exceptions to the new policy are courses that fulfill senior requirements or are important requirements for the major, according to the Yale College Programs of Study.
After a full semester with the new policy, many students involved in independent research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields said they dislike the change and find it confusing. Meanwhile, professors interviewed gave mixed support for the new grading policy.
Economics professor Ray Fair, who chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading, said the committee made its decision because 90 percent of the grades given in recent years in those classes have been A’s or A minuses, and have thus conveyed little information about how the student was actually performing.
But STEM students interviewed said they feel this new protocol devalues the amount of effort and time they put into research.
Last year, biomedical engineering major Catherine Stark ’16 took “Special Projects” — an independent study course that can be taken more than once — for a letter grade, but this semester the course is only being offered to her as P/F.
“Students doing independent research for credit should get recognized for their hard work,” Stark said. “No one does research thinking that it will be a gut credit. You go into research because it’s work you feel passionate about.”
Biomedical Engineering DUS James Duncan said he has only heard from a few students in independent research courses who said they wanted letter grades. Although the protocol allows the DUS to petition for students to receive letter grades, Duncan said his department feels bound to comply with the new policy because it was voted on by the entire Yale College faculty.
But he realizes there are benefits and pitfalls to the change.
“On the one hand, I think that for non-seniors, removing the need to worry about a letter grade might be helpful, and might make the initial research experience more enjoyable,” Duncan said. “On the other hand, some students put in a lot of time on these courses and having a letter grade that counts towards their GPA might be a good thing.”
Benjamin Bartolome ’16, who has done two semesters of research for credit, said he disagrees with the protocol change. While he acknowledged that some students may elect to do independent research for the “easy A,” he said it is the responsibility of principal investigators and lab mentors to give A’s only when warranted.
Psychology DUS Laurie Santos said in an email that she worries the changed policy will dissuade students from pursuing independent research before their senior year.
“I think [it] would be a shame, as independent research early in one’s academic career is really critical in the psychology major. It’s useful for applying to graduate school, and even to just get senior projects underway in time to finish data collection,” she said.
But Computer Science DUS James Aspnes said he thinks the change will not affect his students that much, noting that the main point of independent research is to get research experience and not simply improve one’s GPA.
Pratyusa Mukherjee ’16, who worked more than 40 hours per week in a lab the summer after her freshman year and received two letter grade credits, said she questions whether the faculty who made these decisions really understand how much work and effort students put into lab work and research. She added that the principal investigators and advisors are qualified to give what they think to be the correct letter grade.
Some STEM students interviewed expressed concerns that the new protocol does not differentiate between independent studies of varying intensity.
Last semester, Shah took an advanced language tutorial as an independent study course. She said she felt the P/F grading system was appropriate for the class because it only required an average of two hours of work a week. But her independent research, which takes up 10 to 15 hours a week, warrants more appreciation than a P/F grading system, she said.
She added that many science majors have lower GPAs, and the “easy A” effect provides them with a boost.
With the new policy, advisors and PIs are required to give students written feedback, Fair said.
Astronomy DUS Debra Fischer said she supports the new policy because it requires advisers to give feedback, something they previously were not required to do.
Fair emphasized that any department can petition the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing to give letter grades for independent study courses. He added that petitions are considered on a case-by-case basis, adding flexibility to the system.
The molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, which requires students to take up to two credits of independent research for letter grades, does not fit well with the new Yale College rules, said MB&B DUS Michael Koelle. The department petitioned to allow students to begin independent research for letter grades prior to their senior year.
“While in many majors students might do independent research during their senior year as part of a senior project, the nature of our discipline is that independent research takes a long time, more than is available in the senior year, so it is best for our students to at least start their independent research prior to their senior year,” Koelle said in an email.
The Ad Hoc Committee on Grading was created by then-Yale College Dean Mary Miller and existed in the 2012–13 and 2013–14 academic years but has since been dismantled.
Clarification: Feb. 13
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article neglected to mention that students in independent study courses receive written, end-of-term feedback in addition to the pass-fail assessment.