Faculty Forum on Grading Policy


March 11, 2008



Vice President Nick Dirks opened the meeting at noon with a brief presentation on the just-announced enhancements to undergraduate financial aid.


ECFAS Chair Bob Friedman offered thanks to Cathy Popkin for assembling the extensive statistics distributed for the meeting.


Cathy Popkin then began by noting a parallel between grading issues and financial aid ones – the question of how decisions are made. Too often, little faculty input is sought, and existing committees (such as the College and General Studies COIs) work at cross-purposes. The College COI has agreed to inform faculty more fully and directly, not relying only on departmental DUS’s to disseminate information. New governance ideas are starting to be discussed; for now, today’s forum gives faculty a chance to weigh in on current issues involving grading.

A-range grades (A+, A, A-) have increased by 22.2% over the past twelve years alone, though grades dipped slightly in the past year. One question is whether grade inflation is a genuine problem, and if so, how it should be addressed. Apart from grade inflation, there are inconsistencies between departments, especially sciences and economics versus many other departments.


Comment: The Philosophy Department has been pressing to reduce As, clarifying that a B+ is a good grade and can place a student in the top half of a class. Yet the disparity with other departments leads to anger from students.


Comment: Percentages are only for students who complete a class; many prospective C and D students drop out once they realize they’ll be getting low grades. A high percentage of As in a science course may not reflect a degenerate A but genuine A work.


Comment: Having given a B+ in a language class, was told she could not give a graduate student anything below an A. An undergraduate complained bitterly that she’d never had an A- before.


Comment: This raises the point that a grade may mean something different in the College/GS than in the Graduate School.


Comment: How do we come to learn how to grade? We need organized discussion on the issue, especially for new faculty.


Comment: A few years ago, Economics put together an information sheet for incoming faculty and for TAs, both to explain unusual grades (especially Columbia’s exotic UW) and also to give recommended grading curves. This memo is sent around three times per semester so that everyone has a common base of understanding. The guidelines are all suggested and flexible.


Comment: Why not just give a number up front, 3.2 or 3.3 etc, rather than set grades that are then translated into numbers?


Comment: Simpler A/B/C grades are easier to give; the decimal numbers only appear when grades are averaged together.


Comment: Junior faculty in Humanities are aware that their enrollments matter, and that if you want large enrollments, you have to be a generous grader.


Comment: Another problematic assumption is that all faculty/TAs were educated in the American system and understand what American letter grades mean. The Courseworks grading website could have more guidance on grading, as well as the mechanism for submitting grades.


Comment: Students believe that their futures are dependent on high GPAs.


Comment: Many B+ Philosophy students do go on successfully to law and business school; the grades are understood to mean something. As a group, we should work with the College to share information, working with chairs to reduce the inequalities between departments.


Comment: Maybe the schools should ask whether a given subject is essential to a major.


Comment: In my previous university, at year’s end everyone received a chart showing the grading patterns in the department overall and by division. (A version of this is already done online in Columbia’s web grading system.)


Comment: So far, no one has talked about what students would prefer. All would strongly prefer a real curve. We might make real progress by asking students to design a distribution that would work for them, and then work out ways to enforce it across departments.


Comment: Clearly, guidance for faculty is needed. Basic guidelines could be put on the Courseworks grading page.


Comment: Faculty could use better information on what other faculty are doing. The whole system might adjust itself if we had enough feedback.


Comment: David Weinstein (Economics) has assembled a lot of data, seeking to determine what a student of a given ability would receive in different courses. This suggests that students of similar ability are treated differently across departments, with the sciences and social sciences grading harder than humanities.


Comment: It’s a questionable assumption that student ability doesn’t change from course to course.


Comment: Students all believe they have high ability, and confuse this with performance, assuming they always deserve good grades.


Comment: In an upper-level Latin class, the highest available for undergraduates, it could easily happen that all 8 students could get – and deserve – an A.


Comment: About 15 years ago, the College did a study of grading patterns, not complicated statistically, simply plotting grade distributions; this showed a striking disparity in grades by discipline.


Comment: Is there a correlation between departments with a sharper grade curve and their method of evaluation? It’s much easier to define a range when you have tests that yield yes-or-no, right-or-wrong answers. This is much harder in fields such as history.


Students who do poorly in a course can migrate out of the department. But they don’t have this option in the Core. The question of grading in the Core should perhaps be taken up separately. Departmental variations are less of a concern, as the employment and graduate school markets tend to adapt to the norms in the given field; Core courses are more problematic.


Comment: Students often choose to continue in the courses in which they get higher grades. Philosophy’s lower grades can give students a mistaken signal that they’re good in history and not in philosophy.


Comment: We lack basic data on what’s happening in our own departments. A couple of years’ study and conversation are needed.


Nick Dirks: How often do departmental faculty meetings discuss these questions? Do they ever come up? Chairs haven’t been conveying views on this to the administration.


Comment: It depends on the department’s culture. In some, the DUS doesn’t raise grading policy issues, in others they do. A few steps toward raising the importance of the issue would do a lot.


Cathy Popkin: One quite current issue is the A+. Should it be weighted at 4.33, or merely register a symbolically higher 4.0, or should it be abandoned altogether? A+ is more often given in sciences now.


Comment: The A+ should be kept as is, defined (in science) as a perfect final exam. It’s a significant difference.


Comment: Departments should look at them; my definition is: someone who did better than I could have done on my own exam.


Comment: What of schools that don’t have A+? Did they once have them and abandon them? Does the A+ itself create the inflation problem? With no A+, then A could more clearly be the top grade, and A- and B+ would be given more often.


Comment: Dartmouth doesn’t give A+ but citations can be added to the transcript.


Comment: In humanities and social sciences, A+ is rarely used (1-2%), so it doesn’t contribute to grade inflation; sciences give more A+’s but overall they have lower grades, so there too the A+ doesn’t contribute to grade inflation.


Comment: There’s no problem with sciences doing things differently from social sciences and humanities; but there really should be uniformity across the non-science departments.


Comment: The Task Force on Undergraduate Education’s Teaching Committee is moving toward recommending uniformity of that sort.


Comment: A distinction should be made between lecture courses and capstone seminars, whose students are likely to deserve higher grades.


Comment: Grade inflation has been examined repeatedly over decades. Many aspects of the system work to push grades up. Progress will only be made if departments work now to make policy more uniform.


Comment: A general policy would help reduce the pressure small departments can feel to maintain high enrollments via generous grading.


Comment: Is it good to have all this obsession over grades? Wouldn’t it be better to give a result at the end, British-style?


Comment: Or have GPA calculated only for the later two years, recognizing that the Core is a different creature than the major.


Comment: Princeton has a clear policy statement on responsibility to grade well.


Comment: On the issue of the Pass/D/F option: Once a student elects to take a course Pass/Fail, the student has no incentive to get more than a C. Then students may get a D and be shocked, and come and beg for a C.


Comment: In thirty years of teaching at several institutions, this is the first place at which students continually come in to press for better grades.


Comment: We don’t have a huge problem in Economics of people coming in to argue for better grades. The real problem is the UW – much better simply to withdraw or not.


Comment: Several years ago, the College moved the drop date up to the fifth week of the semester, too early for many students. It would be better to have the possibility of dropping after the midterm, and to have to drop formally at that point.


Comment: A possibility is being discussed of a category of “AR” – administrative review – that would give a tentative grade but flag the need for the Registrar’s office to review and see if there’s some problem not known to the faculty member, such as a late-semester hospitalization.


Comment: The option to uncover a P/F letter grade was instituted on the basis of student pleas that it would give P/F students an incentive to work hard in their P/F courses. The College folded in the rule that a D can’t qualify for a P. But doesn’t that defeat the very purpose of the P/F, as students who do better will largely uncover their grade?


Comment: Any plan for grade distributions should take account of the P/F option, which skews final grades upward.


Comment: What is the point of the rule requiring an early date for graduate students to choose to take a course for R?


Comment: Actually the Graduate School’s executive committee has just resolved this by voting to move the deadline for election of R to late in the semester.


Comment: The Music Department’s high 77.5% of A’s includes private instruction courses. Statistics will have to be worked out in relation to particular department’s standards.


Comment: Similarly, in University Writing, students can improve grades up to an A by rewriting, so a high proportion of As is actually a positive sign.


Comment: Left as is, students will continue steering themselves into higher-grading departments. It is clearly desirable to have common standards on grading, especially for introductory courses.


Comment: Do students actually major more in departments with higher grades? Language-course grades show higher enrollments in various languages with lower grades.


Cathy Popkin: To summarize, generally people are in favor of getting more information, and potentially of establishing targets/guidelines. The A+ should be retained. Undergraduates should be invited to work seriously on grading issues with a faculty committee. Departments need to have discussions.


Comment: The entirety of the faculty should vote on final policies.


Cathy Popkin adjourned the meeting at 1:25.