Plus and minus grades: a plus or a minus?

By Olivia Heuiyoung Park (ME ‘20) 

There have been several discussions and proposed changes in the Engineering School lately, including the question of whether or not plus and minus grades (e.g. A-, B+, C+) should be accessible for professors to use at their discretion.

Professor Melody Baglione, Associate Professor and Chair of the Mechanical Engineering department, proposed the idea to the Engineering Student Council. As she explained, “Right now, professors in the engineering school don’t have the ability to assign plus/minus grades. And we grade a certain way given the situation. It’s hard to really say how a professor would change what they do. They would have the option to not change anything if they choose. But if a policy is voted on by the faculty and is approved, professors will have the option to use plus/minus grades at their disposal.”

Baglione’s reasoning for proposing this idea is that a single, sharp letter grade does not sufficiently assess how students do over the length of a semester.

“I think there would be some benefits to a ‘in-between grade’… I would just like to have the option to differentiate borderline student performance. Because in a course that has lots of quizzes, homework, exams, and tabulated numerical performance indicators, at some point there’s a cutoff… and a full letter grade seems like an abrupt cut off for me,” explained Baglione.

Currently, Humanities and Social Sciences is the only department engineers take classes in which can assign plus or minus grades.

“There are other departments, HSS for example, that give plus or minus grades, so I don’t see why I as a professor shouldn’t have the right to also give plus or minus grades, if I so choose,” said Baglione. “I feel like it’ll more accurately reflect a person’s performance. And on average for me, I don’t think it’ll lead to grade inflation/deflation.”

“I brought it up to ESC because there are some people who are used to the current system and see no need for plus and minus grades, but there are also people in the middle who might be swayed by what the students think.”

So, what do the students think? The Pioneer conducted an optional, voluntary, anonymous survey to gain a better understanding of student opinions.

Out of 105 respondents, given the first question, “do you think plus and minus grades will be a better grading system than the one we have now?” 68 said “no,” 13 said “depends on the class,” and 24 said “yes.”

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Out of the 13 middle responses, there was a general consensus that although high stress and high credit classes could benefit from the implementation of plus or minus grades, the current system works.

One common sentiment in the responses was that the plus or minus grades would “give an extra level of precision for the GPA system that previously was highly inflexible,” and that “Any improvement to more accurately represent class performance should be welcome.”

However, the overwhelming majority is against the implementation of such changes. “The current system is better… the last thing we need is for people to pushing for A+s in every class. There is enough stress already,” said one.

Also, this change is alarming to some students. One respondent feels that “it has the potential to increase competition rather than collaboration. The pros and cons completely cancel mostly… This is a completely unnecessary thing to change.”

Professor Baglione also mentioned the possibility of making the plus and minus just an option for the professors, and that “For professors who don’t like plus and minus, they can continue the way they grade. They can say in the beginning of class that they don’t give plus and minus grades.”

However, 82 of 105 students answered “no” to the question, “should professors and/or individual departments be able to choose between the two grading systems?”

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Overall, the greatest concern for students seems to be standardization and consistency. Over 30 responses of the 105 mentioned the two words, with many more questioning the fairness of plus and minus grades. “I don’t think the grading system is the problem. There is a greater discrepancy between professors which teach the same courses that impacts grades more significantly. I think standardizing the professors should be more of a priority,” explained another respondent.

Baglione says it is also important to consider the effects of implementing the change partway through a student’s program explaining that “if there’s concern that we shouldn’t do this midway, we don’t know that… We could also make the change effective only with the new incoming classes so it’s not done during the middle/transition period.”

However, the majority of the students seem to agree that the current system is fine the way it is. One student explains, “[we] shouldn’t fix something that isn’t broken. [we] don’t see the need to change it, there is literally nothing wrong with what we have now.”

 

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