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Common Curriculum Grades up for Debate

All PostsNewsCommon Curriculum Grades up for Debate

story Spandana Bhattacharya

The pioneering Class of 2017 were the first to take the Common Curriculum modules. (Public Affairs)
The pioneering Class of 2017 were the first to take the Common Curriculum modules. (Public Affairs)

After two years of the Common Curriculum, students of the Class of 2017 may have the ability to retroactively convert a letter grade, subject to faculty vote.

The motion to allow students of Class of 2017 to retroactively convert any one letter grade to S/U for a Common Curriculum (CC) class taken in the first two years was brought up for discussion at a faculty meeting on Aug. 19. It will be voted on at the next faculty meeting on Sept. 16. An S/U option means no letter grade is indicated on a student’s transcript for the course, only ‘Satisfactory’ or ‘Unsatisfactory’ is written.

This suggestion arose in discussions by the Common Curriculum Self-Study Committee, said Dean of Faculty and committee chair Charles Bailyn. This was especially important for the pioneering Class of 2017 who were the first to take the CC courses. “The combination of new courses and team-taught courses, where teams hadn’t fully gelled, created a situation in which the grades that students received did not necessarily represent what was appropriate for people to receive,” he said.

Mr. Bailyn said he personally supports this motion, even though he is opposed to retroactive grade changes in principle.

A CC instructor, speaking on condition of anonymity as the decision is still being discussed,  felt that two main factors, taken together, justify a retroactive correction. Firstly, the “concerning” weightage given to group work in the first Quantitative Reasoning (QR) course led to many students receiving “unfairly high or low” grades based on the makeup of groups. In the juniors’ QR course, 45% of the grade was based on teamwork, with another 10% from peer evaluation.

Secondly, statistical evidence showed that grades across sections were significantly different in a particular non-QR CC course. The latter was confirmed by Mr. Bailyn, who said the analysis was deliberately anonymized such that the course was not identified. He added that there might have been other factors, such as whether the class was in the early morning, which resulted in the difference in grading.

The decision will be data-driven and “not [based on] hearsay or student opinion,” said Associate Professor of Humanities Mira Seo in an email interview. Faculty have requested access to the data analysis to “assess for themselves whether there were significant grading anomalies,” as many were not part of the first two years of teaching, she added. They also requested a projection of how converting the lowest grade in a CC module to S/U would affect the overall student Cumulative Average Point (CAP).

Even if it is agreed that there is some significant grading anomaly, not everyone might agree that granting a single retroactive S/U to the Class of 2017 is the “most effective way” to remedy the particular issues that the data reveal, said Ms. Seo.

Similarly, Mr. Bailyn said that the motion may be construed as a “blunt instrument,” but it would be difficult to attain the level of detail required to design targeted remedies. “It’s hard enough to identify what the specific problem and however you remediate it, there will always be a student just on the wrong side of the line for whom it doesn’t work out,” he said.

Another concern brought up by faculty interviewed was that this might set a precedent, encouraging subsequent classes to call for similar consideration. President Pericles Lewis and Mr. Bailyn both said that this issue would not apply to the Class of 2018 and onwards, since evidence shows that there were significant improvements to the CC classes.

Assistant Professor of Humanities Andrew Bailey, who taught Philosophy and Political Thought for two semesters to the Class of 2017, was cautious about the vote. He called for a conservative approach.“The credibility of a transcript is a function of its stability—the fact that it can’t be tampered with,” Mr. Bailey said. “I wonder if some of that credibility will be undermined [by permitting a retroactive change].”

The motion will require a simple majority of those present at the faculty meeting to pass. If the discussion features significant opposition, the motion will be sent back to the committee for further discussion, rather than put to a vote, said Mr. Bailyn.

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