Forum airs students' plus/minus concerns
In order to collect student opinion on the possibility of
instituting a plus/minus grading system, the Recording Committee and Student
Government co-sponsored a forum Monday evening at Ladd House to discuss
the pros and cons of changing the grading system.
Approximately 35 people, including nine members of the Recording
Committee, attended the forum. Students asked the Recording Committee
members questions about the plus/minus system, and the Recording Committee
listened to students express their opinions so that the Committee would
be able to present those views at the March faculty meeting.
Once concern voiced by a number of students at the forum
was the lack of student representation in making such a major academic
decision. One student said that a number of his friends had chosen not
to come to the forum because they felt that their opinion would not make
any difference in the outcome. The student expressed concern that the
Faculty seemed to be voting on the subject too quickly, and that a proposal
for such a change should originate within the student body, not within
The student said he believed that since the vote was already
going to the Faculty, it seemed to make little difference as to what he
or his friends thought about the matter, since he felt that the faculty
members would vote the way they felt would best serve them, as opposed
to voting the way the students wanted.
He also said that he felt that if a student-body vote showed
a narrow majority leaning in one direction, because of the small margin,
the faculty would not take the student vote seriously.
Stephen Naculich, chair of the Recording Committee and assistant
professor of physics, said that both students and faculty have been pressuring
the committee to make a change to a plus/minus system. He cited potential
graduate school advantages as one of the reasons. In addition, Naculich
said he felt that such a change would help the faculty grade more accurately.
"Faculty do agonize more over the grades now because
there's a perception of a bigger difference between an 'A' and a 'B,'"
A number of students at the forum pointed out that while
the proposed system would help a few students, it would also hurt others.
Naculich said, "I don't think we see it as helping
or hurting [students]. We see it as being potentially a more accurate
Susan Livesay, director of health professions advising,
said that for students whose grades are split between "As" and
"Bs," the plus/minus system would likely have little effect
on their GPA.
But for students with mostly "Bs" who are intending
to apply to graduate school, under the current system, their GPA is around
3.0, which is too low for serious consideration by graduate schools. However,
students on a plus/minus system who get "B+s" have a GPA around
3.3, which is a great advantage.
In response to a question about the proposed grading system's
effect on grade inflation (see last
week's Orient), Naculich said that the system would not likely
have much of an effect in either reducing or encouraging inflation.
Many students expressed concern that switching to a plus/minus
system would increase the emphasis on grades, making the academic environment
more stressful and competitive.
One student said, "One of the reasons I came to Bowdoin
was because of the whole non-focus on scores."
Another student expressed concern that a plus/minus system
would lead to more students attempting to finagle their grade from a "B+"
to an "A-," for example, whereas professors are currently less
likely to make such changes when the jump is from a "B" to an
Another student said that it simply would not be possible
for a professor to divide students into all of the categories of grades
offered by a plus/minus system, especially in discussion classes where
students essentially either participate a great deal, participate somewhat,
participate a little, or never participate. He questioned how a professor
would be able to distinguish between a "B" and a "B+"
Another student said, "I don't really see how faculty
members would be able to tell the difference between a 'B' and a 'B+'
and do it fairly and not have it based on something that's not relevant."
Currently, an "A" is defined on transcripts as
evidence that the student has "mastered the material of the course
and has demonstrated exceptional critical skills and originality."
It is not clear how pluses and minuses would be defined under the proposed
Another concern that many students had was the idea of switching
grading systems in the middle of their Bowdoin careers. They said they
felt that it would not be fair for students who came to Bowdoin precisely
because of the current grading system to be forced into a plus/minus system.
"The decision to come to Bowdoin for the students who
are currently here was partly based on the method of the grading system,
and I think by switching halfway through, it kind of changes the reasoning
and the atmosphere
of what we signed on to," said one student.
Many students also said they felt that making a grading
scale change primarily to help students applying to graduate school discounted
the purpose of the grades while attending Bowdoin.
One student said, "As someone who's not really looking
at grad school, I'm kind of annoyed that it comes down to the fact of
what's after Bowdoin as opposed to what is Bowdoin."
Others also expressed a fear that the motivation to move
to pluses and minuses was to institutionalize Bowdoin and make it like
other colleges, rather than allowing it to remain an individual institution
committed to not emphasizing grades.
Faculty members who were in favor of switching to a plus/minus
system said they felt that such a system would actually decrease the stress
students felt as a result of grades, because the difference between an
"A-" and a "B+" would be 0.4 points, as opposed to
the current one-point difference between an "A" and a "B."
Some students also said they felt that competitiveness would
not be a problem with the proposed system.
"I'd like to think that Bowdoin isn't really a competitive
environment amongst ourselves. I don't feel competitive with other students,
but I do want to be competitive with students on a national level. And
I don't think that switching to a plus/minus grading system is going to
not tell you what the homework assignment is
don't think we attract that quality in students," said one student.
Livesay in health professions advising said that a number
of other colleges had actually switched to a plus/minus system in an effort
to reduce competitiveness.
Marilyn Reizbaum, professor of English, said that she thought
a switch to plus/minus would make it easier on grad schools since our
grading system would be in the same "language" as other colleges.
Reizbaum also said she felt that a plus/minus system would
allow for more "nuances" in grading. Instead of simply giving
a majority of students "Bs," a professor would be able to differentiate
between the "B+" and the "B-" students.
A number of students also felt that their current transcripts
did not reflect the students that they actually were, because many of
them had earned "B+" grades while only "Bs" were reported.
A few alternatives to the plus/minus system were also suggested.
One student said that an opportunity to give pluses, without the accompanying
minuses, would help students who deserved it, but would not hurt others.
Another student suggested staying with the current grading system, but to help students applying to graduate school, a numerical GPA that reflected a plus/minus system could be calculated in addition. She said that most professors do already distinguish somewhat between plus and minus grades, so making such a transition would not be difficult.