College in process of amending shadow grading policy: Policy intended to ease transition into college and foster exploration among first years

by Yu Zhou '16 Staff Photographer

By KARA BANSON ’17

Contributing Writer

by Yu Zhou '16 Staff Photographer

by Yu Zhou ’16
Staff Photographer

Last semester, Academic Council approved the implementation of a shadow grading policy, which will go into effect Fall 2014 for the Class of 2018. Under the policy, the College will not publish first-year students’ first semester letter grades on official transcripts and will not include these grades in their overall GPA calculations.

On Nov. 6, Professor Lee Cuba, who originally proposed the shadow grading policy, introduced a new notation that will be used on the transcript for first semester grades. Instead of using credit/non grading, Cuba and the shadow grading implementation group suggested a notation to denote pass or no pass. A letter grade of D or above will translate into a “P” on transcripts. The Academic Council will vote on these changes during the next council meeting in December.

Students will still receive final letter grades, which will only be shared with the student and her faculty advisor. The shadow grading policy is a four-year experimental policy. After four years, the Council will vote on continuing the policy.

Cuba believes that by putting less focus on grades, students can explore the Wellesley curriculum, take more risks and better transition into college life.

“It has to do with general issues about curricular exploration, risk and invitation to students to think of themselves differently than they have done in high school,” he said. “We want them to understand college is not super high school.”

Also, Cuba states that first years have different academic backgrounds, formed by differences in the types of high schools students attended and the quality of education they previously received. The shadow grading policy acknowledges these differences.

“First-year first semester grades are an expression of the quality of high school,” Cuba said. “We don’t feel the College should be rewarding high schools but students for their work.”

The research Cuba has been conducting with other selective liberal arts colleges in the New England area influenced the development of the shadow grading policy. The work focuses on how students transition into college life and how they define success. Swarthmore College, MIT, California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and Olin College have similar policies that were instituted to remove the intense focus on grades.

Cuba and his colleagues will assess how effective the policy is at changing the mindset of Wellesley students. They will identify whether students become greater risk takers by selecting different courses by comparing them to students from previous class years. The entrance survey that each entering first year and sophomore class takes before school begins will also help determine whether the policy is achieving its initial goals.

In addition to proposing the change in transcript notation, the implementation group is collaborating with the Office of Public Affairs to lay out the best way to communicate the policy before the end of the year.

Currently, the shadow grading policy cannot be found on the Wellesley site. The Office of Admission does, however, include the rationale behind the new policy on its site and in information sessions, recruiting events and tours. The shadow grading policy, along with the first-year seminar program, the writing course requirement, first-year faculty advising and the student mentoring program define Wellesley’s first-year experience.

One of the concerns raised by the new grading policy is how employers, professional schools and graduate schools will view it.

To address these concerns, Cuba and his colleagues have been working with the faculty, Medical Professional Advisory Committee and the Center for Work and Service to draft a formal explanation of the policy to these employers and schools. Additionally, Cuba confirms that the policy does not put any student at a disadvantage in applying for jobs, internships and professional schools. Students are free to share the shadow grades with anyone.

According to Dean John O’Keefe, director of advising and academic support services, the College will also make an exception to the policy when students apply to transfer from Wellesley, because other schools need to review their performance for the whole first year.

Joy St. John, the director of admission, notes that the shadow grading policy complements Wellesley’s philosophy of how students should approach learning.

“Shadow grading fits into the learning philosophy of the College, which is that the first year should be about exploring subjects or disciplines that might not be comfortable or familiar to students as well as developing a set of foundational academic skills that help students through Wellesley,” she said.

News of the policy has also reached current students on campus. Adelene Lai ’15 acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages of the new grading policy.

“It is a good buffer for first years, especially international students who are dealing with culture shock and other logistical issues,”  Lai said. “However, I have spoken to some friends who are pre-med for example, and they have expressed that not having a letter grade on their transcripts does affect things.”

Kara Banson is a first year who is planning to major in Neuroscience.

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