Shadow grading will promote academic curiosity

By AMAL CHEEMA ’17 

Assistant Opinions Editor

Wellesley is instituting a shadow grading policy this fall for the incoming class of 2018. While students may argue that it will dampen students’ drive, discourage effort or decrease the quality of work, the policy has great potential to increase genuine academic curiosity. The policy will moreover contribute to the Wellesley environment as it will refocus students away from grades and direct them toward academic curiosity. In addition, it will allow students time to transition into college less stressfully.

When I first came to Wellesley, I was surprised by the academic diversity of my classmates. Without a doubt, they are the best and brightest. However, many of my classmates have different high school experiences ranging from storied private schools to small town public schools to international academies. Students come from very different high school backgrounds and consequentially vary in how well they are prepared for the caliber and pace of academics at Wellesley. 

In order to normalize this variation in student’s preparedness, Wellesley College has instituted a shadow grading policy. This policy guarantees all students one semester of college in which they can adjust accordingly. For all first semester classes and first-year writing courses in the spring and fall, students will either receive a pass  (grade D and above) or no pass  mark (grades below D). That is, their first semester grades will neither be released nor incorporated into their GPA nor listed on their official transcript. Wellesley has decided to remove the grades from the equation in order to meet three goals. As listed in the policy found on the college website, the shadow grading policy should “refocus the attention from grades to intellectual engagement, foster the core elements of a liberal education and enable students to adjust in managing time and balancing commitments.”

In regards to fostering academic curiosity by moving away from a grade-obsessed culture, Sociology Professor Lee Cuba who leads the shadow grading policy committee found that at Wellesley and six other local colleges, academic achievement and engagement are negatively correlated. That is, students are so focused on getting an A that, in turn, they spend a lot less time understanding what they are learning. Cramming before exams or checking details by details on a rubric, many of the actions common to our student body, take time away from thinking freely and actively about our class material. It’s rare to come across a sporadic, passionate conversation about class material that is absent of the subtle desire to craft the conversation into an essay or ensure an understanding in order to answer future test questions. By removing grades, the new first years will have nothing to focus on but understanding the material. Though shadow grading does not continue throughout the Wellesley career, it sets precedence for academic curiosity above grades.

The policy also fosters the core elements of a liberal arts education. The shadow grading policy encourages students to take classes that may seem challenging. In one common case, if we can take an easier class for the distribution requirement, we are extremely likely to do so. As a consequence, the purpose of distribution requirements falls short of inviting students to explore, where students choose classes that do not appeal to their interests but are considered easy for the grade. This is a common occurrence in the case of non-science majors who must take a science lab. I have had friends ask me, “Which science lab is the easiest?” when they are often when more interested in another harder but more captivating science class. 

Their rationale: a higher GPA. There is nothing wrong with wanting a stronger GPA, especially when it strongly factors into graduate school admission for a subject you are truly passionate about. However, Wellesley as a liberal arts college is fundamentally based on the idea of exploring new subject fields. When an easier, less interesting class is preferred over a harder, more interesting class, our system is not working. The best benefit of attending college is to overcome the fear of challenge in the pursuit of interest. The shadow grading policy reaffirms this for our incoming first years. It allows them to choose interest over challenge or in the words of the theme for this year’s orientation, it allows them to explore.

The shadow grading policy also allows students time to adjust and balance commitments. It serves as a buffer of adjustment. By having the policy, first semester becomes less about how high school classes prepared you, and more about becoming acclimated to the Wellesley environment. In the absence of the stress of grades, first-years can spend more time on adjusting to the new culture and surroundings, which is crucial for international and domestic students alike. For many students, the shadow grading system is seen as a deterrent in adjusting to producing college-level work. In allowing first-years a semester relatively free of stress, they, in theory, will push off adjusting to college academics to the second semester. However, that sentiment does not hold. For our credit-non first year seminars, Lee Cuba found that there was no difference in the quality of work and the student commitment to a graded class, attributing this to the student culture around academic drive. Regardless, Wellesley’s Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy will be monitoring the success of the shadow grading policy for discussion in 2018 on the policy’s continuation. Simply put, the Shadow Policy will do more good for our incoming classes than bad. 

At the Kathryn Wasserman Davis memorial service, Lulu Chow Wang described the “quintessential Wellesley woman” as someone with an “incredible curiosity to experience the world and do something good, a passion for Wellesley and a dedication to a life of learning.” In that description, the term or definition of conventional success (a 4.0 GPA) was noticeably absent. The quintessential Wellesley woman is not one who focuses on achieving high marks or awards. Rather, she possesses incredible academic curiosity. The shadow grading policy is a welcome addition to our Wellesley community because it delineates academic curiosity, emphasizing intellectual stimulation and personal growth over a letter mark. 

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