In an effort to ease the transition to college for first-year students, Wellesley College has adopted a four-year pilot program implenting a shadow grading policy. The policy, established last semester, assigns students pass or no pass grades in all enrolled classes during the first semester of their first year. Students receive feedback in the form of “shadow grades,” or letter grades that only students can view and are not visible on their official transcripts. These grades are not released outside the College. All courses in which a passing grade, defined as any grade of D or above, is earned will be recorded on the student’s academic transcript without a letter grade. In order to comply with the College’s grade deflation policies, which caps the average grade in any introductory-level class with 10 or more students at a B+, shadow grades were used to calculate a course’s average grade.
The shadow grading policy had a number of goals, including leveling the playing field for students coming from a wide range of backgrounds and high schools. According to Dean of First-Year Students Lori Tenser, students have been self-reporting high levels of stress due to academics. As a result, the policy was also intended to nurture a love of learning and encourage students to take risks academically instead of solely focusing on grades.
The College has responded to concerns raised about how the lack of first-semester grades might affect students who need letter grades in order to apply for scholarships and internships; for such students, the College will disclose the minimal amount of information needed for the application. Students also have the option of disclosing their own grades or having their class dean write a letter on their behalf confirming the validity of their candidacy.
Additionally, the College does not anticipate the lack of first semester grades to be an obstacle for students applying to graduate or professional school.
“First semester grades become less important the longer a student is in school. Additionally, students from peer institutions who have a similar shadow grading policy instituted have not had problems applying to graduate and professional schools,” Tenser commented.
In an attempt to determine whether or not shadow grading impacted course enrollment, the College tracked student withdrawal numbers. This past fall, 12 first-year students withdrew from a course. This is a considerably lower number than previous years; numbers as high as 29 student withdrawals were reported in fall 2012.
Tenser saw some of the early effects of shadow grading manifested in the fewer number of students that came up for academic review after their first semester. Students under academic review are examined to see if they are in diploma grade standing, which necessitates that they have at least a 2.0 GPA, are on track with units earned towards their degree and have no F grades in the latest semester. With the new policy in place, the Academic Review Board had to re-evaluate how they would determine which students merited review.
“With shadow grading, we had to make a judgment on how to decide which student records would come up for [academic] review. In the mindset that first semester grades are not the be-all, end-all of a student’s college career, we decided that the only reasons to come up for review were if a student had completed fewer than three courses. Students who had received an F did not come up for review, which reduced the number of students up for academic review at the end of their first semester this year,” Tenser said.
Instead of being called up for review by the Academic Review Board, students were individually contacted by Tenser, which allowed a change in the tone of the conversation. Students no longer had to worry about being in diploma-grade standing; they could now focus on what was needed to improve in subsequent semesters and were connected to resources with guidance from their class dean.
Tenser also believes the shadow grading policy allows students more freedom during their first semester.
“Some students have said that they were more relaxed fall semester than they would have been if grades were not shadowed. For some that meant that they didn’t work hard enough; for some, it meant that they didn’t feel the stress and that positively influenced their first semester results. [Shadow grading] means that consequences are yours to own,” Tenser
said. “It’s an impact, and it will be up to students to decide how that impact has an influence on their experience.”
For some professors, including psychology professor Kyra Kulik-Johnson, shadow grading did not have any affect on how they taught their courses.
“I try throughout the semester to not know where anyone stands in the class [academically]; I worry about its impact on me to call on someone [in class] or treat an A student differently than a B student,” Kulik-Johnson said.
While Kulik-Johnson saw no overall changes in average grades in the sections of Psychology 101 that she taught, she did observe a few students whose effort gradually dropped in class.
“I had never made the connection, but the decreasing lack of effort by some students may have been a result of shadow grading. A student may have figured out that he or she would still pass the class regardless of high grades in coursework and have taken it easy,” Kulik-Johnson said.
However, Kulik-Johnson believes that shadow grading is better for first-year students.
“College presents such large adjustments to go through; shadow grading gives students room to grow and make mistakes. It no longer becomes about the grade, but rather learning because you want to learn. Students think more critically, and don’t have to worry about things like meeting a minimum page length. I want to hear ideas; that’s what’s more interesting to me,” Kulik-Johnson said.
For Kristina Oney ’18, the policy allowed her to focus on adjusting to college while not being inundated by the added stress of grades.
“I felt like I was overwhelmed with first semester. I just wanted to focus on academics and making friends. [Shadow grading] allowed me to focus on what I wanted and why I wanted to be be here,” Oney said.
Cognizant of the transition period first-year students face while adjusting to college life, the shadow grading policy attempts to allow more free time for activities outside the academic atmosphere.
“If there had been real grades, more people would have stayed in. Shadow grading definitely made first-year students more social. Your first semester, it’s hard to make new friends. There’s a time period of transition and it’s hard to meet people outside of the classroom setting, which is one of the most important aspects of being happy in college and doing well overall. If you don’t have that friend group and support, you might end up hating college,” Oney said.
Mira Bansal ’18 agreed that the policy facilitated the decision to explore other opportunities.
“Socially, if there was something happening, I would always go and tell myself academics could come second. I don’t think I’ll do the same thing this semester,” Bansal said. “It is a lot when you first come in, transitioning to college life and being independent. It is comforting to have one less thing to worry about. I could go to Boston more. I could try more things out.”
Shadow grading also allowed students to explore coursework beyond their comfort zone and many students used the semester to take classes they perceived as challenging.
“I definitely took some classes I wouldn’t have taken, classes I thought would have been hard beforehand, like Economics 101,” said Bansal.
Oney also shared the sentiment that the policy gave students more flexibility in terms of courses.
“Shadow grading let me take classes I wouldn’t have. I found it difficult to balance two laboratory classes last semester, but it was good because I was able to learn the layouts of chemistry and biology and also learn how to manage time without the consequences of a bad grade; it was encouraging,” Oney added.
The policy also changed dynamics observed by first-years in their courses, positively influencing how students interacted with each other.
“Shadow grading took away the competitive edge in class. Especially in first-year seminars, it would really allow students to get to know each other and collaborate instead of hiding their answers for a better grade,” Oney said.
Although the shadow grading policy has only been in effect for a semester, metrics show that it has the potential to be a positive change for first year students. In a survey of 406 first-year students, 94 percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that shadow grading had helped their transition to college. Eighty-nine percent of students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that their semester was less stressful because of shadow grading. Ninty-three percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were more likely to stay in a challenging course rather than drop it.
Students were not surprised by these high percentages of students who said they benefitted from the policy. Both Oney and Bansal agreed with the majority of first-year students that the policy helped the adjustment to life at Wellesley.
While seeming to alleviate stress, the shadow grading policy had various repercussions on the effort first-year students put into their classes.
“It’s hard to say whether my performance would have changed had the shadow grading policy not been in effect. It would’ve been hard to balance academics and going out,” Oney said.
Some, like Bansal, didn’t agree that the policy greatly impacted the amount of effort they put into classes.
“I ended up working just as hard as I would have worked anyways, but it was comforting to know that if something did go wrong, grades wouldn’t matter. I still cared about what my letter grades would end up being; I wanted to see where I would [stand in class] working just as hard,” said Bansal. “The only time shadow grading might have affected me was finals, which is a time of high stress. The policy allowed me not to worry too much about what would make up a large component of my final grade,” Bansal added.
For Tenser, students using the semester to ease into college is not necessarily a negative thing.
“If you take it easy for one semester, does that mean that your college career is less valid? I don’t think so. Certainly, we want people to develop skills that they will use when they continue when they take coursework, but I can’t say one way or the other whether that is problematic,” Tenser commented.
A considerable amount of students did not think that shadow grading influenced their performances in classes and 21 percent would rather have their grades shown on their official transcript. However, 20 percent of students “disagreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were glad their first semester grades were not included in the calculation of their college GPA.
Although a sizable fraction of first-year students would have liked to see grades from their first semester on their transcript, some like Oney believe that the lack of one semester’s grades will not negatively influence students who did well.
“It’s not that big of a deal to not have grades for [first] semester. If you get good grades your first semester, that just means you’re going to have an advantage for your next semester,” Oney said.
Bansal agreed, stating that although she would have been fine with grades appearing on her transcript, she appreciates the policy’s ability to show first-year students where they stand in classes.
With three more years before a decision is made on whether or not the shadow grading policy will be instituted indefinitely, Wellesley will use a combination of qualitative feedback and metrics to determine whether or not it was a success. The College will continue to take into consideration responses from both students and faculty toward the policy before they decide whether or not to permanently implement it.
“It takes time to really assess and understand the impact of something. You can’t shift the culture in one semester,” said Tenser. “If people have comments, or if the community has a perspective they would like to share, we would like to hear it. The more information we have will allow us to evaluate [the policy] better.”
Although nothing definite can be said about the policy yet, or about its future at Wellesley, the initial feedback is positive after its first semester. In effect, shadow grading has eased the transition into college life by taking away the pressures of graded courses during first semester, and with continued support, the policy has a good chance of outlasting its four-year pilot program.
Photo by Bianca Pichamuthu ’16, Photography Editor