By MARIAJOSE RODRIGUEZ-PLIEGO ’16
As of this fall, Wellesley’s first-year students will be graded on a pass or no pass basis in all of their first semester classes. Students will be given a report of the letter grades they receive, but these grades will not show up on their transcripts or count toward their GPA. This policy, known as shadow grading, has the objective of refocusing attention from grades to intellectual exploration.
Instead of diverting students’ attention away from grades, however, shadow grading places a greater emphasis on grades by fostering the notion that grades hinder students from branching out to unknown fields. In delaying the stage at which students “confront” grades, shadow grading will accentuate the importance of grades and worsen the environment of stress at Wellesley.
According to Wellesley’s webpage, the transition to college is a time when students “can broaden their definition of academic success to include intellectual engagement, inspiration and risk taking.” Wellesley is conveying the message that students should explore disciplines and take risks during their first year, when there are no grades that would surely hinder such intellectual inspiration. Although the policy will be imposed with the objective of teaching students the benefits of such exploration so that they will then continue to branch out to new disciplines throughout their careers, students can perceive this as the only time when they should branch out before the intimidating presence of college grades arrives.
For many students, the new policy will simply deter rather than ease students’ transition into Wellesley. The College webpage states that Wellesley decided to implement shadow grading to “provide the framework for students to make such a transition.” However, the transition to second semester of a first year at Wellesley will be a second round of adjustment. When students come back to campus for their spring semester of their first year, many enjoy themselves more than in first semester because students come back to a familiar place with familiar faces and a familiar academic system.
The introduction of grades after their delay will make them more daunting for students, altering the current enjoyable return to Wellesley in the spring. Furthermore, as the first-year students take classes with upper class students, they will be at a disadvantage in terms of work ethic. First-year students will have to redevelop their work ethic after spending a semester with very little incentive.
Wellesley’s liberal arts curriculum and distribution requirements already require students to explore various fields other than their chosen fields of study. Current Wellesley students explore various disciplines throughout their time at Wellesley, and it is unlikely that the shadow grading policy will increase first years’ levels of exploration. Students who choose not to take classes out of fear of how difficult a course is will continue to do so because workload will not change and the shadow grades will still exist and be available to employers if required.
Additionally, for many pre-med students, grades are very important for graduate school admissions. First-year students may actively choose not to take any pre-medical requirement in their first semester as they will not have a grade to give graduate schools. As consequence, they may be more likely to triple-up on lab classes in later semesters. While students may request to have their grades released to the graduate schools, this creates an academic obstacle to recalculate their GPAs. This obstacle would likely deter students from exploring their interest in science until the second semester. Although this is not the most deterring of factors, students will be discouraged from engaging with this academic curiosity.
Many of us already give more importance to grades than we should, and delaying grades will highlight their significance. Wellesley students are extremely capable and most of us have dealt with grades throughout their entire lives. Shadow grading will have significant benefits, but easing students’ transition to Wellesley should focus on factors other than academics.
Instead of stressing the importance of grades in the transition to Wellesley, we should work as a community on issues of mental health, strengthening our residential support system and fostering programs such as Wellesley S.M.I.L.E.S. It is reassuring to know that the administration is working on easing the transition to college and aims to make the academic experience of Wellesley students more enjoyable. But despite our administration’s good intentions, we need to place more emphasis on building a more inclusive campus community.