OPINION: Pomona should ‘shadow grade’ the first semester

A hand writes a "B+" on a piece of paper with a pencil, but it shows up as a "P," indicating "pass."
(Helena Ong • The Student Life)

The first year of Pomona College is a jarring experience that exacerbates inequalities in academic preparation and social capital. Depending on their backgrounds, students might spend their first year reeling from geographic upheaval, unprecedented academic challenges and new social norms. 

Although our current institutions — orientation, academic advising, mentor programs, etc. — are great, we can and should do more to ease the transition. 

We propose “shadow grading” Pomona students’ first semester: Specifically, first-semester, non-transfer students should be graded normally, but their transcript should only display whether they passed or received no credit in their classes. Shadow grading would promote equity in the transition to college, ease new students’ anxiety and advance the College’s commitment to the liberal arts. 

Shadow grading would smooth the transition to college-level academics. College classes can catch students off guard and they might not know how to cope with the added rigor. A semester of shadow grading allows students to develop study skills without being punished for having difficulty adjusting, which might be more due to structural inequalities in educational resources and social capital than to individual merit.

Moreover, entering college is almost universally an anxiety-inducing experience. Such anxiety exacerbates the current mental health crisis. Students need time to find community and establish support structures if they are to thrive; lowering the pressure of their academic obligations for one semester can help.

Shadow grading would also promote the mission of the liberal arts because it reframes students’ mindsets in their first semester. 

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, 92 percent of students stated that they were more likely to stay in difficult courses under shadow grading. Wellesley students were also more likely to say that they took classes out of interest and to explore different majors, rather than simply taking classes they thought they would do well in. 

Insofar as some subjects deter students by making them think they are “not smart enough,” shadow grading frees students to take the intellectual leap of faith — to explore based on passion and interest rather than concern for grades.

Additionally, shadow grading reframes the relationship between students and faculty. As a Wellesley dean explained to one of us, students there were more likely to approach faculty to ask for feedback about how to improve instead of trying to figure out how to “get the A” — a conversation that neither students nor faculty enjoy. 

Shadow grading would create a more equitable and less stressful first semester. It would provide space for students to find their academic passion and would strengthen relationships between first-years and faculty. 

To be sure, shadow grading is not without its criticisms. First, students might be less motivated to put as many hours into their classes. Disciplines that require students to build on first-semester material (e.g., STEM, foreign languages and other “cumulative disciplines”) might be particularly affected. 

Second, shadow grading might delay the development of study skills, which means the stress of being graded will still set in — just in the second semester, not the first. These were among the main justifications relied on by Johns Hopkins University when it repealed its shadow-grading policy.

These criticisms are important but not dispositive. Students might work less on their academics under shadow grading, but that’s not necessarily bad. Given our restrictive admissions rate, our incoming student bodies are filled with high-strung students whose noses have been on the grindstone for the last four years. 

It’s also important to note that shadow grading’s effect on decreasing students’ commitment to academics is debatable. 

While the average GPA of students in their first semester, under shadow grading, did decrease at Wellesley, that doesn’t necessarily mean students cared less about their academics; they could have been taking courses they were less prepared for, or professors might have graded more harshly knowing the grade wouldn’t be permanent. 

In addition, while summarizing Swarthmore College’s experiences with shadow grading, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a professor of sociology, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Is [shadow grading] a program where young people are not encouraged to take their courses seriously their first semester? We have discovered that’s not the case at all.”

A “reset” semester can ease new students into finding work-life balance. Moreover, receiving lower grades can foster comfort with lower GPAs, which might provide a pathway to combatting grade inflation. (Recall that under shadow grading, students still receive letter grades — those grades just don’t show up on their transcripts.)

Finally, even if students delay developing study skills until the second semester, that might be preferable to piling academic adjustment on top of all the things students must learn when they first get on campus. 

Today, Feb. 13, we’ll bring a resolution to the ASPC Senate proposing a student referendum on shadow grading. 

If students affirm shadow grading with a sixty percent supermajority, then we ask that the Curriculum Committee develop a pilot proposal to be brought to a full faculty vote by May. If sixty percent of the faculty vote in favor, shadow grading should go into effect for Fall 2020 or whenever practicable. The proposal should require a retention vote among all faculty and students in four years, requiring that same threshold of sixty percent in each group to become permanent policy. 

This process may seem convoluted. It is. But it is so because such a fundamental change to our first-semester experience ought to require a broad, transparent and coordinated effort among students, faculty and administrators. 

That it is a big change, however, should not distract from its imperativeness. Shadow grading is an opportunity for our campus to double down on our commitments to equity and intellectual exploration. 

It’s time to take the leap of faith and try shadow grading students’ first semester.

Isaac Cui PO ’20, Peter Heckendorn PO ’21, Patrick Liu PO ’22, Glen Skahill PO ’22, Natalie Raver-Goldsby PO ’22, Lauren Rodriguez PO ’22, Max Ober PO ’22 and Jake Hauser PO ’20 sit on the ASPC Academic Affairs Committee. If you have any feedback or comments on this proposal, you can email Cui at vpacademic@aspc.pomona.edu.

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