OPINION: The 5Cs can lead the way in grading reform and alter academic incentives for students

A female student surrounded by books, beakers, plants, and paints.
(Mariana Durán • The Student Life)

Collective disinterest is routine for college students. Blank faces stare back at each other in a Zoom breakout room. No one’s hand goes up in an in-person classroom discussion. Instead, we quietly take notes. We review the material when it comes time for an assessment, but many students only internalize the content needed to get a good grade. 

We need to alter the system of incentives that propagates these norms. Our system diminishes the passion of students because it encourages a singular focus on grades and fails to reward the acquisition of skills because assessments are frequently only concerned with content.

The 5Cs can engage its students and create a more collaborative learning environment by replacing letter grades with a system that evaluates achievement on the basis of skills acquired and demonstrated passion for the course subject. This could resemble the Mastery Transcript Consortium approach — more on that later.

It’s true that alternative grading systems do not come without their flaws. Many institutions which have implemented alternative systems are small and private, such as Alverno College. It may be difficult for large public universities to use a narrative evaluation tool. But skill-based credits backed by evidence in student work, akin to the MTC, would not depend on narrative evaluation and would be applicable to larger public institutions.

Some students may need a GPA in order to be considered by graduate schools and employers. However, many undergraduate admissions offices support the MTC. Stanford’s, Yale’s and Berkeley’s law schools are examples of graduate schools open to alternative systems. A collective push for reform would incentivize graduate schools to consider students evaluated under current and new systems on a level playing field.

There are also questions of equity wrapped into the grading system. Last spring, 5C grading policies were up for debate due to students’ disparate burdens after departing from campus. Tony Wagner, a senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, argued that the students who will benefit most from the MTC are those who need new ways of showing what they are capable of doing. This could include students from less privileged backgrounds than the average of the student body at their institution or students with different learning needs that can result in poor grades as a result of a non-nuanced grading system. 

Let’s take a look at some example systems.

The MTC showcases credits earned by students, which are each equivalent to a single skill in categories such as science and mathematics as well as disciplinary literacy and global citizenship. Each credit is directly linked to a piece of evidence in the transcript, which shows the work that the student has accomplished to master that skill.

The syllabi of courses at the 5Cs frequently include learning outcomes. In my experience, performance evaluation has often diverged from the learning outcomes over the course of the semester. These learning outcomes don’t have to be vestiges of an idealized learning environment. Instead, they can be analogous to the credits of the MTC, allowing 5C students to be evaluated on the skills acquired in each course.

For example, a learning outcome in one of my humanities classes was “recognize and contend with alternative viewpoints/counter-arguments.” Another learning outcome in one of my natural science classes was “apply solutions to real world problems.” 

In a new system resembling the MTC, I would be assessed on whether I can effectively bring up and rebut an opposing point of view or apply a chemistry principle to something in the world that I care about. If enough skills in aggregate are assessed, this system becomes more rigorous than what we have now. 

Another example is that used by Yale Law School. Instead of the traditional letter grade system with pluses and minuses, Yale Law School uses honors, pass, low pass, credit and failure. Proponents of this system argue that the reduction in precision allows students and faculty to refocus on classroom learning and that it allows for greater flexibility and innovation in performance evaluation. 

There are also examples of undergraduate institutions’ eliminating the letter grade system.

At Alverno College in Wisconsin, they establish criteria for effective performance in each course and provide students with narrative feedback. Students who meet the criteria established pass the course. At New College of Florida, contracts are negotiated every semester with faculty advisers to establish individualized criteria for measuring success, and they use narrative evaluations in lieu of letter grades to give detailed feedback and foster strong relationships between students and faculty. At Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, student self-evaluations are followed by written evaluations from the faculty, and credit is awarded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis.

There is a useful trend to notice in these example systems. Many of these systems reduce the number of levels at which a student can be assessed. That could be the five levels of the honors, pass, low pass, credit and failure system or the binary system of satisfactory or unsatisfactory acquisitions of skills. Reducing the precision of the grading scale is a common strategy.

The 5Cs can address the collective disinterest of its students through initiating an alternative grading system; they have the resources and small class sizes to do so.

Kyle Greenspan PZ ’23 is from Portland, Oregon. He is pursuing a career at the intersection of environmental sustainability and global development.

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