What Wellesley learned when it stopped giving out so many A’s – Vox

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gradesI’m not defending grade inflation, but I also think it’s misguided to think every class contains a statistically normal range of abilities. If courses are focused on learning rather than sorting, then the idea of requiring professors to give out lower grades makes no sense.

What Wellesley learned when it stopped giving out so many A’s – Vox.

Wellesley College used to be one of the worst offenders. In 2000, the average course grade awarded was a 3.55, an A-minus. Then, in 2003, Wellesley decided enough was enough. The college created a new rule: average final grades in classes at the introductory or intermediate level (a 100-level or 200-level class, in college catalogue terminology) should be no higher than a B-plus.

Professors could exceed those limits, but they’d have to explain themselves in writing to the administration if they did. The change applied to about two-thirds of Wellesley’s academic departments, which were awarding grades that exceeded the cap.

  1. When you require professors to give lower grades, they give lower grades
  2. Students were more likely to major in economics and the sciences
  3. Students weren’t as happy with their professors(faculty become more lenient graders to curry favor with students)
  4. Black students were disproportionately affected
  5. Some students report that lower grades could hurt their job prospects


I’ve heard some blame the students for focusing too much on the grade (What do I need to do to get an A?). First off, I think that’s a perfectly fair question for a student to ask, and one that all instructors should be able to answer, right up front, at the very start of the class – if not before.

Second, I think the instructors (and the system) need to accept responsibility for their role in this… we MAKE the grades important. Everything’s a competition where the one with the highest grades wins. So, of COURSE students want to know the rules of the game…. how else are they going to win?

On the other hand, I’ve come across far too many instructors (especially in education) who give out way too many A’s. In their classes it’s known that you really don’t have to try very hard to get an A; you just have to please the teacher.

The way I see it, there are two fundamental ways to approach grading:

  1. By subjective letter grade (i.e. A means exceptional, B means good, C means average,…).
  2. Numerically.

I have no problem with either, depending on how they’re implemented.

If you choose to go the subjective route, then you need to be really honest about how you define exceptional. I think this is where the Education courses I’ve seen fail. To my mind, while most (though not all) of the students I’ve taught in Ed programs were good, very few were in fact exceptional. For what it’s worth, it really annoys the ones who truly are exceptional (most of them know who they are), when *everyone* is told they’re a genius and given an A. Sure it may seem to make your school look good, but the reality is that the people who come through it know the truth.

The numerical approach to grading is probably the more common in universities still. Often, but not always it ends up being a combination of subjectively assessed assignments and one or more exams. The numeric approach tends to give both the teachers and the students the false notion that 100% actually means perfection – i.e. that 100% means they know it all. The problem is that’s not true. 100% on a test only means you know the particular bits that were tested – and even then it may not be a perfect understanding.

I’ve been using a different approach to the traditional numerical grading we’ve come to accept as the standard. I’m using the kind of numerical scoring that is more common in videogames……

wecome-to-classStudents often see themselves as starting off with an A (or 100%) and then they lose marks through mistakes. If they get an A- the question is, “What did you do wrong to lose the A?”

This is backwards. Upside down. Also, counterproductive.

Instead, remind your students that they come into class with no marks (zero), and then the things they do will add to their score cumulatively.

I’m done with punitive grading. BUT, unless the class is pass/fail, i.e. as long as I am required to assign a letter grade to each of my students, I am going to give each and every one an opportunity to actually EARN an A.

In my current class, my students have 20 different kinds of assignments (quests), most of which can be repeated for points, some of which are worth a lot (250 XP) and some only a little (10 XP); most of which have no deadlines. There are a number of quests that they need to attempt at least once. If the students did everything they could do there would be 60 different things, and if they got a perfect score on all of them, they would end up with 1529 points. Since an A+ at my school is 95% or better, in order to earn an A+, they need 950+ points (this keeps the math simple). This means they have a great deal of choice over what to do to demonstrate mastery of the material. They all start with 0, and everything they do adds to their total. If they screw something up, they can fix it and resubmit, or they can choose to do something else to make up the points. This frees them to take risks on things they wouldn’t normally try, and it frees me to be critical in ways I could never justify before. Win-win. Some students have trouble with this much choice, and others keep on working even after they have earned their A+. This shifts the focus off of the grade because there is always a way to recover from a bad score on something.

This does, of course make it impossible to force grades into some sort of standard distribution, and it is possible to end up with a class where everyone earns an A, or where no-one does. Usually, I end up with a clean bimodal distribution.

And I’m OK with that.

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