Student Opinion: Colleges Should Not Eliminate Letter Grading during Student’s First Year

By: Rodrigo Villegas

Many first-year college students struggle to transition seamlessly into college life. Joy Malak—a second-year neuroscience and literature double major at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)—is one example of that experience. 


“I had to learn how to balance my finances. I had to learn how to balance work and school and the relationship I’m in,” said Malak to NPR. As a result, her grades suffered. “It took a while for me to detangle my sense of self-worth from the grades that I was getting. It made me consider switching out of my major a handful of times.” 


Because of experiences like these, a movement to eliminate standard letter grading for first-years and some upperclassmen has garnered popularity. Termed “un-grading,” this idea serves to help students acclimate to higher education, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college, or those who are not as well prepared for it. 


Eliminating grades encourages students to focus on learning and mastery of the material. Proponents argue that students focus so heavily on grades that they do not truly learn. Jody Green, special advisor to the provost for educational equity and academic success at UCSC, told NPR, “Grades are not a representation of student learning, as hard as it is for us to break the mindset that if the student got an A it means they learned.” 


Additionally, advocates cite worries over student mental health as another reason for schools to adopt un-grading. A study by researchers at Boston University and elsewhere found that “In 2020-2021, more than 60% of students met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from 2013.” Meanwhile, a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that teens feel immense pressure to obtain good grades. 


However, critics argue that un-grading reduces assessments to participation trophies, and would only pamper students. Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told NPR, “To tell me that these students are too fragile at age 18 or 19 for their educators to actually give them feedback on what they’ve learned or what they’ve mastered strikes me as missing a pretty significant element of the purpose of higher education.” 


During the pandemic, faculty and academic departments at universities and colleges nationwide have begun testing different methods of evaluating students. 


I did not have an easy transition to college (I definitely underestimated the quarter system and the difficulty of college classes!), so I sympathize with students like Malak. However, I do not agree with eliminating conventional A through F grading for first-year students—at least not entirely. 


I would have loved to not have letter grades during my first year, especially coming off of a partially online senior year of high school. Yet, with hindsight, I think I would have had a worse first-year experience. 


Grades are what compelled me to learn the material from my classes, and to this day, grades still serve as the impetus for my learning. Without grades in my first year, I would have done the bare minimum to pass my courses; I would have solely memorized enough information to pass. This would not have helped me acclimate academically, nor would it prepare me for the following years. 


I do not strive to attain A’s in every class (I think it is unhealthy to strive for perfection), but I do strive to earn at least B’s—that is my minimum. If I see anything lower, that serves as my motivation to learn and raise my grade. 


However, I think MIT’s “ramp-up grading” is a reasonable alternative to letter grades. For the first semester, first-year students receive a “pass” with no letter or no grade if they do not pass. In their second semesters, they receive letter grades, but grades of D and F are not reported on their transcript.  


Some variation of a ramp-up system where students receive “pass” or “no pass” in their first semester/quarter, letter grades but no failing grades in their second semester/quarter; and finally conventional A through F grades after their first year could prove beneficial. This could create a stress-free environment for the first year, where students can focus on adjusting to college life without the pressures of good grades.

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