The transition from high school to college is difficult, and a fixation on grades may make the transition more unpleasant. Often times, students are moving far away from home, taking classes at a pace they’re not used to, and making friends with hundreds of people they’ve never met before. High-achieving students have more to be stressed out by than the new social scene and dorm life; the stressors in their first semester of college can be (and usually are) more academic. Elite colleges and universities attract students who have received high A’s in their classes for as long as they can remember, and, unfortunately, the association with A+ grades and “success” lingers when they begin their college career. Students may hesitate to take challenging courses during their first semester, in fear that they will not obtain a reputable GPA. Students will also have less time to adjust to their new surroundings, make new friends, and take advantage of everything their college has to offer.
Some colleges have instituted policies that “cover” first semester, first year grades, in an attempt to encourage students to take classes outside of their comfort zone and properly adjust to college life. Students feel more comfortable without the extra pressure, and are more likely to take courses in areas that may intrigue them, but may not result in the best grade.
Most notably, Wellesley College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swarthmore College, and Johns Hopkins University have shadow grading policies in place. Johns Hopkins started “covering” students’ first semester grades in the 1970s – and still “covers” the grades on transcripts today. Columbia students even called for this sort of policy in 2013 , but it was never instated. Most of these institutions mark a Pass or No Pass on the transcript; first semester grades have no affect on the overall undergraduate GPA, and the institutions have made it hard for future employers and graduate programs to “uncover” the letter grades. MIT, however, takes its shadow grading procedures to a new extreme – if students fail a class their first semester, it isn’t even marked on their transcript: it’s as though they never took the course in the first place.
Among many other reasons, below are some of the benefits of covering first semester grades.
Helps low-income and other disadvantaged students
Not everyone at elite colleges attended the best prep schools and took 10+ AP Classes in preparation for university-level academics. Often times, under-funded public high schools cannot offer a large amount of AP and IB courses, let alone provide resources that can help college-bound students adjust to the larger workload and faster paces of college classes. The style of teaching and how disadvantaged students are supported differs depending on their neighborhood and where they went to school. They may not have had any discussion-based courses available to them in high school, or any classes that required extensive problem sets.
Students without this level of preparation are starting college with a disadvantage – not only do they have to adjust to living in a new environment and make new friends, they also have to learn how to study for college classes, write lengthy papers, do research, and complete problem sets. Without the pressure of grades, these students can learn how to properly work in college at their own pace. Otherwise, these students may feel discouraged and inferior to their other, more privileged classmates.
Allows students to focus on friendships and clubs
More free time comes along with no official grades. Students use this extra time to make new friends, explore their new city/neighborhood, and join clubs. In my experience, there have been many times where I went along with my friends to concerts, parties, and city trips that I would have turned down if I had to worry about my grades. The freedom and emphasis on socialization really makes the college feel like home, as I, along with hundreds of other first-year students at Wellesley and MIT, were able to spend time with friends and feel comfortable in our new environment.
Clubs also differ at the college level. They require more commitment than most high school organizations, and students may need this time to learn how to balance their academic and extracurricular schedules.
Less likely to withdrawal from a class, more likely to take classes out of their “comfort zone”
After Wellesley College used shadow-grading for the first time in the fall of 2014, they noticed that the number of course withdrawals decreased by a significant amount. After a survey of the first-years, they found out that 93 percent of the students agreed that they were less likely to drop a challenging course due to shadow grading.
This comes as no surprise, as students felt more comfortable taking harder classes when they know it won’t penalize them or lower their undergraduate GPA. For example, at Wellesley, there is a lab credit required to graduate, and a lot of first-years used this time to take challenging labs (especially if they were not prospective STEM majors).
Consequences become the student’s, and the student’s alone
All of the academic responsibility is placed on the student when there are no grades to monitor their performance. There are those who claim they were unmotivated by the lack of grades, because there wasn’t the stress pushing them to do well. However, academic success should be more of a love for learning and work ethic, and less about about a grade. Wellesley College’s First-Year Dean Tenser commented on this mentality:
“Some students have said that they were more relaxed fall semester than they would have been if grades were not shadowed. For some that meant that they didn’t work hard enough; for some, it meant that they didn’t feel the stress and that positively influenced their first semester results. [Shadow grading] means that consequences are yours to own,” Tenser said. “It’s an impact, and it will be up to students to decide how that impact has an influence on their experience.”
While this is scary, it does force students to really think about where their passions lie and how to study for the sake of knowledge, not a high GPA. Students also learn how to manage their time and effectively study for college courses, as they have the time to focus on it.
Learning becomes more about the content and quality
As aforementioned, learning takes priority in an environment where grades do not matter. Students, should they choose to put in the effort, really learn the coursework, instead of performing menial tasks or memorizing terms that may help them score highly on an exam. Wellesley College’s Psychology Professor Kulik-Johnson admires the policy for this very reason:
“College presents such large adjustments to go through; shadow grading gives students room to grow and make mistakes. It no longer becomes about the grade, but rather learning because you want to learn. Students think more critically, and don’t have to worry about things like meeting a minimum page length. I want to hear ideas; that’s what’s more interesting to me,” Kulik-Johnson said.
Without any pressure to receive a 4.0 the first semester, students are allowed to “accustom themselves to the expectations and demands of their coursework”
Classrooms become less competitive
At elite colleges, classes can become very competitive, as most of the students are hard-working and dedicated people, all striving to get an A. In colleges with grade deflation, this level of competition is increased, as only a select few can receive an A as their final grade.
Once again, the lack of grades first semester makes the classroom a more welcoming place. There is no need to worry about grades or trying to be the “best” in any given class, because the outcome does not matter on your transcript anyway.