Taking Notes: Eye On Education – New Grading System

This column focuses on a wide range of issues affecting post-secondary students. Students are encouraged to submit suggestions and educational topics they are concerned about, or personal experiences with courses or university situations they feel other students should know about. If suggest a topic or a course alert for Taking Notes, contact djabbour@ausu.org


The new grading system is experiencing some growing pains at the University of Alberta. U of A professors have been told to “award more Ds and fewer Fs” because too many students are failing under the new system. An embarrassed administration has acknowledged that a “mathematical error” has caused class averages to drop, placing many students at risk of being unable to maintain minimum academic standards.

What is the problem?

The new system assigns letter grades from A to D for passing grades, with failures getting an F. Each letter is accompanied by a numeric rating, whereby an A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0. With the old system, grades were on a 9 point scale, with failures still receiving from one to three points. A student who was marginally failing in one class might get three points, but if they did better in another class and got a seven – they could still get a satisfactory grade-point average of five (3+7/2=5).

Under the new system, this same student is given an F, meaning 0 points. But now in order to get the same satisfactory grade-point average of five, the student has to get an A in the second class (4+0/2=2 (equivalent to 5)).

This has caused student grade-point averages to drop dramatically, and if nothing is changed, about 2000 U of A students will be below the first-class rating and some 700 will be required to withdraw.

Academic staff are therefore being told to be more generous with handing out D’s to students who would have received a marginal failure under the 9-point system, instead of F’s. They are also being asked to boost Cs and Bs so that more students can maintain their first-class rating.

The university argues that they are not pushing through students who are undeserving. They state that these students are doing just as well academically as they did the previous year, and that this is an unforeseen consequence of the new grading system.

When the system was introduced, everyone acknowledged that it would take some time to adjust, requiring a change in how students and instructors think. Hopefully this mathematical error will not result in a push to be more generous with grades overall, since such an artificial inflation of marks would damage the credibility of any university.

Athabasca University has not yet reported any similar problems, however, they are moving from a percentage system rather than a 9-point one, so the transition may be smoother. Hopefully the growing pains will soon be sorted out and universities, students and professors will become accustomed to the new grading system.

U of A profs told to be less stingy with grades. Larry Johnsrude, Edmonton Journal, March 5, 2004.

Nine to Four: New Letter Grades Coming in Fall 2003. University of Alberta. http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/9to4

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