Faculty Comments:


Christoph Steinbruchel, Chair, Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee

At its March 31 meeting, the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee amended its previous resolution, in response to student comments suggesting a gradual adoption of the new grading system.

The resolution now asks that the proposed +/- grading system be implemented as follows:

For 1000- and 6000-level courses beginning in F 04
For 2000-level courses beginning in F 05
For 4000-level courses beginning in F 06

This basically means that students at RPI at present will only be minimally affected by the change in grading system.


1996 Alumnus:

Knowledge and Thoroughness.
How can the faculty at a college where every degree has a technological foundation NOT as much precision as possible when establishing a student's grades?

If you take the ideas to the extremes...
What would happen if every assignment, quiz, report, and test was graded as A-B-C-D-F ?? At the end of a semester, it might not be clear what grade to give the student who had scores of C-B-A-C-A on 5 tests....

Also, trying to predict if plusses and minuses would raise or lower grades is tainted by the fact that students will work according to the system in place. e.g. A student with a heavy workload who looks at his grades going into final
exams and sees an 84, an 85, an 80, and an 89 won't see himself as having 4 classes to master material in, and put in his best effort on the final exams or projects. He will see 2 classes that are "solid" Bs if he doesn't botch the final too bad...but that will require a mathematical miracle to get "up to" As... So, he brushes them off.... And instead all effort is put into making sure his 80 doesn't slide down into a "C" and to see if he can get the 89 up to an A.

I learned the lesson the hard way my freshman year when it was full of more 78s, 79s, 88s, and 89s than I care to remember. Afterwards, it felt like wasted effort to know I could have blown off whole assignments or skipped entire pages on an exam and still ended up with the same GPA. I even had one (now former) RPI Professor angrily tell me how he couldn't comprehend why he was forced to give me a 3 or a 4 when it came time to grade me.

And now, I will be entering law school in August, based mainly on the result of my score on the LSAT exam. For some reason, they see fit to scale the score from 120 to 180. I guess lawyers want more meaningful measurements than RPI did when I was there.

Fauclty Member in Biology:

I conducted a five minute discussion with my students. They are against it. One student suggested, if you want to make the QPA more precise, just multiply the numerical average by 4.0. To me this is no different from my repeated suggestion to just report the numerical average. This has the advantage that no particular point is more significant than another, except for the cutoff for actual failure. This is so superior to what is being discussed that I cannot imagine why people are wasting time on this unpopular proposal.


Faculty Member in MANE:

"While likely causing changes that are negligibly small in cumulative GPA for nearly all students, the use of +/- grade modifiers and especially the A- will undoubtedly reduce the number of UGs graduating with a 4.0, and I view this as the most positive effect of instituting grade modifiers. At graduations a decade or so ago, out of a graduating class of ~1000 undergraduates there would be ten or fewer 4.0 graduates, now there are often 30 or more. Graduating with a 4.0 should be a much more singular and highly-regarded accomplishment, achieved by 1% or fewer of the students, not 3% or even more.

However, the +/- system should NOT be instituted until an implementation plan is in place for smooth transition, 'grand-fathering' students already on campus through the balance of their programs without modifiers, and from any presentations I have seen to date there is no such transition plan being proposed. Other academic changes are grand-fathered, with students following the program listed in the Catalog for the year they entered Rensselaer through the close of their degree program. The same should be true for the grades used to evaluate their performance. The argument used against such a grand-fathering transition plan is that it would supposedly be too confusing for instructors to keep track of which year each student is before assigning a grade and possibly using a modifier. This is NOT confusing; in fact the year of each student is listed right next to their name on the course grade sheets we submit. Furthermore this supposedly 'insurmountable problem' and the need for instructors to correspondingly keep track of the years of their students before assigning a grade is already in place on campus (in 4000-level classes with mixed senior/grad enrollment where graduate students can not be assigned D grades) and will continue indefinitely in 4000-level courses (where in addition to the D, the D+ and C- grades can not be assigned for the graduate students).

Another solution to this assignment of mixed grades (with and without
modifiers) to classes of students of mixed years during such a short
(three-year) transition period is to allow the Registrar's office to use a program which would drop the modifiers from any grades submitted for an upperclassman who is supposed to be grand-fathered under the previous system. Some may argue that the Registrar's office should not be over-ruling grades (removing a + or - from a letter grade) assigned by faculty, but if this issue is truly so important to an instructor then they can simply steer clear of it by paying attention to which students are the upperclassmen and assign straight letter grades that are not subject to such truncation of modifiers.

A transition plan including grand-fathering would be short-lived (3 years), would not be confusing to faculty, and could be easily implemented. It should be part of this proposal."

Faculty Member in Physics:

"I am witholding judgement on the +/- system until I have heard more arguments, but I submit the following ideas.

1) The distinction between A and A- students is very useful when we are extolling the virtues of academically outstanding students to employers and graduate schools.  The student who consistently performs at the top of our academic measurement scales can best be recognized in this way. 

2) There are always translation errors between measurement systems.  We make the meaning of our system clearer when we use finer gradations, but we must remember that using finer gradations implies that we can actually make such measurements to that accuracy.  Plus/minus seems to me to be a good compromise between implied accuracy and actual accuracy for many courses.

3) Instituting +/- grading will permit those faculty who feel they can make such distinctions to do so.  Faculty who feel they can't or shouldn't, should continue to submit grades on the A, B, C... scale. 

I encourage faculty to continue to have serious discussions on methods and meaning in assessing student achievement.  This issue does not apply only to multisection classes - it's just more apparent there.  This may help address some of the issues that have been brought up by others in this discussion forum."


Faculty Member in Biology:

"I think if we want an accurate system we could well just report the numerical score without bothering with letter grades at all. For those with an historical penchant for letter grades, we could offer up the same kind of table being proposed for converting from numbers to letters, and suggest people can use it for converting letters to numbers."


Faculty Member in STS:

"Colleagues, I've taught at other institutions that have +/-. It always puzzled me that a technological research university, with its emphasis on precision and analysis, knowledge, and thoroughness, would reject a finer-tuned evaluation method.

We're overdue for a switch to grade modifiers. Letter grades are themselves far too blunt measures of student performance. The sooner we make the move the better."


Faculty Member in ECSE:

" I would like to submit an alternative grading proposal to the Faculty Senate. The idea of mapping a letter to a number has always seemed absurd to me. I would like to be able to submit a numerical grade for a student using the full range of 0.00 to 4.00. This would stop the unfairness of categorizing students into the bins A,B,...F. I could give one student a 3.55 and the student right below could receive a 3.52. This would be a big help in large classes where the difference between an A and a B is often measured by the first or second decimal."


Faculty Member in MANE:

"I am opposed to the implementation of plus minus system. The prepared material asks and answers: “Will there be a negative impact on student GPAs? The general answer to this concern is a clear no.” I don’t believe that the answer is at all clear. Rather, the arguments do not take into consideration how the grades will be interpreted by other institutions of higher learning, or industrial placement officers who have to make decision as to who to make that acceptance to, say, graduate school, or to hire that person. Rather consider my counter arguments:

First of all, a plus/minus system will make the grading of multiple section courses involving hundreds of students, and many sections (say 4 to 11 sections in one term) more difficult, as the academic freedom of the individual instructor individually to decide grade cut-off’s could be challenged by authoritarian course directors who, in the interests of efficiency, will try to impose their will and their bully pulpit on individual instructors who know individual students situations much better and may wish to shade grade cut-offs based on more that a simple number such as a B+ will be up to a 92%, whereas an A would normally be an A at Rensselaer..

Secondly, when our students are trying to get into graduate school, some other institutions may not go to the trouble of trying to understand our system, and merely truncate the letter grade by simply eliminating the plus or the minus, so that a person with a B+ average that may have been determined by having a grade or 92% or less (but would have been an A at Rensselaer with a percentage greater than 90%) would have the grade interpreted at the second institution truncated to a B. This actually happened to my wife when she applied to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh which does not use plus/minus, versus Marywood College, which did. Rensselaer Students applying to med school, or for employment at many industries, may have their effective rankings changed and possibly disqualifying them from further consideration."


Response by Faculty Member in MS&E to above MANE Faculty Member:

"I appreciate your two concerns regarding +/- grading. However, I think neither one of them is a strong argument against +/- grading.

The way a multi-section course is run has nothing to do with the grading system. If you are in a multi-section course where it is the instructors' consensus that every instructor is independent in their grading from the others, that is your prerogative. I don't see any reason why that would change if a +/- system is adopted.

Regarding interpreting the meaning of grades, your argument can be turned around with the opposite conclusion. If a present RPI student applies to a school where they have +/- grading, the people there may ask what a B means: B+, B, or B-. So it is our present system that is confusing.

Also, in my experience, people in admissions tend to look at the GPA first, which is computed to a least two decimal places even though the individual grades may represent just integers.

Neither of your concerns addresses the main reasons for introducing +/- grading, namely more precise grading and better correspondence between grades and performance. For example, if you decide in one of your courses that the line between A's and B's is at 88, that means 88 is an A and 87 is a B. Yet the difference of an entire letter grade clearly does not reflect properly the rather minor difference in performance."


Response to MS&E Faculty Member by previous Faculty Member in MANE:

"Thanks for your thoughtful response to my discussion against the implementation of a +/- Grading system.

First of all, I appreciate all of the work that the Curriculum Committee has done in studying the alternatives to our present grading system, including looking at how other institutions of higher learning are permanently presenting performance.

I wish to respond to your comments. My main comment is "If it is not broken, then why fix it?"

If we implement this more complex grading scheme, I believe that there will be substantially more work for the faculty. Frankly, when we have to decide if the student is A material, or F material, or anywhere in between, we are forced to make a major decision on the competence and quality of that student.

If we have to present shades of grey, then the users of these major divisions (A-/-B+/-C+/-D+/-F) will be the one to have to asses their quality. If we decide that a student with an 89 average really isn't A material, we really have to study the performance in great detail. I personally look again at the final exam solution for such students in Engineering Dynamics and assess if that final is an A final (maximum competence and quality) or B final (less than maximum competence and quality).

Furthermore, in multiple section, much more bickering (or under the breath comments) can occur among fellow instructors, with some just interested in efficiency and getting the grading done as fast as possible, while others are willing to take the time to really determine where these cutoffs should be.

Using your example below, you may be assured that if I decided to make the cutoff for A to be an 88, then I looked at the final exams and course performance (did they do all the homework, did they attend class, how did they do on the 4 course main exams); I look at the final exam performance, and course performance, of the students making an 87 and also at those making an 88. Usually there is a major difference, or there is a gap with no grades with 87. If I have to do this to a higher resolution (under the +/- system), then the system will add to the time required to do so, and weaken the impact of deciding those who receive an A. An A from me means what it implies: excellence in the course.

On my second point, using the converse of receiving a B from Rensselaer, means that the student is competent, but not a top student. Remember, the faculty at Rensselaer anguish over who receives the highest grade of A; and who does not. The +/- system will dilute this meaning.

I believe that the current Rensselaer system reflects the MAJOR differences in grading: in my opinion, that is what counts. To switch to the +/- system, and the dilution of the apparent grade, will be akin to the current undesirable situation where students can make it through almost their entire career without ever seeing an advisor, as no sign-off is required for registration. Yes, we may free up more time for other matters like research, but our students are compromised, and without even knowing it, as they do not necessarily get the advice needed for a successful 4 undergraduate years at Rensselaer.

Of course, I will accept this change to +/- grading, if approved. However, I would urge not going ahead and implementing this change for the above reasons."






Student Comments


Student in Science, Technology and Society

"I feel that a change to the current grading system is in order, as it
does not accurately reflect student performance by "lumping" all Bs, Cs, and
Ds into the same group. In fact, I think that the best solution would be to
report student grades as the actual percentages that have been earned, and
not convert them into letter grades at all, either with or without pluses
and minuses. As to the method by which this change would be implemented,
either as numerical scores or grade modifiers, I believe that it should not
be applied to students who are part-way through their studies at Rensselaer,
particularly for students who are more than half-way finished. The new
system should begin with incoming freshman in their Fall semester and then
be applied to all subsequent classes. The reason for this is that students
under the old system have developed a certain way of viewing their classes
and the effort required in them to earn certain grades and would have
difficulty dealing with the academic changes and additional stress that
grade modifiers/numerical scores would add. If this does not occur and
modifiers are added to all current students, then an alternative proposal
that I support would be to apply them only to internal transcripts, as is
the policy of MIT, and should not affect the final GPA."


Student in Computer Science:

"Some other universities and colleges may use the plus/minus system and there are arguments for and against each. My main concern, and I would like some feedback if possible, is why would the system change affect all students? The use of modifiers would have the optimal use in classes that are large (i.e freshman courses that are 4-11 sections) with there being so many students to lump into grade bins. However, I do not think that these would have as much use in higher level courses. With higher level courses, the grading system becomes more and more subjective and less precisely based on tests and quizzes but more on class discussion and projects. Using such a high precision grading device on that not helping too much. Regardless of which is the best system I strongly object to having this new system applied on current students. It seems absurd that an engineering school would not understand that changing metrics during the course of a measurement will lead to error in the GPA (a returning junior will have his/her GPA weighted differently for his first two years and his remaining time). The modifiers, if approved, should only be placed on the incoming class. This may present an issue that some courses will have people from mixed classes. If the professors just submit from the beginning grades with the modifiers then the Registrar can just automatically truncate the modifiers to those who it applies to (B+ >> B) which continues the current system for those who started with it. Are there any flaws in this proposed system that I have not thought about???"


Student in Chemical Engineering:

"Personally, I think the modifiers help some students, and hurt others.

My freshman year I had A-range grade until finals. I slipped up on finals, only getting 80's on them, and ended up with 2 A's and 3 Bs.

My B's were all B+s, and even if my As were A-s, I would have gotten a 3.43 GPA that semester, instead of the 3.29. All too often are kids trumpting around their 4.0's when all the difference between them and Joe Q. Effort's 3.25 is 2 or 3 points in a few classes. Should a combination of 10 percentage points, spread out between 3 or 4 classes be the difference between a 3.0 and a 4.0? NO!"









Comments from Recruiters


""In general, I don't think it will matter a whole heck of a lot. If anything, the +/- system gives a recruiter a more accurate picture of the students knowledge and mastery of the subject. As a recruiter, I tend to think that there's a big difference between getting a B or a C in say Math II when in fact, two students with very close grades could have received the B and the C. In general, on the first pass, recruiters tend to look at the overall GPA. It isn't until site visit time when the transcript is reviewed in detail and I think the +/- system will better communicate the students abilities."


"I have talked about this with another recruiter and our feelings are similar on the topic. We use GPA as one review/screening factor and it's usually done to compare a population across a university. It's difficult to do a one/one comparison of GPA's across schools. Each school has a different background, curriculum, performance level - etc. In addition to GPAs, we look at course work, projects, outside work experience, etc. A good point was brought up regarding the faculty proposal. Going to a +/- is important as long as you include it for the current A grade also. It needs to incorporate a special recognition form for A+ grades which are truly the top grade in the +/- plans. Bottom line - the change would not be important to us for evaluating students."


"As long as the GPA's remain numerical overall, I don't think it will have a huge impact."


"I've been leading the General Motors recruiting effort at RPI for several years now. We only consider the numerical grade point average of students when considering them for employment (the MANE faculty member should note this - this practice is the norm among recruiters I know). Anything that makes a student's GPA a more accurate reflection of their effort and success in school, which I think this proposal does, is a good thing. RPI should adopt this proposal.

Further, I think the ultimate solution is to drop letter grades altogether. Why not just give students a numerical grade for each class, perhaps by tenths of a point from 3.0 to 4.0, and by quarter points from 0 to 3.0. This seems the most logical. Have you benchmarked Michigan State University, which uses this type of system?"