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Intermediate Grades Would Only Cover Up MIT's Failure

Guest Column by Albert L. Hsu

Let me get this straight: because some 14.5 percent of undergraduates indicate lukewarm support for the current grading system, people would like to introduce more division between letter grades at MIT?

It's because the average MIT student simply doesn't spend enough time on classes, not to mention the fact that students are apparently failing to achieve the level of stress that we're looking for.

Allegedly, it's a constant problem that so many students are on the borderline between two letter grades. The obvious solution: "Let's have more grades!" With more borderlines, there will be less people on each borderline. How fabulous. Good grief.

When I came to MIT as a freshman, I was greatly encouraged by the fact that MIT had no "Dean's List," no class rank, and no honorary degrees (cum laude, summa cum laude, magna cum laude, for those who thought Latin was a dead language). The Institute even had a groovy "pass/fail" freshman year. In my high school, many of my classmates had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with grades; some students even boasted that they would take certain classes, not because of any inherent interest, but merely to acquire more "quality points" and get a better class rank. I was quite excited that MIT might differ from high school in that respect. During Rush, upperclassmen said to us, "Hey, you got into MIT; you don't need to get straight A's here." The Institute corroborated this: You couldn't get any A's as a freshman.

The proposed changes in grading would make grades seem more important at MIT, and that's not what we need. Of course, there's a benign motivation behind all of this: The Committee on Academic Performance wants to help students who feel slighted when they are on the borderline between two letter grades - and get the lower grade. But if a student gets a high B in one class, and a low B in another class, does this not even out? What is solved by having this student get a B+ in one class and a B- in another as opposed to simple B's in both classes? If another student is consistently on grade borderlines, should that student not fall about equally on both sides of that borderline?

Meanwhile there are two very clear arguments against further differentiation of letter grades. First, such a policy would foster an extremely unhealthy obsession with grades at MIT. Will students be in class to actually learn something, or just to get a good grade? In universities which have adopted AB, BC and +/- grading systems, I'm sure that they care more about grades than we do. When the focus of a class is on the material, as in Professor Daniel S. Kemp's Organic Chemistry I (5.12), students thrive and learn. When the focus is on grades, students resort to back-stabbing, brown-nosing, and experiment sabotage - not very useful skills in the outside world. At an institution such as MIT, where all of the students are of very high caliber, too great a focus on grades depresses us.

Second, this amended grading policy would only add to the stress imposed by the Institute on its students. While not all MIT students are completely stressed-out (after all, add date is still a week away), I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could honestly say that students don't spend enough time on their coursework. Are the benefits of further differentiating letter grades really worth it?

If the Committee on Academic Performance truly wishes to affect some real improvements at MIT, I have two suggestions. First, consider bringing public speaking into the Department of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences - perhaps as part of the writing or music and theater arts sections. The classes are already there, in the Sloan School of Management curriculum, in the theater arts section, and in negotiations classes.

Second, if something must be done with grades, consider phasing in pass/fail grades for all years, starting with this year's freshmen. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig asserts that "grades really cover up failure to teach... a bad instructor can get through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out the scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if the grades are removed, the class is forced to wonder each day what it's really learning." We're at MIT, let's try an experiment: replace the grades with pass/fail and see what students are really getting for their tuition.

Grades are not necessary for MIT students to put effort towards learning their course material; does anyone remember freshman year? Some would argue that students really won't work if they aren't getting graded: "If you don't push me, I won't go." If you stop pushing them (by phasing out letter grades), they stop going anywhere, so the argument goes. Well, fine. If they can't go anywhere on their own power, we need not waste energy in pushing them. Leaders in the real world don't get "pushes" on a daily basis; is MIT trying to turn out leaders or high-status drones? Besides, most medical schools in America grade all of their classes on a pass/fail basis, and their students learn an awful lot.

In the November/December issue of the Faculty Newsletter, the results of the senior survey were published, and the results are indisputable. Graduates do not feel that they had learned enough "life skills" at this institution. Creativity, leadership, and communication skills (that's writing and public speaking) are not the traits that leap to mind when someone refers to MIT students. Someone once used a great analogy to mules: We're great when we're given questions to answer or a job to do; we're not nearly as good at asking the questions in the first place. In order to help change this situation, we should bring public speaking into the humanities curriculum and phase-in pass/fail for all years.

It is tempting for any group to want to do something in order to make it look like it's alive and kicking and trying to make improvements. Many doctors suffer from this problem: Dispensing drugs, scanning and testing patients, and performing operations when these measures are not necessary. The CAP should make sure that they have real objectives in mind when they propose changes to the grading system. Especially if we wish to look long-term, there is more value in replacing the grading system with pass/fail rather than further differentiating letter grades.