Community, Speaker Discuss Grade-Free First Semester

Lee Cuba, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, spoke on campus last week about the benefits of

Wellesley College

Lee Cuba, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, spoke on campus last week about the benefits of “shadow grading.”


Amidst ongoing conversations regarding grading at Middlebury, the Student Government Association’s (SGA) Student Educational Affairs Committee (SEAC) hosted Lee Cuba, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, for a talk on shadow grading on Oct. 11. Cuba spearheaded a shadow grading pilot program at Wellesley, wherein letter grades are hidden from the first semester transcript of first-year students.

Jeanne Albert, director of STEM support in the college’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research (CTLR), introduced Cuba, and described her involvement in prior conversations about grading.

“In January 2016, the CTLR sponsored a discussion called ‘Are Grades Necessary?’ Several faculty continued that discussion, and in the subsequent term we started to look at the format at other institutions,” she said.

“If they weren’t resorting to a no-grade system, what were some other experiments? We were then led to Wellesley’s shadow grading experiment.”

Cuba identified a pattern at Wellesley in which students tend to prioritize grades over engagement with their courses.

“Students can get very concerned with how they’re doing in a class, and that can get in the way of their motivation for learning. One of the things that we found in the study we did is that there’s an inverse correlation between students having in mind academic achievement goals, of which grades are the best example for that, and students having academic engagement goals, like writing a dynamite thesis,” Cuba said.

“We started talking about doing something like Swarthmore has been doing since 1968, and that MIT has been doing for many many years, which is treat the first year differently in terms of grading students.”

In the fall of 2014, after about a year and a half of continued research and conversation, Wellesley College instituted their program.

“For students in the first semester of their first year, all four classes that they take are graded pass or no pass. It appears on your transcript as a ‘p’ or an ‘np.’ A separate grade report is generated for the student that is seen only by the student, her dean, and the student’s faculty advisor,” Cuba explained. 

In describing the results of Wellesley’s pilot program to date, Cuba emphasized the high percentage of students who identified shadow grading as helpful in easing their transition to college.

“The policy started in the fall of 2014, so we have three years of data. When you’re a social scientist and you do surveys, you don’t ever see results like this. Over 3 years, roughly 70% or better each year respond to the survey. Of those responding, 94% say it helped the transition to college,” Cuba said.

Cuba is pleased with the ways that the program has benefited student participants in the experiment.

“There was evidence from student responses that they felt like they were doing more stuff outside of academics which is really encouraging,” he said. “They reported spending less time thinking about grades, and students stayed in classes instead of dropping them. Some faculty thought that students were actually more engaged because they were focused on the learning, and some thought students were less stressed out.”

Furthermore, Cuba believes the practice encourages students to experiment with subjects outside of their comfort zones or with activities outside of academics.

“It allows students to explore the curriculum more broadly without thinking about the kinds of grades they might get in classes. It was intended to be focused on balancing multiple commitments that students had, rather than something that was purely academic,” Cuba said.

Cuba also sees the policy as effective in creating more equitable and comfortable environments for students. First-generation college students, students who self-report being from low income families, and students from underrepresented minority groups reported even higher rates of positive effects from shadow grading.

“It’s very clear that not everybody starts college in the same place,” Albert said. “We were thinking that some students would benefit from having a time-out on grades for a little while to focus more on managing the transition from high school to college. If you came from a tony high school or a not so good one, or if you came from far away or you came from nearby or whatever, there was something in it for you in terms of managing the transition to college.”

Cuba did, however, read a selection of student responses, including one in which the student resented the program.

“My grades were much higher first semester compared to second, and it’s extremely discouraging knowing those grades won’t be part of my GPA. It makes me regret the amount of time I put into those classes when none of it will change my grades,” the student said.

Jeanne Albert emphasized that though she has participated in grading conversations for some time, no concrete action has yet occurred to implement such a program at Middlebury.

“The visit by Professor Cuba was entirely so that we could learn more about shadow grading from someone who has first-hand knowledge about it,” Albert said. “While an informal group of faculty have been meeting over the past few semesters to discuss various ideas within the overall realm of grades and grading, as far as I know there have been no ‘official’ efforts by faculty to actually implement a program at Middlebury.”

Despite the lack of action on behalf of faculty, Sedge Lucas ’19 and Dan Klemonski ’19 count shadow grading as one of their top priorities as co-directors of the SEAC.

Klemonski said that Jeffrey Ou ’19 first brought the issue to their attention last year while serving as an SGA senator.

“If it’s something that’s going to provide a smoother transition, that’s the reason we’re pushing for it,” Lucas said.

Lucas predicts that if the SGA passes a bill requesting the introduction of shadow grading, the proposal would likely have to pass a faculty vote before being implemented.

“The way I imagine it would actually go through would be passing a student bill. Then after it’s passed and formalized, you bring it to the faculty who take the bill and make the edits they want. Then you present that at a faculty meeting and that’s where they vote on it and it goes through or doesn’t,” Lucas said.

Klemonski maintains cautious optimism for the future of shadow grading at the college, and stress the importance of student involvement in efforts to implement it.

“Convincing the faculty is not a little thing,” Klemonski said. “I assume there will be plenty of discussions about shadow grading moving forward, but a timeline for immediate action is unclear. Higher ed moves so slowly, but the best lever of pressure in this case would be students getting fired up about it.”

Middlebury faculty have mixed opinions on the merits of shadow grading. While some can already pledge their support for the system, others have reservations.

“I think it’s a very good idea. I would vote for it,” said Michael Newbury, director of the college’s American studies program.

Joyce Mao, associate professor of history, disagrees.

“I don’t think that’s a good introduction to college. But I’m glad we have things like pass/fail because they allows students to take classes they wouldn’t otherwise consider,” Mao said.

Associate professor of history Rebecca Bennette attended Johns Hopkins Unversity for her undergraduate study, and says the institution used shadow grading at the time. Bennette maintains that from her personal experience, the practice has both benefits and drawbacks.

“In some cases it can be a great boon to people, but it can also be a bind,” Bennette said. “Where it doesn’t work so well is in subjects like math, econ and languages where you need that knowledge to move on. It’s easy to use the fact that this is not a real grade as a crutch, and it’s easy to pass, but when you move on, you’ve gotten yourself in a situation where you’re going to pay for that.”