Professors, students still split over plus/minus grading

When the plus/minus grading system was implemented last year, it was a hotly debated issue, but over the last year the heat has died down. As the new system has become an accepted part of academic life it has brought with it new changes and challenges.

The shift to plus/minus went into effect at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, and before then a task force was appointed to make a recommendation to the Provost, who oversees UTSA’s academic community. “There were outstandingly strong opinions when we first started,” says Dr. Bennie Wilson, a professor in the College of Business and chairman of the task force. However, when asked how the faculty has dealt with the change, he responded, “I think it’s been very civil.”

The Provost decided to allow the faculty to implement the new grading system at their own discretion. Some departments voted on whether to adopt the new system; others did not. Wilson admitted that he was unsure if his department took a vote but decided to use the new system regardless. “All I know is everyone knows I do it, and nobody cares,” he says. The faculty of the English department did vote, however, and decided to adopt the plus/minus system. Dr. Bridget Drinka, chair of the Department of English, claims she “hasn’t heard too many complaints” from her colleagues, even though not all favored the decision.

Wilson explains that ultimately the professor is in charge of giving grades: “you can not force them to use or not use the system.” When the registrar records the grades, the numerical scores are not recorded, and the computer does not discriminate by department. Professors simply input the letter grades and pluses/minuses. Technically any professor can give a student a plus or minus grade if they so choose; however, professors are required to include how grades will be distributed on course syllabi.

The new system has academic implications, most notably that a plus or minus grade affects a students grade point average (GPA). According to Wilson “the biggest advantage is that it provides the opportunity to distinguish between different levels of accomplishment,” a sentiment shared by other faculty. Opponents argue that more stratification just makes grading needlessly more complicated.

The University of Texas at Austin, which implemented a similar system several years ago, claims that the change in the average GPA of its student body has been negligible (only two hundredths of a point). Students need only worry if they are consistently bordering a letter grade. There is no bonus for receiving an A+, as that would allow students to get a GPA above 4.0. For each successive grade below an A, students lose one third of a point, meaning that a C- equals 1.66 points: a failing grade.

On the other hand, what was a high B before can now be as high as an A-, granting .66 more points. As a 2.0 GPA is required for graduation, a C- average will no longer cut it. However, the Provost decided to allow a C- to count for purposes of fulfilling the prerequisite for other courses.

Drinka mentions that there have been “some critical cases with grad students.” Most graduate programs require students to maintain a GPA above 3.0, and students who make below a B in a single course can be put on academic probation and even lose fellowships, which is a financial implication of the new system as well. Because a B- is worth less than three points, an 82 can be considered failing; some professors do understand this and do not give out a B- without considering the repercussions.

Many students are not yet familiar with the new system, but some have opinions about it. Sophomore Meaghan Monk, a history major and aspiring professor, says, “it’s how I would grade.” She has expressed dissatisfaction in not being able to “know the number,” and feels that a plus or minus is the next best thing. Professors hope that students who feel that getting from a B to an A is an impossible task will be more motivated to reach for that plus in the new system and be rewarded for it. “It kind of makes me want to work a little harder,” says Sophomore anthropology major Catherine Anderson, who tells herself “you can get that plus; you can do it!”

Some feel like the new system hasn’t really hurt them or helped them. Statistically, more GPA points from pluses should, in the long run, balance out the GPA losses from minuses. That being said, some students have expressed the opinion that they think it would just be simpler if every professor used the same system like UT Austin does, but UTSA currently has no plans to follow suit. The plus/minus system is here to stay.