A student’s thought on changing the grading system

Ali Schwabe | Fulcrum Staff

SCHOOL HAS BARELY begun, but already the sounds of stress can be heard around campus.

“Got my last syllabus… I have three midterms in a row on Oct. 16! WTF?”

“It’s the second week and I’m so behind on readings already. This is impossible.”

“I just need to pass.”

Those last five words may be heard more and more frequently on campus if Canadian universities begin following the Ivy-League trend of scrapping the letter grades A, B, C, D, and F for the softer ratings of honours, pass, and fail.

Currently, Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford’s law schools have adopted the system, using five categories including high honours and low pass rather than letters and plus/minus signs. Brown University allows students to take an unlimited number of courses for pass/fail, eliminating the calculation of GPAs for students who opt not to take certain courses for grades. And finally, the University of Toronto’s law school is considering making the change in order to reduce the amount of student stress in the competitive, high-pressure program.

Should the University of Ottawa follow suit and buck our A+s in favour of high honours? In a word, no.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against measures being implemented to reduce stress and improve mental health. But for students who stress hard about getting top marks, how will changing the name to high honours change their stress levels? Rebranding the grading system doesn’t make a university’s standards any lower; it simply allows average students to mask their minimal achievements.

And that’s just not fair. Students who produce a higher quality of work deserve recognition for that work. Removing letter grades might also remove motivation for certain students—cheating them out of doing their best. Letter grades give students something to strive for.

A letter-grade system also allows for more precise comparisons between students by grad schools and employers. Sure, the system isn’t perfect, and an A from the U of O isn’t necessarily the same as an A from any other university, but at least there’s a better sense of the student’s ability than the word “pass” can describe.

The U of O already has a solid grading system in place with room for alternative grading. Certain courses, like those taken in a second language, can be taken as pass/fail. This encourages students to step outside their comfort zones by removing the fear of bringing down their GPAs, allowing them to improve their language skills and broaden their horizons. Applying this system to all courses, however, would only serve to allow more slackers to coast and would have a minimal impact on student stress levels.

Stress, as it turns out, is a part of life. Feeling pressure to perform should be an aspect of higher education, because plenty of careers are demanding and stressful. Universities should provide students with strategies to reduce their stress levels when stress just can’t be avoided; students should learn time-management skills and how to say no to parties and yes to their books. The U of O also has some awesome programs in place for students, like the animal therapy program and free yoga classes.

It’s true that our culture can be obsessed with grades, which gives some students anxiety. More emphasis should be placed on extra-curricular activities, work experience, and independent projects, but changing the grading system isn’t going to do that. After all, high honours is simply an A+ in sheep’s clothing.