For Katherine*, a senior in the Huntsman Program of International Studies and Business, there were many good reasons to study abroad in Cuba. But one surpassed all the rest: getting As. Students often look to upperclassmen for advice on going abroad—an experience that seems to be the pinnacle of exploratory learning at a university level. For Katherine, the advice was concise: Go to Cuba, you’ll get As.
The recommendation was accompanied by information about the easiest classes that could be used to fulfill sector requirements, and a list of specific recommended courses and professors.
Penn students’ attraction to studying in Cuba makes sense—the program is a grade booster that clears out demanding requirements with easy courses. However, the highly–recommended study abroad experience is a small irony, a microcosm in the complicated world of grading at Penn. Abroad experiences are intended to be a time for personal and academic challenges, an expansion of intellectual horizons. Cuba, however, represents the mechanical urge many of us have to take the path of least resistance, a quintessential college experience morphed into an opportunity for higher grades and easier classes. This desire, however, can’t be simplistically explained away as laziness on the part of Penn students. It’s far more complicated—emblematic of a distorted attitude towards university grading.
For something as subjective as grading, the discussion about academic assessment at Penn becomes more philosophical than anything else. If grades are determined by individual professors, do they accurately reflect the skills and knowledge acquired by a student? And does this preoccupation with grades punish intellectual curiosity?
Faced with a grading system that varies drastically across the four schools and a relaxed approach towards top–level oversight, Penn students find themselves at an unclear academic crossroads: How is a letter grade determined at Penn, and what does it mean?
How Penn Gets Graded
The grading policy at Penn is decentralized, with grades overseen by individual department chairs. In some cases, the deans of each of the four schools can supervise as well. Technically, there are some academic offices, such as the Office of the Provost, that could request access to grading distributions and consult with school deans, but none has ever done so.
Rob Nelson, Executive Director of Education and Academic Planning in the Office of the Provost, explains that “grading is up to the instructor of the course and subject to review by the academic leadership of that program according to the norms of that discipline.”
However, norms are widely disparate throughout different academic concentrations, complicating any streamlined attempt at implementing a grading standard.
Nelson explains, “If you’re in a humanities major and you’re writing mostly papers, that’s a different grading experience than if you’re in a STEM field and taking exams that are by design separating really high–achieving students from students who are just getting by.”
Dennis DeTurck, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, sees this same patchwork of grading habits and norms within the college. And while he admits that grading at Penn is inconsistent amongst the different schools, he has noticed a steady GPA increase throughout the years across the board. Ultimately, DeTurck feels that it is better for the university to make grade distinctions amongst students. He points out, “Why give grades if you're gonna give everyone an A?”
Harvard is often criticized for precisely this, especially after a 2013 report by the Harvard Crimson found the most common grade given at the University to be an A. Meanwhile, Princeton was lambasted for doing just the opposite. While they’ve since reverted, Princeton famously capped the percentage of As in each department to 35 percent in 2004. Reaction to the experiment was overwhelmingly negative, as students felt the experiment was hurting their chances in the job market by giving them lower GPAs than competitors at other universities. “When Princeton changed its rules without everyone else changing their rules, it could only hurt Princeton students,” DeTurck adds. “You’ve got to make it possible for an outsider to read the transcript and understand, and I think we have that.”
There are others, however, who don’t think too many As are a bad thing. Adjunct Sociology Professor Hocine Fetni, for example, doesn’t believe in giving out bad grades. “Giving someone a C or a D is not really gonna challenge a student,” he explains, “because we have students who resign to the fact that they’re a C student.”
Fetni, who teaches a Law and Society class to about 60 students every fall, maintains that the promise of higher grades motivates students. “Is that how we are really supposed to deal with our students as educators, just say you are a D and C student and that’s it? Or should I really find a way and how can I really challenge and motivate students and tell them ‘Dammit, look, you can do better.’”
Due to his experience teaching and advising pre–law students, Fetni began tailoring his class to help students succeed in law and graduate school. He notifies students in his class who will likely receive bad grades, giving them the option to withdraw. And as an advisor for the College, he even considers recommending academic leave for these students that seem to be floundering at Penn.
Fetni is particularly concerned with the effect of grades on his students’ careers. However, as Claire Klieger, Senior Associate Director of Career Services at Penn, explains, “You get recruiters who are good at learning what the classes are and the level of the classes at institutions which they recruit and they know when you’re doing GPA padding,” she explains. In other words, a 3.8 GPA with no rigorous courses translates into transparent fluff.
And, particularly in a professional context, Dr. Fetni acknowledges that the reality that college is more than just intellectual pursuit. He realizes the raw power of grades. “When you really look at the job market and you look at grad schools, with all honesty I cannot just tell my students [classes are] all about knowledge.”
The Student Experience
Katherine’s encouragement by another Huntsman student to study abroad in the “easy” Cuba program helped her realize something very quickly: In the complicated world of Penn grading, connections are paramount.
An internal document compiled by Huntsman students advised on which classes to take, which professors to study under and which to avoid.
“Most people who leave Cuba… all had 4.0s or 3.8s or something like that for their semester GPAs,” Katherine explains. Every student that took the two courses recommended by Penn in the program, she says, received the highest grades possible.
As for on campus grading, Katherine—as a Huntsman student doing a dual–degree between the College and Wharton—has a unique vantage point from which to compare the two schools.
“I have a 4.0 in all my College classes, and I just think they’re so much easier,” she remarked. “In Wharton,” she continues, “there’s a clear right or wrong… you need to have a grading scale that’s curved to distinguish because of the fact that so many people could have the right answer.”
Because curves and grades vary for each class in each school, it becomes impossible to fully understand the significance of their grades.
Jackson*, a junior in Engineering, explains that his classes are usually curved to around a B, but the grade is variable depending on the professor. Jackson explains, “None of them are usually too stringent about it, except for one of them who wanted to give more Fs because he thought that not enough kids deserved to pass the class.”
Still, Jackson finds it difficult to reconcile studying for with pleasure without focusing on grades. He remains stuck in a grading paradox, in which he must both disregard grades to enjoy learning, but consider grades above all else to excel.
“Since I got here I’ve put less pressure on myself for the grade and more just in the moment of learning,” Jackson says. “But when you aren’t thinking about your grades in Engineering, you just won’t do well, because everything is for the grade.”
Still, there are other students that find themselves bogged down by requirements. While humanities students can find many ways to fill a required course, students in Nursing are tasked with strict requirements—and unlike Engineering, core nursing classes have no curves.
For sophomore Jose Maciel, freshman nursing requirements like Microbiology and Biology act as huge barriers for students. Jose, like Katherine, heeded the advice of upperclassmen. “The upperclassmen told us it’s the hard sciences that beat the nurse out of you,” Jose explains.
With something as strictly pre–professional and skill–based as nursing, it makes sense that requirements would be difficult and intensive. However, these requirements completely change how nursing students can compare their grades to other schools. Moreover, it philosophically changes how a student looks at their grades. A low grade in nursing might indicate the difficulty of a course, but not one’s preparedness to be a nurse—this dichotomy is what strains and confuses how a student views their own performance within their chosen field, and at Penn.
The GPA Dichotomy
Annaliese*, a junior, transferred into Wharton after her freshman year in the College. Two years into her studies in business, she describes her initial shift into the school as, “a huge adjustment.”
Annaliese was especially surprised by the way that students tapped into their social networks for academic gain, something she hadn’t witnessed as much during her time in the College. Students who performed the best on exams were those who could acquire past tests from students, and use their listservs and extracurricular contacts to learn more about the course. But she learned quickly, meeting other Wharton students and pooling resources.
“It was definitely more about the outcome and definitely more about how you do relative to everyone else,” Annaliese explains. Now, she doesn’t even look at her grade until the professor tells the class what the standard deviation was.
While she’s confident that that employers who recruit from Penn know how to read applications and transcripts from Penn, she’s not as confident about the online recruitment resources: “The PennLink system has minimums, so if you don’t have a 3.3 GPA or a 3.5 GPA, you can’t apply, and I feel like that definitive hard–line is really tough.”
If there's confusion among students about how they receive their grades, it's because the process of determining those grades is inherently confusing. There is no overarching power that regulates the distribution of letter grades, it is based almost entirely on the discretion of the class’s professor.
This decentralization of grades means that there is no way to properly compare grades within or between the four schools. The GPAs of two students in the same major can vary drastically, based only on the professors with whom they took classes.
This strange dichotomy attracts students to easier classes, ones in which they can fulfill credits without taking a GPA hit—keeping their credentials strong and competitive. However, this path of least resistance also discourages students from learning for the sheer pleasure of learning. Because grading is so indeterminate, students are left to wonder what a grade really means, and what Penn has really taught them.
* Denotes that a name has been changed.