Pros, cons of plus-minus

Seth Harris

A plus-minus grading scale draws support from faculty and some dissent from students.

SDSU students could potentially see a change in grading if the Faculty Senate votes in favor of a plus-minus grading system next month.

Robert Watrel, president of the Faculty Senate and associate professor for the Department of Geography, said the proposal would allow faculty members to determine whether or not they wish to use the plus-minus system.

However, Senate Vice President Michael Keller said departments establish policies for the departmental faculty, which would mean more consistency among classes. Keller, an English professor, said the English Department would endorse the new system “whole-heartedly.”

“I’m wholly in favor of it. It’s more accurate, it’s more finely calibrated and there’s more discriminations an instructor can make,” he said. “It’s more fair. It’s a more just system.”

Other Faculty Senate members like Scott Pedersen, associate professor for the Department of Biology and Microbiology, have a more neutral view. He said he enjoys helping students develop study strategies and providing overall help, but he may see problems with the change.

“I’ll have a lot of students bickering for intermediate points. I don’t want to be in the position to judge that fine line,” he said.

Overall, Pedersen said, “I don’t see a benefit either way. It’s a null game for me.”

SDSU is not the first university to discuss a switch in grading systems. Both Northern State University and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology faculty senates have passed resolutions endorsing the change.

NSU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Tom Hawley said their Faculty Senate passed a resolution last fall recommending the South Dakota Board of Regents adopt the plus-minus system.

“They wanted more differentiation in the letter grades,” Hawley said.

The move for a grading system change did not start with the Faculty Senate. Members of the Academic Affairs Committee voted in favor of plus-minus grading in their Oct. 17 meeting, which then moved the discussion up the chain.

Laura Diddle, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee and an associate professor in the Music Department, said her research convinced her that protecting grades devalues higher education and hurts the reputation of universities.

“This is something that really spoke loudly to me; if you’re protecting (GPA) out of fear … I think it leads to the devaluation of higher education,” she said.

“What you need to be worried about is how much work are you doing—how much effort are you truly putting into it.”

Allen Jones, vice chair of the Academic Affairs committee, said the system was used at the University of Washington before he came to SDSU — a trait he preferred.

“It more accurately represents the grades,” he said.

Similarly, Diddle said she supports the grading system change because it would “better differentiate (students), increase motivation, and enhance the image of grades and the undergraduate degree.”

In the Nov. 7 Students’ Association meeting, a resolution opposing the plus-minus grading was tabled after senators decided to schedule an open forum that was held last night in the Marketplace of The Union, an idea that was proposed after the resolution had been submitted.

The resolution discussed in the SA meeting was written in part and sponsored by Jameson Berreth, SA state and local government chair, and Anthony Sutton, SA vice president.

Berreth said students’ opinions are very important and that SA should try its best to represent the student body.

“I was pretty neutral to moderately opposed, but seeing how many students are opposed really makes my decision easier,” he said.

Mark York, SA president, said he believes a grading system should show an overall difference, not just a difference between students in a class.

“From some of the research I found, it said the mean GPA wouldn’t really change, but the standard deviation would become smaller,” he said. “So basically it wouldn’t show as much difference between students … I think a grading system should show some difference between students.”

Another major concern for SA members is the idea that faculty could choose whether or not to use the system. Sutton said there needs to be more uniformity. However, he stressed that the real issue is the value of the grade given.

“We really want to have the conversation on what it means for a student to earn an A from SDSU, to earn a B, or to earn a C,” he said. “What does it mean to do that and really focus on that conversation …

That’s the bigger conversation that needs to take place.”

Unofficially, SA opposes the concept of plus-minus grading; however, SA will vote on the topic in the coming weeks.

Response from SDSU students on the plus-minus system have been historically tepid, but not without support.

Creighton University uses a plus-minus grading system, something Andrew Rueb, a senior in the Medical Lab Science program, said he enjoyed before he transferred to SDSU.

“It gives you something to work for and it really helps your GPA. Transferring here killed my GPA,” he said.

Others say the change wouldn’t solve any problems.

Becca Niewohner, senior biology and microbiology double major, said SDSU would be more standardized with the majority of universities nationwide.

“Professors might calibrate to that system, too. They would make their curve higher,” she said. “The root of the problem is professors’ grading.”

Bethany Pridey, sophomore dietetics major, said the potential change harms hopes of getting into quality graduate programs.

“I work really hard in my classes and getting a 90 percent is really amazing … getting an A-minus discredits the work,” she said. “It hurts your chances of getting into graduate schools.”

The decision will most likely be made in the Dec. 13 Faculty Senate meeting. In the end, Jones said it’s not about the faculty.

“It’s been about doing what’s fair and in the best interest of the students,” he said. “That’s been the motive behind this.”