Katz ’14: Why we need pluses and minuses

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, January 24, 2013
The average college student currently studies for a scant 14 hours per week — significantly fewer than in 1961, when the average was 24 hours, according to research conducted by University of California Santa Barbara professor Philip Babcock and University of California Riverside professor Mindy Marks, the Boston Globe reported in July 2010.

I am certainly not going to render judgment on how many hours a week is necessary to commit to studying. How students invest their time is a personal choice. Yet judging solely from my own observations, most Brown students study far more than 14 hours a week. And indeed, most Brown students excel in their courses. Last year about 53 percent of grades received were As, 22 percent were Bs, and four percent were Cs (“Concerns persist as grade distribution remains steady,” Nov. 19, 2012).

In other words, Brown students are driven to succeed in their courses and work hard to accomplish this goal. The competitiveness of admission to Brown inevitably leads to a student body that “by definition possesses high levels of motivation and intelligence” (“Letter: Grade distribution should prompt discussion,” Nov. 29, 2012). In this sense, despite fears about grade inflation, the number of As that Brown students received in recent years is not particularly worrisome to me. If professors consider many of their students’ work worthy of an A grade, should students not be rewarded simply because of the overall number of As being distributed? It certainly feels very anti-Brown to institute a Princeton-like system in which only a certain fraction of students in each course will be awarded As.

But what Brown’s grade distribution does indicate is the need for a grading system that better distinguishes students’ performance from one another. If 53 percent of Brown students received As in the last academic year, what does this A really signify? What does the A represent in terms of a student’s mastery of the material, level of effort, participation in and commitment to the course?

An A at Brown represents too great a variation within these evaluative dimensions. The student who works only so hard as to break the A “threshold,” the student who aces every assignment, and sometimes even the student teetering on the edge of the threshold may all receive the same evaluation at the end of the course. Was their course performance so similar as to merit the same grade? Probably not. In this way, Brown’s grading system prevents professors from distributing final evaluations specific to each student’s performance and in some cases forces them to assign grades they feel are inappropriate.

The addition of pluses and minuses would not only invite greater specificity into the grading process, but it would also remove the current mentality among Brown students that there is only one acceptable grade: an A. The A/B/C/NC system breeds an unhealthy sense of perfectionism by driving students to aim to break into “A territory.” For some, anything less than an A is seen as imperfect or unworthy (“The A/B/(N)Cs of Brown grading,” Sept. 9, 2010). In this sense, incorporating pluses and minuses into the grading system is not a superficial proposal to align with the systems of other schools but a way to more properly align the incentives of students and to rid them of unreasonable expectations of perfectionism.

While most Brown students are genuinely interested in their coursework and motivated to study for reasons other than obtaining an A, this does not change the fact that at the end of the semester, all students receive grades. These grades — and consequent GPA calculations — should reflect a student’s performance as accurately as a numerically converted letter grade can. Systems of evaluation like course performance reports can better highlight a student’s strengths and weaknesses, but with many classes reaching 100 students or more, a system of this kind would be impractical to expect instructors to use.

Creating a more nuanced method of evaluating coursework would mitigate Brown’s perfectionist culture by making a greater number of grades “acceptable” in the eyes of students. For example, in the current system that lacks the B+ option, students on the cusp between an A or a B are either pushed to an A or “demoted” to a B. This situation induces stress among students struggling to obtain an A or breeds apathy among those who feel they might as well not study to the best of their ability if they will likely end up with a B in the course regardless of their efforts.

In sum, the differences between an A, B and C are simply too vast for those to be the only letter grade options. With so few options, the system increases pressure on students to perform at a certain level on all assignments in order to secure the grade they wish, since a misstep may bring down one’s average an entire letter grade. The addition of pluses and minuses would thus eliminate this need to study one’s way into A territory and allow coursework to be evaluated in a more detailed manner specific to students’ strengths and weaknesses.


Jaclyn Katz ’14 understands that most Brown students will not find this proposal attractive, and can be reached at

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this column contained one sentence with language nearly identical to text that appeared in another written source. An Editor’s Note was published in The Herald Feb. 21, 2013. That Editor’s Note can be found here.

  • Plato

    “But what Brown’s grade distribution does indicate is the need for a grading system that better distinguishes students’ performance from one another.” I disagree. One of the key reasons students choose to come to Brown over institutions like Princeton or Yale is because of the de-emphasization of the importance of letter grades. Furthermore, the writer’s statement that the plus/minus system will ” invite greater specificity into the grading process” and “rid students of unreasonable expectations of perfectionism” is contradictory to one of the core statements the writer makes earlier on: “The A/B/C/NC system breeds an unhealthy sense of perfectionism by driving students to aim to break into “A territory.” In fact, adopting such a system would only encourage students to shoot for an A+, much like the writer believes the current system does. Furthermore, the plus/minus system not only runs contradictory Brown’s institutional values, but also further fosters a destructive student culture where the focus is put on achieving high grades and not on actual student learning. While the writer’s desire for a grading system that accurately reflects student performance is understandable, unfortunately, their perception that ” the differences between an A, B and C are simply too vast” is simply a personal one. We should trust our professors judgement of student performance. While there may be some room for debate on whether or not all A’s at Brown are equal, the notion that switching to a plus/minus system is an ill-founded solution.

    • BH

      This is a school where students would rather drop a class than get a B. Do you really think the focus is on learning?

  • aristotle?

    To the comment above, are you a Brown student? because you obviously have no idea how much pressure this is on Brown students to surpass B territory and reach the A. and whether we like it or not, we are in the same category at Princeton/Yale and we are hard working overachievers too (some of us even aimed for those schools). we all want to excel and the a/b/c/nc system aggravates this tendency

  • heyholetsgo

    Great article. I wholeheartedly agree. In my mind, a B is equal or even worse than failing a course. Plenty of m friends drop courses when they are not significantly above the 90% threshold.

    The A/B/C system unites the worst of all grading systems. Grade inflation, insane pressure in every subject and not enough room for differentiation..