Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Three-quarters of letter grades in humanities are A's

More than half of the grades given at Brown last year were A's - but not all disciplines are created equal. According to data from the Office of Institutional Research, the proportion of A's out of all letter grades awarded in the humanities was 75 percent last year, greater than in any other discipline. In other disciplines this number ranged from 58 percent to 63 percent.

But the life sciences awarded the greatest proportion of A's out of all grades - including Satisfactory and No Credit. Last year 53.4 percent of grades in such courses were A's, representing an increase of 11.8 percentage points over 11 years, more than in any other discipline.

51.3 percent of all grades, including S/NC grades, given in humanities classes were A's. But the proportions of B's and C's awarded in these classes were significantly lower - 15.9 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively, compared to 26.3 percent and 7.1 percent in the physical sciences.

"It is a complicated thing to try to explain," said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. "In a smaller class, the nature of the instruction and the kind of work required ... create different kinds of grading scenarios."

Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, also said smaller classes and more seminars in the humanities could explain the high number of A's awarded. In such classes, it is "more apparent when students don't come to class or don't do the work," Blumstein said, meaning students feel pressured to do well and earn good grades.

She said she had noticed a correlation between the quality of students' work and their grade option. "Last year I'm not sure I gave more than 1 or 2 C's," Blumstein said of COGS 0010: "Approaches to the Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science." She would have given C's to more students, she said, "but every one of those students had taken the course pass/fail."

In 2006, 20.8 percent of courses in the humanities were mandatory S/NC, compared to 8.4 percent of courses in the life sciences.

"Maybe people who would be getting B's and C's are taking courses S/NC," said James Dreier, professor of philosophy and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee. But for courses that only offer S/NC grading, "that's not a very good explanation" for why fewer B's and C's are being awarded, he said. "It might still be a partial explanation."

Last year, 29.2 percent of all grades awarded in the humanities were S's, compared to 12.8 percent of grades in the life sciences.

Professor of Biology Ken Miller '70 P'02 said students interested in pursuing a career in the health professions are advised to take their basic science courses for a grade. Miller, who has taught BIOL 0200: "The Foundations of Living Systems" since 1989, estimated that normally about half of the students enrolled in BIOL 0200 are considering being pre-med.

But while the percentage of S's given in the life sciences has fluctuated, the proportion of A's awarded has risen nearly every year since 1997. Last year the proportion of A's given out in life sciences classes reached 53.4 percent, which represents a 28.4 percent increase over the proportion of A's given 11 years ago.

Miller said the increasing selectivity of the college admissions process could be a reason for the increasing number of A's awarded. "It would be really surprising if our students weren't getting more and more talented," he said.

"I have students in my classes now who have summer research experience," Miller said. "They have sequenced DNA. These are people I'm seeing in their freshman year."

John Dahdah '09, a biology concentrator, said science courses he has taken demand application of the course's material. "It goes beyond just memorizing material," he said.

"I don't think it's possible to say that one curriculum is easier than another curriculum is," he added. But he said the problem-solving skills required in science courses distinguished them from the abilities assessed in humanities courses.

Bergeron said speculating about the reasons for the trends may not be productive because of the complexity of factors possibly contributing to the data. "What I do think is useful is that Brown has been trying to deal with this ... on a more local level by furnishing chairs (of departments) with this information" about grades, Bergeron said.



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2023 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.