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Op-ed: STEM students are subject to arbitrarily harsh, mentally taxing grading schemes

By Lovelyn Saini

April 23, 2019 10:53 p.m.

As soon as a grueling STEM test ends, I always think to myself how everyone did on the exam. Did everyone score high or did everyone score low? Most importantly, will I beat the curve?

Compare that to how I thought about my communication class: My A-quality speech is an A-quality speech. On the other hand, as a STEM major, an A on an exam does not always equal an A because of the class curve.

This curving system creates a concerning atmosphere in which STEM students want to beat each other rather than work​ collaboratively. On top of this hostile environment, the curving system creates an academic-success gap between North and South Campus students. No wonder in the 2001-2002 school year, UCLA students from the materials science and engineering department averaged a 2.70 GPA compared to a 3.80 average from Slavic, East European and Eurasian languages and cultures department.

But the curving system is only part of UCLA’s grading problems. On top of professors presetting the percentages of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs in a class, the university’s plus-and-minus system deducts points from students’ letter grades. A 2012 study showed a student perception that the plus-minus system would lead to a lower GPA.​ And although these are just perceptions, these negative thoughts can ultimately be long-term stressors.

UCLA desperately needs to close the grading-system gap in each department and modify the plus-minus system to alleviate student stress while facilitating a much more positive learning atmosphere.

Although there is limited data highlighting departmental differences in grading, student narratives indicate the gap is extensive.

“There is definitely a difference between each department,” said Priya Kohli, a human biology and society student. “It may be due to the nature of courses, but still, I encountered having many science classes with a preset curve compared to my humanities courses.”

Her experiences ring a bell with many other students on South Campus, including myself.

North Campus students seem to have it different, though.

“I rarely encountered a class with a curve from my department,” said Kendra Djokovich, a communication student.

Djokovich said there is definitely a difference between South and North Campus departments with regard to grading.

It is unfortunate students do not know whether this departmental difference officially exists, and can continue to perceive their rumored hard majors in a negative light. The UCLA 2018-2019 General Catalog grading policies confirm that final grades are based on the “instructor’s evaluation of the student’s achievement,” which may include curves. Although it remains unclear which departmental courses rely on these curves, this difference may further perpetuate STEM students’ thinking that they will have worse GPAs based on their “hard” major – something that only deters students from thinking positively about their academic outcomes.

Instead, UCLA should officially make GPA averages public for each major and adjust for severe discrepancies across departments. The university should also modify its grading policies to better promote an inclusive and less anxiety-heavy learning atmosphere. A recent Mayo Clinic study showed that students graded on the pass-fail system had less perceived stress compared to students on a five-interval grading system, similar to what we have.

Additionally, the pass-fail group had greater cohesion in groups and a better mood compared to the interval graded group. This study took place at a medical school, and is one UCLA should consider taking. After all, we consistently boast our True Bruin Values, including “respect” and “service” for a Bruin’s surrounding community. We shouldn’t compromise on these values by perpetuating a grading system that causes students to value some majors over others.

Of course, one might argue, though, that the pass-fail system does not differentiate students for scholarships or graduate schools and can promote laziness. But there are still plenty of ways to differentiate students through less cut-throat systems. The 2012 study showed that students perceived the plus-minus system to lower their grades and more than 90% agreed it did not increase their motivation to learn. ​On the other hand, students are more than open to having a plus-only system to help with grades rather than bringing down an A- student to a 3.70 GPA.

Furthermore, the pass-fail system can differentiate students through written evaluations. In fact, successful schools like Yale, Stanford and Harvard Universities allow students to take some pass-fail classes toward their majors with distinctions like honors.

It is time UCLA shifted its grading system from being GPA-focused to being team-oriented and intellectually-driven. The stigma associated with grades can deter students from having a positive outlook about their education – something crucial to being a successful and open-minded student. And that, which can last years and affect students’ health during and after college – even increasing the risk of contracting diseases – is something the university needs to consider when critically examining its grading schemes.

If UCLA wishes to prioritize student health and wellbeing, the grading policies it employs should encourage collaborative practices to truly have students focus on learning and sharing knowledge rather than what side of campus they’re on.

Saini is a fourth-year human biology and society student.

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