Worried about performance?

By Michael Leung

Imagine being tagged, named and coded by a number. Suppose this single, solitary figure represents your intelligence and your ability. Consider that this number represents years of your work; it is the culmination of hours of study. Picture that number as more important than your very name. This number may even determine your potential career. Perhaps then, it is very important that this number be accurate.

The grade-point average has been around for a long time. At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of universities in Canada reported academic achievement in terms of percentage. After 1930, letter grades [a-c] became increasingly popular for three reasons: standard error of measurement had just been invented, and a new grading system was required in order to incorporate it; percentage scores were coming under criticism because items under measurement were undefined between subjects; and research showed essay scoring was inconsistent under percentage grading. Following World War ii, an increase in student enrolment and diversity necessitated an expansion in the number of grade categories to represent the increase. Since that time, grading systems have diverged in an uncoordinated manner into the systems we see today.

This is where the first problem arises: grade systems at each university changed of their own accord. Among the major universities, no two GPA systems are exactly alike. Most systems can agree on what constitutes an excellent performance, but sometimes this doesn’t even occur. For example, the University of Alberta uses a nine-point scale, the Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge use a four-point scale, but in viewing the table of grading systems one notices intricacies and differences in this scale. Students can receive an A+ at the U of L, but it is still only equal to an A: four grade points. If you equate the U of A’s system to letter grading, there are fewer discriminations between the range of grades.

Are you confused yet?

Imagine then, the job of someone who considers scholarship applications. The National Science and Engineering Research Council awards research grants and scholarships to students across Canada. During periods of judging, NSERC contacts each university and verifies respective grading systems. Among the questions asked: What is considered an 80 per cent grade approximately, in GPA terms)? What is considered the ‘first-class cutoff?’ What is considered the ‘second-class cutoff?’ Once the institutions return the information, NSERC tabulates the data so that judges, when analyzing applicants, can hold a transcript in one hand and a table of grading systems in the other. However, NSERC Program Administrator in Scholarships and Fellowships Tim Russwurm reassured me that no problems arise from this.

“We do take into account the differences [in grading systems]; students are treated fairly,” said Russwurm, adding that NSERC acknowledges that an 80 isn’t the same as another 80, according to current Canadian grading systems.

Russwurm also said a universal grade reporting system would make NSERC’s job significantly easier, but admitted such a system would be difficult to implement.

To add to the complexity of GPA systems, even more uncertainty arises upon analysis of the system itself. Firstly, all courses are considered equal under the GPA system. A B grade in “Rocks-For-Jocks” is considered equal to a B in Linear Algebra. Five-hundred level courses are also weighted equally with 200 level courses. Secondly, course load is not considered in the GPA. This means that a student who earns five Bs in one semester will have a lower GPA than the student who earns three As. By extension, the second student is more intelligent than the first, despite that fact there may be more actual learning by the first student, based on that single semester. The GPA system therefore does not distinguish course difficulty and the capacity at which they were taken, unless accompanied by a cumbersome transcript.

However, grades are not the sole measure of a person. Scholarships do consider transcripts, extra-curricular activities and so forth. GPA, in most committees’ eyes, is only part of a person’s application.

U of C Vice-president Academic Ron Bond offered his own experience. “Committees that are awarding scholarships take into account not just the GPA–although that is a major part of it,” said Bond. “They also take into account, in some cases, letters of reference; these will indicate what kind of extracurricular work they [a scholarship applicant] are doing or what kind of volunteer work they are doing.”

Unfortunately, performance is emphasized in our society–perhaps overly–as a primary goal.

In conducting interviews with several departments, I found the GPA system allows the U of C (and presumably other universities) to have a grading system applicable to all classes, while still maintaining flexibility within the system. A great deal of how grades are instituted lies at the instructor level; for most, the only requirement is that the instructor clearly outlines the grading scheme either verbally or via class syllabus, at the beginning of lectures.

Head of the Department of Biological Sciences Anthony Russell described trends that occur in certain years. He described that because of funding cuts and faculty turnover, some fluctuations in grading can and do occur. However, current measures have been instituted to address this.

“We maintain our teaching assignments in as stable a fashion possible to ensure both the instructors and the students have some idea what to expect,” explained Russell. He added that if such a state is maintained, fluctuations that occur are more likely due to variations in groups of students from year to year.

Imagine the number now represents only a facet of your education. It is, in fact, a single part of your person but it does not define you. In reality you are not limited by your GPA, but rather your experience. The average is probably a necessary and useful calculation, and allows performance within science, say, to be realistically evaluated on the same scale as the humanities. Essentially, it allows internal departments to speak the same language–although every university seems to have its own inflections.

Background information obtained from two sources:

Taylor, Hugh. 1986. Grade Reporting Systems Among Canadian Universities: A Tower of Babble. University of Victoria.

Young, Rodney. 1983. Which Student Outcome Measures are most Important to an institution? University of New Mexico.

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