It All Came Down to This: Recap the Trial and Verdict

After fourteen weeks of preparation, Science Court finally held our trial on Saturday. Despite convincing arguments by both the refine and reform legal teams, supported by an abundance of information gathered by the science team, the jury ultimately decided in favor of the refine team, while also proposing their own combination of solutions. Here’s a summary of the trial that got them to this conclusion. 



The Reform and Refine Legal Teams had Differing Opinions on an Ideal Grading System

The legal teams were initially divided into refine and reform teams based on their intentions to change the grading system; the refine team wanted to slightly modify the current system, while the reform team proposed a complete overhaul. This ultimately took form with the reform team suggesting three methods be used to develop a new grading system: required rubrics and blind grading, an “honors, high pass, low pass, and fail” method, and offering students a chance to retake failed courses. The refine team suggested that instead of fully changing the current grading system UMN should modify it by increasing the number of S/N (pass/fail) credits allowed from 20 to 30, increasing instructor bias training requirements, and banning normative grading (grading on a curve). 


The History Subteam Presented Information on the Changes to Conventional Grading 

Members of the history subteam of the Science Team discussed how common grading systems have changed over time. When universities first began evaluating students, a set of subjective statements was assigned to students by instructors. Obviously, that is radically different from the current A-F scale used by most universities, but there were many incremental changes over the past two centuries that ultimately led us here. The reform team suggested that macro level changes to commonly used grading systems suggest that “grading is a dynamic process,” making a rather drastic change feasible. On the other hand, the refine team argued that while the difference between the current grading systems and those of the 1800s are radically different, the changes have been rather minimal in recent decades; the grading system changes follow a logarithmic scale, not a linear or exponential one, making a complete overhaul of the current system impractical. 


The Education Subteam Discussed the Purposes and Issues with Grading

According to members of the education subteam, the purpose of the current grading system is to evaluate students on two main criteria, memorization and application. While both are useful for improving student learning, a commonly cited issue of the current grading system is that they are too memorization oriented, and this decreases student motivation. Further, from instructors’ perspectives, the current grading system is overly subjective and time consuming, and these factors have contributed to grade inflation over recent decades. The reform team argued that recent grade inflation suggests drastic changes are needed to the grading system, and rubrics could help solve some of the issues with the current grading system subjectivity. The refine team however emphasized the lack of motivation that the current grading system imposes on students, and stated that their plan to eliminate normative grading could solve this problem by decreasing competition between students. 


The Psychology Subteam Explored the Role of Grades on Motivation and Mental Health

Members of the psychology subteam presented information suggesting that grades largely foster extrinsic motivation in students, and a lack of intrinsic motivation results in students taking “a path of least resistance,” where they put in minimal effort to earn grades rather than learn material. The psychology subteam also presented data on student mental health, finding that rates of anxiety, depression, and panic attacks have been increasing over the past decade. Among the causes of the worsening student mental health are competition, socioeconomic statuses, and grades. The reform team argued that these findings suggest the current grading system presents enough issues to student well-being to warrant a complete overhaul. However, the refine team argued that one of the major causes of deteriorating student mental health is competition, and this issue could be solved by banning normative grading. 


The Equity & Ethics Subteam Discussed the Role of Disparities and Biases in Grading

The equity and ethics subteam found data that suggests there are disparities in student performance when considering race, as white students tended to have higher GPAs and graduation rates than hispanic and black students. A potential cause of these disparities is implicit bias instructors, as research shows that race, attractiveness, gender, and previous performance can all affect the way instructors evaluate their students. To solve these issues, universities have tried blind grading and peer/self assessment, but these both have their limitations, as not all assignments can be graded blindly (ex. presentations) and peer/self assessment can be affected by other biases. A member of the jury asked if the disparity in grading could be the result of students of certain races having a greater/lesser amount of outside of school activities, such as work and family commitments and if it is ethical to consider these when grading students. The science team member stated that these factors could be at play, but they do not have evidence to support it. Overall, the reform team argued that this evidence suggests that blind grading could be an effective method for student grading, while the refine team stated that implicit bias training for instructors could solve some of these issues. 


The Economics & Policy Subteam Discussed the Practicality and Implications of a Change

The economics and policy subteam members discussed the numerous steps that must be taken in order to gain Senate approval of a new grading policy before submitting to the Board of Regents, who would likely respond with potential barriers to implementing such a change. One of these barriers would be the reputation of the University of Minnesota, but when evaluating the national rankings of universities that use alternative grading systems, it is unlikely that a change would affect the prestige of the university. They also considered how employers and graduate schools would consider grading that is not based on GPA. They found that GPA is not always highly valued by these parties, as a holistic approach is considered to predict the success of candidates. A member of the jury asked how candidates whose grades are measured with an alternative system are evaluated by candidates. The economics and policy member answered that employers and graduate schools have developed systems for evaluating their candidates, where the grading system does not have to be directly comparable between candidates. Both the refine and reform teams argued that the other side is unsure of the costs associated with implementing their plans. The refine team stated however that it is important to maintain a GPA system for external organizations to evaluate UMN students, while the reform team argued that their proposed grading system has not led to issues for candidates that attend universities which use it.  


The Jury was in Favor of Most of the Proposals

While the jury ultimately was in favor of the refine proposal, members felt that both sides presented ideas that they were strongly in favor of. Other than the reform team’s proposal to implement the “high pass, low pass, etc.” approach, the jury was strongly in favor of their other proposals, blind grading, rubrics, and allowing students to retake failed classes. Thus, they ultimately decided in favor of the refine team’s proposal, although they were not strongly in favor of increasing funding for implicit bias training, arguing that a more meaningful change to racial bias would come from more diversity among faculty and the student body. Therefore, the jury proposed an alternative plan in which blind grading, rubrics, allowing for retaking failed courses, increasing the number of pass/fail credits, and the removal of normative grading would be implemented in a new grading system.