Why doesn’t CMU have plus/minus grading?

Finals week is looming, and many students are stressing over their last shots at achieving the best possible grades. For students around the country, that might mean aiming to boost their scores by a few points to reach an A- or B+. However, Carnegie Mellon doesn’t offer those options: if you don’t earn an A, you wind up with a B, and if you can’t reach a B, you fall to a C.

In recent decades, several universities have switched to the plus/minus grading system, but Carnegie Mellon remains old school. While other universities have decided that a plus/minus system provides more accuracy in grading and increases motivation, a sentiment echoed by some Carnegie Mellon professors, some students here have a different take.

A survey conducted this Oct. by the Carnegie Mellon Undergraduate Student Senate revealed that 85 percent of students, worried about their QPA and graduate school futures, preferred their A/B/C system. The Senate voted 27-1 against endorsing a change. One Carnegie Mellon professor might have a solution that could give the university the pluses of a more precise system without the minuses.

Among the schools that have implemented the shift to a plus/minus system in the last decade is the University of Maryland. Elizabeth Jane Beise, Associate Provost for Academic Planning & Programs, said her school switched to plus/minus grading back in 2012 because “it provides a more nuanced evaluation” while, according to their investigation, having “very little impact on the overall GPA” across the student body.

Carnegie Mellon’s system has been in place for at least four decades, but Vice Provost of Education Amy Burkert told The Tartan that changing to plus/minus has been floated before, most recently in the 90s. No consensus was reached then for the undergraduate system, so a plus/minus approach was approved only for graduate students and midterm grades.

However, many Carnegie Mellon professors would welcome the switch. Assistant Professor of Teaching for Psychology, Kody Manke, emphasized that plus/minus systems provide more precise grades. “I think it’s suboptimal to have larger bins,” he said. “If you have any accuracy in your measurement instrument, it seems silly to just make it less accurate by blunting it.”

The current system essentially says, “the difference between a 79.6 and an 89.4 is less of a difference between an 89.4 and an 89.6,” said Manke. Instead, a plus/minus system would mean that “that consequence will be a third of a QPA point” difference rather than a whole point.

“Even though I try to be more precise with rubrics and numbers, when I come down to somebody right on the line, I feel like it’s very hard to know [what grade they deserve],” said John Soluri, Associate Professor in the Department of History.

History lecturer Mark Hauser, who graduated with a Ph.D. in History from Carnegie Mellon in the spring, said pluses and minuses act as “a motivational tool.” Currently a student with an 81 at midterm, which would be a B- under a different system, has little incentive to work harder as it’s likely they won’t exceed a B by semester’s end.

“If a student is able to see a more nuanced final grade it can be more rewarding for that student,” argued Hauser, and this means a plus/minus system “can inspire a student who might otherwise be reluctant to follow through on the final essays.”

David Kosbie, Associate Teaching Professor in the Computer Science Department, said the less exact grading “creates undue pressure on students.”

Many students, however, reject that argument, focusing instead on their desires for As over A-minuses. First-year Electrical and Computer Engineering major Arvin Wu said he prefers the current system “because it reduces the time students take to achieve perfect grades.” In a plus/minus system, Wu suggested, “students will have to put in more time and resources in studying when they have already nearly mastered the material” to get from an A- to an A+.

Added stress was a major reason listed by students in the Senate’s investigation into the plus/minus grading system. Student senator Teddy Warner, a junior majoring in chemistry, explained that in programs where QPA is crucial because you have to apply to graduate school, they’re aiming for an A, so they’d have to aim for a 94 instead of a 90 in a plus/minus system.

Burkert noted that the Provost’s Office is “open to further discussion and investigation on this matter.” One Carnegie Mellon professor has a compromise plan that could increase accuracy without disrupting the critical A-range. Mark Stehlik, Teaching Professor in the Computer Science Department, said that while he thinks “plus/minus grades are a good thing in the main” because of improved accuracy, he understands why students fret about losing out.

“The biggest sticking point for students is an A-,” he explained, “because A+’s at Carnegie Mellon would be rarer than hen’s teeth, so if you get an A- you have lost your potential 4.0 and it will never be reclaimed because you will not get a corresponding A+ to offset it.”

With this in mind, Stehlik is proposing a modified plus/minus system which will “not give plus and minus grades in the A range,” with the grades going A, then B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, and so on. This would prevent added stress for students aiming to maintain a 4.0 GPA while also giving a B+ student the grade they deserve and helping to motivate a B- student at midterm to put in the work to improve their grade.

“I respect the students’ angst in this space,” said Stehlik, referring to the concerns over stress, “But I also want to be respectful of faculty’s desire to be more accurate.”