Grading system places burden of stress on CMU students

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective.

When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon one year ago for my Masters, I knew that the school would be different than my French undergrad. And indeed, as I discovered its quirks and customs, I began to blend into its environment and assimilate its culture. Nevertheless, a number of things still surprise me here, and I wanted to bring into this column an outsider’s perspective that will hopefully highlight a different way of solving Carnegie Mellon’s problems.

To begin, I would like to discuss the university’s grading policy, at least in the computer science department, which is the one I know the most. I am still impressed by the level of excellence that is expected of the students, especially with the “assignments are 50 percent of the grade” policy that really emphasizes a practical knowledge that is complementary to the theory. But while I was struggling, like everyone else, to complete all my assignments and projects, I realized something else about the grading policy: it does not reward those who are able to quickly acquire new knowledge and apply it, but rather those who are able to spend the most time completing tasks to avoid making any mistakes.

This article is not a rant about the courses’ difficulty; it is precisely the difficulty that makes a Carnegie Mellon education so valuable. Rather, what I am trying to convey is that having a high 70/80/90 percent grade cutoff with expected-to-be-completed assignments and close-to-lecture exams incentivizes the students to adopt a harmful behavior due to increased stress. To better explain it, let us suppose that for some reason, you fail a typical assignment worth 12 percent of your total grade and score 45 percent on it. Then, you know that you have lost 6.6 percent of your total grade, and coming back to a 70 percent average necessitates that you score a 95 percent on the next assignment.
This example shows that one temporary weakness during the semester can actually be disastrous for students, especially given what retaking a class entails. Repaying thousands of dollars for educational material you have already seen, and maybe even postponing your expected graduation, can have huge consequences for your future. Given that, it is no wonder why the stress culture at Carnegie Mellon exists.

Some might say that it is the price to pay for excellence. To those, I would argue that there is a balance to be found. From my experience, I might have some clues on how to tweak the grading system to reduce the level of stress it applies on students while expecting the same excellence. The first proposition would be to lower the grade cutoff to something like 50/75/90 percent, to reduce the impact of a single failure over the semester. However, to keep the same level of difficulty, assignments and exams should be designed a little bit differently: the first half of the points should be winnable with a basic understanding of the course’s concepts, and the latter half would require students to dev-elop more complex reasoning without the lecture material’s help.

I know this design is very difficult to implement, especially for programming assignments whose completion status is more binary: either the implementation is correct, or there is still a bug to fix. I also know that most professors and teaching assistants work hard to ensure the fairness of the grading. But what I propose is, I think, a change in philosophy of how assignments and exams are designed: instead of making all problems solvable by everybody in infinite time, make one part of it easier and another part more challenging, with a more pronounced difficulty gradient.

My second proposition is something that is mundane in France but apparently disruptive here. Everyone knows how easy it is to fail an exam: lack of sleep, temporary indisposition, anxiety attack during exam time. That is why in France and other countries, students are guaranteed another chance. When your total grade is below C, you can re-take the final exam for free in hopes of getting a higher grade. If you succeed, you can improve your final course grade and get a C without taking the course again. The second wave of exams is usually organized once or twice a year, during the vacations just before the semester begins.

Rattrapages, as they’re called, are so common that some students (especially those who work part-time during their studies) don’t even come to the first series of exams because they know they won’t be able to study everything in time. Without going to such extremes, the possibility of re-taking an exam is a huge deal concerning stress: when you know you will have a second chance, anxiety is less likely to kick in and hinder you. This does not gives you a free you-passed-the-course ticket: it gives you more time and opportunity to show that you have acquired the required knowledge.

Obviously, this procedure would entail a financial loss for the university: fewer students retaking and paying for courses, plus the cost of organizing a second wave of exams. However, these additional funds could come from the last 3 percent undergraduate tuition increase, representing million dollars more per year. With these new ideas, I hope that Carnegie Mellon’s grading system would become a lesser factor in the stress burden shared by many students.