Academic Oversight & Weighted Grading

Jonah Mayer

Anyone who tells you that lower average GPAs doesn’t matter is lying. In fact, a recent study by PLOS One found that a higher GPA, as well as attending a school with a high average GPA, provided a considerable boost to those applying for an MBA. It is not surprising then, that a GPA (one of the most valued variables on an application) is influential. In an American system where schools like Yale give 62% of the population A’s (2012), and inflated grades continue to rise, it seems foolish that a school would restrict or depress their average grades. Even worse would be a school without a system for generating grade equity between those classes with easier or tougher graders. This school does exist, and it is John Cabot University.

Now JCU may argue that, “if everyone gets an A, then what value do they have?” But if students are suffering real harm for a variable that is weakly correlated to academic success, the university is not doing anyone a service. This is coupled with no system for evening out the effects of excessively tough graders, giving grades little objective value. Low average grades and tough grading is encouraged by John Cabot’s academic policy. The policy recognizes a “C” as “satisfactory” meaning that teachers must break this policy to have internationally competitive grades. It is questionable if the university even believes that a “C” is satisfactory as several courses require a “C-” to proceed. Slightly less than satisfactory is hardly failing.

Despite this issue, a survey conducted of over 20 random JCU students on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being very dissatisfied and 5 being very satisfied), averaged a 2.89 in terms of concern about lower average grades at JCU. While showing a moderate amount of concern, the lack of anxiety could be linked to a lack of experience with the American grading system. This is substantiated by the fact that study-abroad students averaged about a 4, over a point higher than degree-seekers.

While lower grades hit students hard after they leave JCU, the system for academic complaints is corrosive to the entire learning process. Polling regarding “filing complaints and general oversight” was incomplete as one in three reported not knowing enough to grade the system. The majority of others reported high degrees of uncertainty. Students rated JCU’s effort to inform them on the system for filing complaints as a meager 1.7 out of 5, with all but two students reporting a 1 or 2. The most troubling was the indication that the system makes students feel that JCU doesn’t care about their feedback. This was confirmed when students were asked about their level of confidence that anything would be done about their complaints. Students averaged a 2 out of 5, and those who had previously made complaints uniformly gave 1’s, making it clear that the system does not encourage feedback.

This reality is a blow to hard-working students. With a deeply flawed system for filing complaints, students must go through an arduous process of appeals before reaching the academic council. One student claimed that after confronting her teacher over a grade, she was told that she could appeal, but that it was a waste of time, given that she was more likely to receive a lower grade and the exam would be looked at by the teachers’ peers.

Given that the administration is short on hard-and-fast criteria in the “academic complaints” code, students without a case evidencing blatant misconduct are unlikely to see results.

While the basic structure of the system is flawed, in practice it also relies on a select few to oversee their peers, some of whom have demonstrated a lack of concern for academic complaints. Exacerbating the peer-to-peer system of oversight, JCU allows deans and the president to teach classes. In cases of dispute, department chairs are expected to act for their superiors. This puts department chairs in a precarious situation, and while not inherently undermining their judgement, it seriously complicates the ability to be objective.

With confidence in administrative action so low, and reports of a hostile process, students will not complain and bad teachers will remain. If JCU cares about student feedback, they will devise a system that doesn’t put students on trial for the simple request of equal grading for equal work. Moreover, it will be one in which students feel that their voices have value.


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