What makes an A? Grading patterns vary widely across campus

Features

Grading at UVic differs between departments, making comparison for scholarships and grad school difficult

Grading Photo
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Since 2012, close to 45 per cent of course grades at UVic have been an A- or higher. Even though the university says A grades are “normally achieved by a minority of students,” over half of grades for many departments are an A- or above.

The 45 per cent, while striking, is only the edge of a very complex picture. Though UVic’s grades have increased somewhat over time, its average grades aren’t that different from those at other post-secondary institutions. However, the Martlet’s investigation into grading at the university revealed tremendous variation between departments — but also that grading is understood very differently across academic disciplines.

While these different understandings might not matter much when students are being compared to others who study the same subject, comparisons across disciplines are messier. Students from departments that give out higher grades disproportionately receive university-wide, grades-based scholarships. They also have an advantage when it comes to those all-important grad school applications. 

Grades across the university

The 45 per cent figure above represents the entire undergraduate student population. But the proportion of grades that are an A- or higher ranges from just over a quarter in some disciplines to almost three quarters in others. 

For example, in 2018-19, 71.2 per cent of grades in the music department were an A- or above. In sociology, that number was 30.1 per cent. Grades in the C or D range vary just as much. In the school of nursing, 1.8 per cent of grades fell in this range, compared to 34.2 per cent in chemistry.

The mean percentage grade across the university was 75.2 in 2018-19. In general, grades are higher in upper-level classes.

Chart by Mary Heeg. “F” on this chart includes the grades F (fail), E (supplemental examination), and N (incomplete).

Grades were higher in the 2019-2020 school year because UVic allowed students to opt for their transcript to display “pass” or “fail” instead of a grade. Many lower grades would have been shown as a pass or fail and are not included in grading statistics. As a result, the proportion of grades that were A-, A, or A+ higher than usual at 51.3 per cent. 

In general, UVic students are getting higher grades over time. UVic’s average grade point has risen from 5.25 in 1997-98 to 5.54 in 2018-19 on the nine-point scale. The most striking change is that the proportion of grades that are an A+ — it has doubled since the late 1990s. 

Chart by Mary Heeg. No data was available for 2007-08.

According to instructors, reasons for increased grades over time may include a greater proportion of more experienced students enrolling in university and improvements in curricula and teaching.

Variation aside, UVic is not an outlier when compared to other post-secondary institutions. Roughly 40 per cent of Vancouver Island University’s grades in fall 2018 were an A- or higher. Simon Fraser University’s average grade point was 3.02 out of 4.33, which equates to a B or 5.00 on UVic’s scale and is similar to UVic’s 75.2 per cent mean. 

Despite increases over time and variation between departments, UVic does not appear to be an outlier, or experiencing extreme grade inflation. Explaining grading statistics, therefore, requires looking at what a grade means in a given department.

What does it take to earn an A?

Students are well aware that grading varies across the university. Type “UVic easy A classes” into your favourite search engine and you’ll be inundated with results. One of the classes that comes up frequently in these recommendations is GRS 200, Greek and Roman Mythology. So, are the students right?

“Frankly, it is an easy A,” said the course’s current instructor, Laurel Bowman, with a laugh. “But it’s not an easy A because it’s marked easily. It’s an easy A because the subject matter is engaging.”

Bowman, who is an associate professor of Greek and Roman studies, says the course has somewhat higher grades because students often have some knowledge of the material already and myths are easy to remember. For students who put in the work and have writing skills, she says it’s fairly easy to do well. Bowman has tried to make it harder, but says she can’t do much without making it a third-year course.

The Department of Greek and Roman Studies has higher grades overall. In 2018-19, 53.8 per cent of the department’s grades were an A- or higher. A+’s amounted to another 17 per cent. 

Bowman says that some of this can be attributed to GRS 200, which is a large class. However, she also notes that students who pursue Greek and Roman studies tend to be very talented and passionate, since the discipline has little commercial application.

Greek and Roman studies isn’t the only department that gives more than half A grades. In 2018-19, over 50 per cent of grades issued by the Faculty of Engineering were an A- or higher. Seventeen per cent were an A+. 

These statistics don’t surprise the faculty’s acting associate dean of undergraduate programs, Jens Weber. Weber says one of the reasons engineering has higher grades may be that it admits high-achieving students. He also notes that engineering is black and white so it is possible for students to get everything right on a test. 

“The grading that we do is a bit objective in the sense that if you have all the solutions to certain answers right, then you’re getting 100 per cent,” said Weber. 

In other disciplines, the right answer is often more ambiguous. Writing-based disciplines are less likely to give out A+ grades. 

As a result, writing-based disciplines often see a lower proportion of high grades, but more students grouped in the B range. In 2018-19, just over a quarter of grades in the political science department were an A- or higher, with 43.8 per cent between a B- and B+. The English department saw 46.6 per cent of grades in the B range and 32.5 in the A range — with only 2.6 per cent of those A grades an A+.

“I think I may have given 100 [once],” said Michael Nowlin, chair of the English department. “There was a student that I had years back that was considered extraordinary.” 

The highest mark that Nowlin usually gives on a paper is 95 per cent, and these are few and far between. Nowlin says the lower numbers of top grades in writing-based disciplines has some basis in the idea that there may be no such thing as a perfect essay. More than that, however, writing essays well is challenging.

“Many students just aren’t working at an A-level as writers,” Nowlin said.

Grading guidance and faculty autonomy

Despite the variation, grading at UVic isn’t happening in a vacuum. The university publishes descriptions of what each group of letter grades means in the academic calendar. For example, A-level work should be “technically superior” and “show mastery of the subject matter,” B grades “indicate a good comprehension of the course material,” and C grades mean “adequate comprehension.”

Though the calendar prohibits adjusting class grades to a bell curve, the university says that A-range grades are generally achieved by less than half of students. 

Chart by Mary Heeg.

Nowlin says that when he sat on the Senate Committee on Academic Standards, the phrase about A grades making up less than half of grades was often subject to contention. It’s clear why: in 2018-19, four of the eight faculties that teach undergrads issued more than 50 per cent of their grades as an A- or higher. 

Despite general guidance from the university, academic departments often prize their autonomy over grading. According to Elisabeth Gugl, treasurer of the Faculty Association and associate chair of economics, part of the Faculty Association’s role is to protect this.

“What is important for us, is that, in general, with a lot of policies, there’s a lot of unit autonomy,” said Gugl. “I think the Faculty Association would say if [economics] wants to be more stingy with the As, that’s their problem.”

The grading data that appear in this article come from reports prepared by the Office of Institutional Analysis and Planning. The reports are submitted to the Senate Committee on Academic Standards for discussion. Neil Burford, a chemistry professor and the committee’s chair, says the purpose of the report is to ensure that averages are consistent over time. He cautions against making comparisons between disciplines.

“I wouldn’t compare the number between disciplines as a comparison of standards, because, you know, over decades of academic activities, different disciplines will have different grading averages,” said Burford.

Even if senate grading reports aren’t used to compare students of different disciplines, grades certainly are. For students seeking scholarships and grad school admissions, different grading patterns in different disciplines may have an impact.

Departments vary on A grades, and scholarship cash

The President’s Scholarship is the largest grades-based, university-wide scholarship for current students. In 2020-21, $600 953 was awarded to 259 students through this scholarship. 

Each year, Student Awards and Financial Aid (SAFA) divides the money allotted to the President’s Scholarship between each faculty proportional to the number of students in that faculty. This means that faculties with higher grades will not disproportionately receive scholarship money.

However, SAFA does not account for grading differences between departments. Once they have divided President’s Scholarship money equally between faculties, the scholarships are awarded to the students in the faculty with the highest GPAs. 

Lori Nolt, director of SAFA, says that the scholarship money is awarded by going down a descending list of students’ grades. They go down the list of students, organized from highest GPA to lowest, and distribute the awards until all of the money is given out. Students from departments with higher grades are more likely to be near the top of this list.

SAFA’s reporting does not capture what proportion of the President’s Scholarships go to each department. However, the Faculty of Social Sciences’s Rising Stars showcase provides a partial indication of what departments within the faculty President’s Scholarships are going to. Rising Stars lists the scholarships received by social sciences awards winners who opt to be included in the presentation. In the last eight years, 50 per cent of the President’s Scholarship recipients listed in the Rising Stars presentation were psychology students. 

UVic does not provide enrollment data on how many students are in each department. However, the ‘headcount’ figure in the grading reports indicates the number of grades given out by departments. This provides a rough indication of a department’s student population. By headcount, psychology grades are roughly 30 per cent of social sciences grades. Psychology also assigns the highest proportion of A+ grades within the faculty. 

In contrast, political science gives out the lowest percentage of A+ grades in the faculty. By headcount, political science composes 9.4 per cent of the faculty but just 4.1 per cent of the President’s Scholarships included in Rising Stars. 

In other words, students in departments with greater numbers of high grades are generally more likely to receive grades-based, university-wide scholarships. These are only one set of scholarships available — departments have their own awards and some university-wide scholarships look at more than GPA — but it still puts students from certain departments at an advantage.

Nolt says that SAFA has not been approached by departments about how they allot  scholarships. 

For university-wide graduate scholarships, Nowlin, who previously sat on the awards committee, notes that differences in grading are largely resolved by having representatives of different disciplines on committees, where they can provide context for students’ GPAs.

Grad school admissions

Many students are familiar with the adage, ‘Cs get degrees.’ But, for those who want to attend grad school, Cs often don’t cut it. Regardless of the institution or program, your GPA could make or break your grad school admission. 

In many cases, students are competing for grad school spots against students from their own discipline. Someone applying for an MSc in chemistry is probably facing mostly other BSc chemistry students, or at least other science students.

However, for graduate programs that receive applications from a wide range of undergraduate disciplines, students may be coming from departments with very different approaches to grading.

UVic’s Island medical program, master’s of business administration, and law school do not assess undergraduate GPAs differently based on grading distributions of different departments, though many of them consider factors other than grades for admission. UVic’s master’s of public administration program is relatively unique in that it will make distinctions between undergraduate GPAs from different programs.

“We often have students moving over from STEM fields where achieving a B average is no small accomplishment,” said Jill Anne Chouinard, graduate advisor in the school of public administration, in an email to the Martlet. “A similar challenge comes when reviewing law school grades or grades from the UK, Australia, or other countries where a B+ is a very strong upper grade.”

So, grades matter, and grades are given out differently in different departments. For a student applying to law school, med school, or other programs that draw students from a variety of undergrad programs, coming from a discipline where a majority of grades are above an A- can help. 

However, Gugl cautions that being from a department with higher grades is not necessarily an advantage. Having grades concentrated in the A-range communicates less information about how students stack up against their peers.

Despite the different understandings of grading in different academic disciplines, it’s hard — and maybe not possible — to avoid comparing students’ grades. When this occurs, differences in grading between departments at the university matters. 

When thinking about how to make comparisons, it’s easy to forget that grades have another purpose: to give students feedback. Even though comparing students might be necessary, Nowlin warns against losing sight of this other purpose.

“More and more, I’m starting to think I’m not sure why we have grades … well, I know why we have them, but I think we might have them for the wrong reason,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s always helping the student learn.”