Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The GPA Shuffle

An occasional correspondent dropped a line to ask about students who switch majors specifically to get certain courses dropped from their GPAs. At my cc, students have to get signatures from both faculty advisors and deans if they want to switch majors, so I see a lot of these.

Although it’s annoying when students are brazen about gaming the system, I’ll admit to some sympathy for the kid who switches from Nursing to Early Childhood when she realizes that the lab sciences are beyond her. Last year I wrote about a student I had advised, whom I called Otto, who had bombed badly in several semesters of Criminal Justice classes. When he got to me, I asked him why he kept doing badly, and he responded “I hate that shit.” So I asked him what he liked, which turned out to be psychology. When I asked why he kept majoring in CJ, he got that blank look that students sometimes get when they just plain hadn’t thought of that. The fact that he was able to get a fresh start when he switched struck me as reasonable.

(As it happened, he did relatively well after that, and eventually graduated and transferred.)

I’m as much of a stickler for academic integrity as anybody else, but I’ll also admit that part of the mission of a cc is to provide second (and third, and fourth) chances. Sometimes an 18-year-old will guess wrong, when it comes time to pick a major. Allowing that student to wipe the slate clean and start over again with newly earned grades seems fair to me.

Where it gets frustrating is with majors that are right next door to each other, in curricular terms, and the kid is just trying to dodge a requirement. But it’s tough to have a consistent rule on that, and a certain amount of gaming is inherent to any system. So I’ll admit that this particular shuffle bothers me less than many others.

What do you think?

I like the idea of students being able to drop courses if they switch majors. We don't do that where I work -- the courses stay on your transcript no matter what ....
Making mistakes is natural and correcting them is a good step. If students realize that they would be better at some other subject, they should change! I have no problem with dropping the bad grades, if they are in a subject not reqired by the new major.
I've never heard of this practice before; the closest I've heard is something like grade forgiveness for someone who's been out for a while and comes back (fails out, then decides to come back in five years; forgive the old grades, and they're mature enough to do well).

Do all grades for a student get dropped, or only the bad ones?

Do the classes get dropped from the transcript, or just from figuring the GPA?

How do the schools students transfer into think about this practice? Do they offer a similar policy?
Bardiac -- we also have a practice for students who've been out for many years, whereby every course is wiped out and they can start fresh. This is different; a continuing student can change majors, and any courses that don't count in the new major get dropped. (Courses like Comp 1 carry over.)

We've been doing this for years, and I haven't heard any complaints from the four-year schools. I don't know if that's because they don't mind, they don't know, or they already correct for it.
Skipping the notion (odd, it seems to me) of dropping grades from the transcript by switching majors...

I have often been surprised when I hear people put down one discipline as "easy" or "less rigorous" when compared to their own. In my experience this has come from the Engineering side of the house, and aimed at the Business/Lib Arts/Mgmt side, but that is because of my associations.

What I found enlightening was a conversation I had with with two different engineers. One dismissed the Lib Arts saying it is what they took to "raise their GPA." Another countered with "Why would you do that? Those fuzzy courses were far too difficult."

Aha, I thought! It really is about aptitude! So the question I had was then this--if you find one area "easy" and another "hard" why do you stick with the area that is "hard?" Don't just naturally assume that it implies something about the discipline--look inside yourself first, and decide if it might, just possibly, mean that your aptitude and your heart are in two different places.

Many political scientists cannot handle advanced differential calculus, but then again, many engineers cannot appreciate the nuanced language of diplomacy. Does this make one more difficult than the other? At a personal level, of course it does, but it shouldn't be elevated then to a sense that one is thus "better" than the other--except for in your own situation.
The Professor raises a valid point, though I'd take it in a different direction. I fully agree that different people have different aptitudes, and that my particular mix of skills and blind spots predisposed me to one set of disciplines as opposed to others. No argument there.

I've long wondered, though, at the tension between wanting students to learn, and wanting students to excel. There are valid educational reasons for taking courses outside of your own comfort zone. Although I'll never be an engineer or an artist, a little exposure to each probably improved (ever so slightly) my mental acuity overall. This is a variation on the argument for general education.

The catch is that we base awards, scholarships, and admission to advanced programs on GPAs, which is to say, on risk aversion. Students can maximize their GPAs by taking a narrow mix of courses, and never venturing outside the tried and true. This strikes me as dangerous. Yes, we want people to excel in their chosen fields, but there should be some room for belly-flops in other areas, just to stretch the brain.

As an instructor, I recall consistently seeing two kinds of 'A' students: the passionate and gifted kind, and the dutiful kind. Hooray for the first, but I've long wondered about the second. I can respect the work ethic involved, but what are we really teaching? Should we really reward the dutiful grind over the venturesome kid who takes some risks, and gets a smattering of less-than-As by taking courses outside her comfort zone?
Well, I changed majors twice (geophysics to interdisciplinary engineering to history) so I have a certain sympathy with the students here. If it takes some time to find where your aptitude and passion lies, why not be able to switch?

And in the case of dropping courses from my transcript, I was only able to do that when I had exceeded the total number of courses required for my degree and they were all courses that I know other historians weren't interested in (things like optical mineralogy and mechanical engineering).

So, honestly, as a graduate program coordinator, I wouldn't blink an eye if I saw a student who'd switched from another major into my field and dropped some old courses along the way -- if those courses don't count for the degree we're assessing, they really don't speak much to the particular capacity we're interested in, now, do they?
Dean Dad: in order to encourage broadening risk-taking in course selection, Dartmouth had a grading option called "non-recording option." If you took a class NRO, you filled out a card with the lowest grade that you would accept on your transcript. If you got that grade or higher, then the earned letter grade would appear on the transcript. If you scored lower than your chosen threshhold but still passed, then you got an "NR" (like a "Pass"). If you got an F, well, then you got an F.
I think that it isn't a particularly bad idea, if it's done in good faith. One of the things I loved about my transfer institution was that, although one needed a certain GPA to transfer in, only the units were transferred and you started with a brand-new GPA.

But here's where I see a problem with what you are suggesting: first, how do you know that the student really didn't just flake, unless the instructor who taught the course was there? Adjuncts make it easy for students to wait a quarter or two and then claim all kinds of things. Second, as others have mentioned, there's an aptitude thing. If a class isn't for you, you should really drop it and get into something else. I understand that that is not always possible, but ... Finally, where do you draw the line between the deserving and the undeserving?

I fully sympathise with your motives. And I just got back from an evening advising session, so I may be a little cranky -- I had to tell a very nice HS senior and her mother that, if the placement scores from two CCs (same test) said the student's reading and writing were at a level so low that she is ineligible to take anything but the most remedial (as in, not part of the sequence -- a native speaker who tested at ESL level) Basic English class, there was a good chance she needed further placement testing and she should absolutely not jump into a schedule of Social Science and Humanities courses. The student will, and will be dismally lost, and may drop out. There are no prereqs because we are in a very scary enrollment crunch. I can see her needing your help.
While it's true that people's aptitutes vary, there are other reasons than personal opinion to support the case for the sciences and engineering fields being more difficult on average than business or the humanities. One such fact is the much larger amount of time spent by science and engineering students working on their classes. You could attempt to argue that science/engineering students need to work harder because they're not as smart as humanities and business students, but the higher high school GPAs and average SAT and GRE scores of science/engineering students counter that argument.
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