The Pluses and Minuses of Westminster’s Grading System
BY JIM MALVEN
As finals week quickly approaches, grades are on every student’s mind, and for many students, so is the college’s plus/minus grading system, which more than three quarters of students surveyed oppose.
In a sample of 100 students, 77 percent indicated that they oppose the plus/minus system, and 62 percent said it has had a negative impact on their GPA.
“Last year, I would have had a 3.8 GPA if it was a normal grading scale,” Tom Hood, ’18, said. “Instead, I ended up getting a 3.5, so instead of being on the Dean’s List, I did not make the Dean’s List, which kind of aggravated me a little bit.”
Only two respondents said the current grading system has helped their GPA, and 36 reported that it has had a mixed impact.
“If you’re on the minus end, it really hurts you GPA-wise,” Sydney Sexton, ’18, said. “Over the summer, I took a course, and I got a B-, and it was really frustrating because a B- is like a 2.7 … so that can really hurt you.”
Approved in the spring of 2013 and implemented in the fall of 2014, Westminster’s plus/minus system differentiates between percentages within individual letter grades, as a plus earns more quality points than an unmarked letter, and an unmarked letter earns more points than a minus.
As stated in Westminster’s academic policies, unmarked letters receive the same amount of points as in a traditional system, while pluses are .3 points higher and minuses are .3 points lower. How percentages correspond to pluses and minuses is left under the jurisdiction of each professor.
Many students who oppose the plus/minus system do so because there is no A+ on the scale.
“I think [having an A+ grade] would help out a lot with incentive to get a better grade,” Hood said. “If you have one class that is a little more rigorous on you and maybe it’s not toward your major, and then you have another class that is toward your major, [getting an A+ in that class] will even out the tipping scale.”
Sexton agreed: “I do think that if you have a plus/minus system, you should have an A+ option because you have a plus for everything else,” she said.
Assistant Dean of Faculty and Professor of Psychology Dr. David Jones said there is no F+ either. He said students may not be aware of this because not many fall into what would be the F range, but having an F+ would definitely boost some GPA’s.
He also said that part of the rationale behind having no A+ in the scale was to be consistent with similar institutions.
Many students were unfamiliar with the plus/minus system before the switch or before they came to Westminster. Only 20 out of the 100 students surveyed said their former school used the same system.
Students worried that the plus/minus system could be harmful when applying for jobs because they believe it is not a widely practiced grading scale. Some students believe that employers will not consider the minus aspect and take GPAs at face value.
“If a business looks at you, they’re not going to check and see what kind of grading scale your college or institution has,” Hood said. “They’re just going to look straight at the GPA, and then they’re going to go on to the next applicant.”
Sexton also said she thought the plus/minus system could potentially have a negative effect when applying for jobs.
“Your GPA really defines a lot — like will you get this job?” Sexton said. “Maybe, maybe not, depending on your GPA … and I think the plus/minus system only makes you look bad.”
“I think there’s a big difference between how people view a 4.0 and how people view a [3.7],” she added, referring to the GPA for students with an A- average.”
While students do not like the harmful minus aspect of the system, they do see the benefit in the opportunity to earn pluses.
“My first semester of freshman year, I got a B+ in calculus, and that was the happiest day of my life,” Sexton said. “That’s where the plus system helped me, because a B+ is obviously a lot better than a B, and [calculus] was five credit hours, so a [3.3] helped me a lot more than a 3.0 would have.”
The primary motive the administration had for establishing the plus/minus system was to clearly separate students according to GPA. In a standard four-point system, a 3.0 GPA could represent either a straight B+ or a straight B- student. A plus/minus system differentiates between the student close to an A- and the student close to a C+.
“The faculty wanted a system that more fairly measured student grades,” Dr. Jones said. “For example, students who had a class average of 89.9 percent were sometimes getting the same B that a student with an 80 percent was getting, which the faculty felt did not accurately capture the difference in performance between the two students.”
Sexton said she could see this as a “good part” of the system.
“The freshman honor society, Alpha Lambda Delta, before our grade, they didn’t have the plus/minus system, and so, they had a lot of people with ties [in terms of] who was considered [in] the top 10 percent of the class,” she said. “But now, since we have plus/minus, there’s an easier line to draw, because there’s such a variance in GPA now.”