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Shadow grading fosters engagement instead of grades


Several colleges throughout the country, most recently Wellesley College in Massachusetts, are foregoing the traditional letter grade scale for incoming students in favor of a new way to gauge performance.

This fall, Wellesley College will experiment with a progressive new system allowing professors and students to know a student’s letter grade at all times throughout their first semester without actual grades appearing on the students’ transcripts. The new policy, coined shadow grading, permits a letter grade of a D or above to become a P for pass on the transcript, whereas an F is shown as NP for no pass and does not affect a student’s GPA.

While opponents of shadow grading believe it lessens students’ motivation to put work into a course, the reduced pressure to get an A actually allows students to accustom themselves to the expectations and demands of their coursework.

Implementing the shadow grading policy also allows students to try more challenging coursework and gives them the opportunity to explore other interests without fear of academic penalty, which is what the system intends.

Another major concern regarding the policy is whether or not shadow grading will reflect a student’s ability and qualifications when applying for jobs and graduate programs. However, Wellesley College intends to provide a formal explanation of the policy for schools and employers and will allow students to disclose their shadow grades.

Lee Cuba, a sociology professor and former dean of Wellesley College who spearheaded the policy at Wellesley, told Wellesley News the change accommodates for the difference in quality of incoming students’ high school education.

From a study of students at liberal arts colleges, Cuba and other researchers determined students preoccupied with grades are less likely to see the importance of engagement than those who don’t.

Universities such as Swarthmore College, MIT, and Johns Hopkins University, among others, already practice shadow grading and provide students with knowledge-based education.

For students pursuing fields such as engineering and medicine, a shadow period of one or two semesters at the beginning of a degree program would allow them to evaluate the amount of work expected in each course in order to be successful before their GPA is subject to a letter-grading scale.

Granting a shadow period to these more demanding degree programs at USF could motivate students to grasp information and build knowledge over time, as opposed to momentarily retaining the information just for the grade. USF currently implements a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading system, but, unlike the new shadow grading system, USF students cannot opt to use it for required courses within their majors.

Though the shadow grading at Wellesley is only a four-year experiment and it’s possible the college’s Academic Council will vote not to keep it, the policy will provide students with the ability to seek a holistic education based on knowledge and experience without the peril of obtaining the almighty A.


Brandon Shaik is a senior majoring in psychology.