To Cover or Not to Cover First-Semester Grades

Students and administrators at Johns Hopkins University start to reconsider its policy of "covering" -- or not reporting -- how freshmen perform.
September 23, 2008

Something extraordinary is afoot at Johns Hopkins University: Administrators and students are thinking about scuttling the institution's longstanding pass/fail grading policy for first-semester freshmen.

"Covered" grades have been around at Hopkins since at least the early 1970s, and they were originally designed to ease the transition to what no one denies is a rigorous, challenging academic environment. Although the issue has periodically come up in discussions, some believe the debate has reached a turning point.

Some administrators worry that the pass/fail policy marks Hopkins as an institution for workaholic pre-meds (who might need the relief) and so discourages others. Meanwhile, officials as well as some students recognize that withholding grades for a semester can encourage bad study habits from the beginning, setting them up for a harder time later on.

"Part of [the policy's origin] was our own concern that Hopkins is a challenging place, and why would we add fuel to the fire? But the thinking that I share with many of my colleagues is that we’re actually making it worse, not better, and the reason for that is that it dumps the incentive system on its head, creating all kinds of collateral damage that was not really intended," said John Bader, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs. "The policy was meant to give students the chance to explore, look around, transition into a challenging academic environment, but if that were true, it doesn’t work. Students tend to overload on excessively difficult courses hoping to ‘get them out of the way,’ which is a phrase I detest...."

Historically, covered grades have been popular with students. But just last week, the campus newspaper, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, published an editorial endorsing a university proposal to end the policy. "[R]ather than allowing students to develop new study habits, covered grades largely encourage students to put in only the minimal effort necessary to pass. In some ways, covered grades extend high school by one more semester," the editorial said. "... Covered grades in the first semester only serve to postpone the inevitable wake-up call of college in the spring."

The paper also reported that campus tour guides were recently asked not to emphasize the policy to prospective students.

"Covered grades, undeniably, makes first semester ... more enjoyable and less stressful, which contributes to its popularity, especially with freshmen," said Alex Traum, one of the News-Letter's editors-in-chief, in an e-mail. "I would be hard pressed to remember a single occasion as a freshman when I heard someone complain about the policy. Despite its popularity, it is my personal opinion that the policy ultimately does students a disservice because it cannot properly teach them how to balance their academic, extracurricular, and social lives for the remainder of their tenure at Hopkins."

At the same time, Bader added, the policy punishes students who do make that extra effort in their first semester. Every year, he said, he invites students who received a 4.0 in their first semester -- the grades are recorded but do not appear on final transcripts -- to lunch. "You just did that without any reward, so I'm at least going to pay for your lunch," he said.

Moreover, Bader and other administrators worry about Hopkins' public perception. Only a handful of colleges across the country have a similar policy, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Swarthmore College. Bryn Mawr College rejected a similar idea in the past, but the idea has recurred since then.

"Our sort of public face is changing," Bader said. "We're trying to help the public understand ... to better appreciate the fact that Hopkins is a diverse and textured institution with strengths in English literature and architecture and philosophy, just as much as it's respected in the medical fields, and we're not some kind of academic boot camp. And the covered grades basically sends that signal. It sends to the outside world ... 'Watch out. This is a tough place.' I mean, it is a tough place, [but] it's not any more tough than our peer institutions....

"It sends this message, it wasn't intended to send this message but it does. We don't much care for that kind of thought. We’re a lot more like University of Chicago or Stanford than we are like Cal Tech and MIT, which are the only other universities with covered-grade policies. That’s not just a matter of branding, that’s a matter of reality."

At MIT, the grading policy was most recently changed in the 2002-2003 academic year from a full two semesters of "pass"/"no record" grading to a system with one semester of "pass"/"no record" followed by grades of A-C and "no record" for second-semester freshmen, according to Mary R. Callahan, the registrar. A five-year review by faculty this year concluded that the change was "positive" for freshmen, she said.

"From our viewpoint, we have always felt that this is obviously from MIT a demanding academic environment, and the grading scheme exists to sort of help the freshmen make a smooth transition from high school to MIT, to help reduce anxiety and pressure as freshmen often feel in their first year," she said.

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