For the past several years, Colby’s Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) has been analyzing grading policies. In 2018, they released a report detailing the College’s general grading trends as well as departmental and program trends between 2001 and 2015.
According to these statistics, there was an 11% increase in the number of A’s given between 2001 and 2015, while the percentage of A+’s has remained the same.
Sophie Xu `24 feels that this statistic accurately reflects her experience.
“If you have enough practice, you are able to get a grade generally [in the range of] A and B, while A+ is very rare,” Xu said.
Data reported by the AAC document demonstrates an uneven distribution of grades across different departments and programs. Excluding independent studies, honors research projects, and internships – all of which do not usually use letter grading – the AAC grouped different majors into four categories: Natural Sciences (N), Social Sciences (S), Interdisciplinary Studies (I), and Humanities (H).
Comparatively, natural science majors have the lowest scoring, while interdisciplinary studies majors have the highest scoring with over 50% of grades awarded being A’s.
Though the AAC revealed that there are inequities in the evaluation standard when considering disparities in grading between different academic departments and programs, some students are not concerned with the issue and tend to agree with current grading patterns.
Among these students are some that believe different subjects may be particularly accessible to certain people.
“[Though] I have heard some people mentioning that biology or chemistry is harder [compared to other disciplines], I think courses [in these departments] are easier and more friendly for me than those in other programs such as humanities,” Xu, who is a double major in Chemistry and Molecular Biology, explained.
Other students, however, did not share Xu’s experience.
“In the STEM departments it’s hard to get an A,” an anonymous student said. “My Anthropology major GPA is more than a full point higher than my Biology major GPA.”
Further, students tend to agree that it can be difficult to make interdisciplinary comparisons of difficulty.
“It is hard to access skills across different disciplines considering their distinct natures,” Laney Bagwell `25 said. “Also, if you do get a lower GPA because you have a ‘hard’ major such as Chemistry, when you are looking for job opportunities, employers usually are aware of this issue.”
Bagwell explained that Colby’s liberal arts education provides students with the freedom to take courses in a wide range of disciplines, all of which factor into cumulative GPA. This freedom also allows students to create a schedule they feel is balanced.
Nevertheless, Natural Sciences courses that include lab components do sometimes require more work compared to other four credit courses.
Xu commented that although the overall workload in non-lab and lab courses is about the same, more in-person class time is sometimes required of students in labs.
In 2018, the AAC proposed adopting clearer standards in grading guidelines.
Students generally find that their current academic experiences may not require this adjustment as they are generally satisfied with the guidelines.
“For most of the classes I have taken, the grading standards are very clear,” Xu said. “Like what percentages of each exam or assignment contribute to the total score, and the expectation of the instructor.”
“I think that like most of the professors I have had have been really clear about what their expectations were,” Bagwell agreed. “It has always just kind of been an open-door policy as well. If you didn’t understand a certain grade or a certain assignment, you could always go to their office hours and talk about your concerns with them.”
~ Kristen Shen ‘25