From summer 2022 through spring 2023, 58.34% of course letter grades awarded were A’s, according to data obtained by the Nexus from the UC Santa Barbara Office of the Registrar via a Public Records Act Request.
The proportion of “A” grades had generally been increasing slightly from 2012 to 2019, but it rose by approximately nine percentage points during the 2019-20 school year — the spring of which was entirely remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The proportion has remained steady since.
This data — along with individual grades by course and instructor from the past 15 years obtained through prior requests — is published and visualized on the Daily Nexus Grades Search website.
The data provided by the UCSB Office of the Registrar represents the original grades awarded by the instructor for each course before pass/no pass (P/NP) or satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) conversions were accounted for. The P/NP and S/U grades included in the data are only from courses that do not award letter grades.
If a student chooses a P/NP or S/U grading option for a course with optional grading, instructors will assign pass grades for undergraduate coursework equivalent to a C or better, according to Academic Services’ Associate Registrar Sara Cook. Satisfactory grades will be assigned for graduate coursework equivalent to a B or better.
“For optionally graded courses, instructors do not know what grading option enrolled students have chosen. They assign a letter grade to all students and then the grade is converted to P/NP or S/U based on the grading option chosen by the student,” Cook said.
“A” grades are awarded for work deemed “excellent,” according to Section 2, Regulation 20 of the UCSB Academic Senate Regulations of the Division. “B” grades are awarded for “good” work, “C” grades for “adequate” work, “D” grades for “barely passing work” and “F” grades for “not passing work.” “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” grades may be modified with “+” or “-” suffixes.
Beyond the guidelines outlined in the Senate’s Regulations of the Division, instructors have the right to determine their course grading policies.
“The Senate does not predetermine what the distribution of the grades should be in any course. That is left to the judgment and discretion of the instructor,” the UCSB Academic Affairs Division said in a statement to the Nexus.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, grading was more forgiving, and that trend has continued through the 2022-23 school year.
“Professors were more lenient during COVID with their grading across the board, so they would round up or put things a little higher during COVID,” Liz Phillips, president of the UCSB Physics Discord server, website chair for Undergraduate Diversity and Inclusion in Physics and fourth-year physics major, said.
The UCSB Academic Affairs Division is currently working to improve its understanding of course grading and student learning in the context of the pandemic.
“Remote education presented challenges, including in the administration of exams. As we emerge from three years of challenges for both faculty and students and faculty, we plan to work with the Academic Senate to improve our understanding of grading practices in the context of our extensive efforts to monitor and assess Student Learning Outcomes,” the Division said.
“As part of our campus re-accreditation process, we are studying the experience and enrollment trends of students in large undergraduate majors. Understanding student learning outcomes and working with faculty on both pedagogical and assessment practices has been a major focus and is ongoing,” they added.
The proportion of A’s at UCSB has never dropped below 55% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the 2022-23 school year, the average departmental (percentage within a department) percentage of A+’s, A’s and A-’s given was 66%. Furthermore, 59% of letter grades awarded from physics courses were A’s.
Phillips added that course grading is heavily dependent on the professor.
“I’ve heard nightmare stories about some professors that will not curve or the class average will be like a forty before they curve, but then other professors are really nice and have a very lenient grading scale,” they said.
Derek Younger — a third-year actuarial science major and the Professional Development Director of the UCSB Actuarial Association — said that he has experienced multiple types of curves, including grade “bump-ups” for the entire class and curves designed to specifically help people struggling in the class. His professor for Transition to Data Science, Probability and Statistics (PSTAT 8) curved the class by prioritizing raising the grades of those who had lower marks.
“What they did was they, I believe, square-rooted the grade and then multiplied by 10, so it looked like not a straight linear curve but more like a regression curve,” he said. “If you were say a sixty percent, you’d jump up a lot more compared to a ninety percent.”
Only 47% of letter grades awarded from courses offered by the Department of Statistics and Applied Probability were A’s.
The Department of Military Science and the Department of Biomolecular Science and Engineering awarded only A’s for letter-graded courses in the 2022-23 school year, and 100% of all letter grades awarded were either A+’s, A’s or A-’s.
The UCSB Jewish Studies program awarded the highest departmental proportion of A+’s — 37.5% — for its Hebrew courses. The Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology awarded the most A+’s — 2864 — out of all academic departments.
The Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry awarded the lowest percentage of A’s and the highest percentage of C’s and D’s for its chemistry courses among all academic departments at UCSB.
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation of their grading policy.
The Department of Political Science awarded the highest percentage of B’s — 41.2%. Of the 4385 letter grades given, 1831 were either B+’s, B’s or B-’s. The department does not dictate to professors how to grade their courses.
“We do not have a departmental policy regarding how instructors manage grades. We do review grading results and discuss with professors unusually high or unusually low grades”, Kathleen Bruhn, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, said in a statement to the Nexus.
Younger believes that grades do not matter much in terms of one’s chance at becoming an actuary.
“All you have to do is just pass tests and then demonstrate some sort of leadership or some initiative in pushing the actuary profession around the school and getting more people to notice it,” he said. “Fundamentally, it just is about passing tests. If you can pass the tests outside of the school, then you will become an actuary.”
On the other hand, Phillips said that grades are especially important for those who want to pursue graduate studies because admission to graduate school is competitive due to the limited number of spots available — especially in physics — for undergraduates.
“The physics department here is very grad school oriented,” they added. “It’s very ‘make sure you have your letters of [recommendation]. Make sure your grades are good.’ A lot of people just assume that you’re applying to grad school.”
However, Phillips said that a lot of physics majors at UCSB end up pursuing non-physics careers in industry rather than attending graduate school.
“I think a lot of physics majors end up going into software engineering or finance, but if you want to specifically stay in physics, a Ph.D. is usually what people go for … I think that more than half of undergrad physics majors don’t go to grad school,” they said.
With regard to potential changes Phillips and Younger would like to see in how courses are graded, both agreed that the current system did not have many issues.
Younger did recommend adding more sections and slightly increasing the weight of homework, rather than that of exams.
“Doing the homework and then going to the sections or the office hours — that’s what makes me learn the most, and for me, I assume that it is similar [for] other people too,” he said. “But other than that, the grading scale, I have no issues with it.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 10 of the Aug. 24, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.