Concerns about Plus/Minus Grading from Dianne Horgan
Plus Minus grading at the graduate level has been a subject on the Council of Graduate Schools
Listserv. While the majority of graduate colleges do not currently use plus minus grading, many
have considered it and quite a few use it (including some major large state universities such as
Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA). The range of plus/minus systems varies:
Some have plus/minus which show on transcript but are not calculated in GPA. (3.0 for
B+, B, or B-)
Values vary: Usually + adds .3 or .33; - subtracts .3 or .33 (B+ = 3.3 or 3.33, B- = 2.7 or
2.67). (Berkeley, UCLA do .3.) But sometimes, when an A+ has a 4.0 value, A- = 3.84.
Michigan has A+ = 9, A=8, A- = 7,. . . , C = 2, C- = 1.
Wisconsin has AB = 3.5 and BC = 2.5.
Some have only the option of a B+ but no A- or B-.
Some have A, A-, B+,B, B-, C+, C, but not C-.
Few have A+ and when they do, usually 4.0. (Univ. New Mexico counts an A+ as 4.33)
Some (e.g., UNC) have High Pass, Pass, and Low Pass, with High and Low rarely given.
Some institutions have different systems for UG and Grad (different values or no minuses
at grad level).
Plus/minus grading affects a number of admission, retention, and graduation polices, both at the
Graduate College level and at the departmental level. The biggest issue is whether a B- is a B
and a C- a C. Some potential problems that will need resolution:
Transfer credit or credit earned while nondegree: If only courses in which a B was
earned can be transferred, then can a B- be transferred? If not, this is unfair to students
from plus/minus universities since students from no plus/minus institutions who made
“bare Bs” had their credit accepted.
For admission, will the university accept the other university’s grading scale or
recalculate using UA values?
Departments may resolve issues differently. For example, two departments require B or
better in core courses; department A accepts a B-; department B doesn’t. This
obviously leads to confusion for both students and graduation analysts.
Not counting B-s as Bs effectively raises standards: with no plus/minus, students
scraping by with a minimal B earn 3 quality points. With plus/minus, a student with
exactly the same performance would earn a B-, only 2.7 quality points.
Most of the potential problems will arise during the transition to plus/minus grading. Universities
which have had plus/minus grading for a while report few problems. How will we manage the
transition? Will current students be allowed to continue under old rules without plus/minuses?
How much lead time will students have before the new system is enacted? Will exceptions be
granted while faculty learn to appreciate the effects of the B-? (E.g., can faculty change grades
from B- to B simply because they didn’t understand that a B- was below 3.0?)
Some problems reported at other universities:
More students on probation, affecting their assistantships as well as retention policies.
For example, first semester international students with all Bs and one B- will be on
probation. Difficulty with the new culture (e.g., not speaking up to an advisor who placed
them in a course beyond their preparation) may be to blame.
Competitive award holders who drop below 3.2 or 3.5 standards.
In anticipation of plusses and minuses, most focus on the advantages of the B+, and
assume GPAs will go up or stay the same. But typically there are options for two minus
grades (A- and B-) and only one plus grade (B+). Also, faculty continue to give C
students Cs (rather than B-s), but frequently use the minus option for what were before
As and Bs. So odds are that GPAs will go down, resulting in many requests for
exceptions. (Studies have reported that GPAs tend to go back up after the system has
been in place a while, so that in general there has been little difference in GPAs with and
Grades become more important in the sense that B-s can have very negative impact,
thus increasing pressure on students and on advisors.
Inconsistencies among departments in whether they accept B- as Bs for their own
Fairness. E.g., Professor X and Y teach the same course, one doesn’t use plus minus
grading. Both use 80-89=B grading scale. Students earning 81 points get different
grades. Or student X took course last year, scraping by with 80 points, earned a B.
Student Y earned 82 points this year, earned a B-.
While individual faculty members may opt out of plus minus grading, will all courses now
letter graded have plus minus? Or may departments have some courses without plus
Technical difficulties during the transition. From among the many challenges of changing
to Mosaic, how high a priority should plus/minus grading be? Our staff are now
overwhelmed and everyone is struggling with Mosaic. Do we want to introduce a further