As the spring semester comes to a close, one notable change affecting students’ academic progress and planning has been the New York campus’s announcement that faculty would be doing away with letter grades for midterm progress reports. Specifically, the use of letter grades usually filled in on Albert was changed in favor of letting students know if their midterm course progress was ‘strong’, ‘satisfactory,’ or ‘of concern.’

In a statement made on January 10, Vice Provost Mark Siegal first addressed NYU’s faculty regarding this change, stressing the importance of “formative feedback” and providing recommendations for faculty to prepare their course syllabi on top of “Learning more about the history and research that led to this change” in advance. Just over 4 months later, students at NYU Shanghai have finished their final exams and assignments- something that this change has undoubtedly affected leading up to the semester’s final weeks.

On the surface, it’s easy to see how the departure from letter grades might be met with reservations from students and faculty alike. Victoria Miao, Class of 2025, commented, “I think this is a regression for our academic system at NYU. This new system offers students even less information about their performance in classes, which makes it difficult for them to gauge next steps for the rest of the semester.”

Additionally, Steve Xu, a computer science major and Class of 2026 student, remarked, “I think we should either restore the letter grades – they sound better to me since we’re still in the letter grade for finals.” Speaking on the midterms themselves and how the recent changes affect his perception of academic progress, Xu said, “I think the main problem of this new policy is that I do know whether or not I’m of concern about the grades [through course feedback and understanding lectures], so I don’t need the new structures to tell me or not – I think a letter grade is better to confirm this for me.”

These feelings of uncertainty also extend beyond NYU Shanghai’s student body to its faculty, who have been at the forefront of the grading change across all of NYU’s study away locations. “It’s too vague,” commented Lecturer Katherine Tosi, who is currently teaching English for Academic Purposes. Additionally, Lecturer Tosi raises other misconceptions that students make about NYU’s midterm reports, which raised further confusion after this semester’s grading changes. “It’s not the midterm feedback itself that is problematic, it’s the assumptions made about midterm progress/grading on the student side.” 

Despite also noting little to no changes in how often students in her course reach out about their grades and midterm progress, Tosi maintains that “the midterm is based on a very limited source of information and should not be seen as reliable” even before the implementation of the new midterm system. “If you have positive feedback at midterm grades, [students assume] it carries through to the final grade, and nothing is further from the truth.” Notably, midterms only count for 30% of students’ final grades in English for Academic Purposes, which underscores Tosi’s point that (for example) it remains a major assumption for the final grade to also be an A after getting an A for midterms.

“I think the new midterm feedback system could be perfected by having individual departments define specifically what the terms mean for the broad grade categories, or at least a consensus among everyone what they actually should be interpreted as.”

After asking Lecturer Tosi about their opinion on how NYU’s administration communicated the possible courses of action for professors to change their syllabi around the grading changes, she highlighted how loose the guidelines were for the individual faculty adjusting to the changes. “I determined a strong performance as meaning ‘I have no present concerns about the student completing the course with a satisfactory grade,’ but that does not exclude the probability of a B or B+, and I always find it better to be positive – I’ve made a problem for myself.”

“Moving away from letter grades is a good thing, but bringing in the new system is bound to have its own problems. I have no insight into why they made the changes, and there’s not an easy yes/no answer to the question,” said Environmental Studies Professor Travis Klingberg, who taught “Nature in Social Thought” and “Geographies of China” for the spring semester. Klingberg mentions that the shift away from letter grades have not fundamentally changed his courses – rather,  his classes’ issues were less about the change itself than about how the courses were already structured. “If it was in a system where students weren’t getting as much feedback, this change would be a bigger deal.”

Much like Lecturer Tosi’s comments on how representative the midterm is of final grades in her course, Klingberg highlighted that “grade-sensitive students have misperceived the midterm grade as being overly, if not completely indicative of their course grade.” “I saw the old grading system as a way to let students know how they’re doing and to encourage them to keep working – students have a different set of questions now that the system has changed.” 

Across his comments, Professor Klingberg suggests that NYU’s courses are already individualized to some degree with the exception of the final course grades, while the recent changes to the midterm only impact one small part out of the whole set of feedback tools that faculty use. At the end of the day, Victoria and Steve also said the grading changes made little impact on how often they contacted professors about their midterm grades or academic progress, whether through email or in person via office hours. These examples also support the existing level of individualized feedback students already regularly receive that Klingberg describes, where a single letter grade or word description doesn’t provide the same level of clarity or interaction with professors.

While I’m not personally against NYU moving away from letter grades to gauge students’ academic progress, NYU’s partial approach of only changing the midterm reports still feels detrimental in terms of transparency from a student perspective. This is especially so since students’ numerical grades continue to impact their assignments, exams, and cumulative GPA.” Even so, with how new this change is, there’s ample room to refine the new grading system so students and faculty alike can use it to its fullest going forward.