Putting the percentages in perspective

The Journal looks at the consistency of first-year averages across Canada’s universities

Alexandra Muccilli said she thinks her marks would likely be higher if she attended a different university.

“I have friends [from] high school who are [at other universities and are] doing really well and
it’s not because they’re smarter,” she said.

Muccilli, ArtSci ’08, said her marks fell 10 percentage points in first year.

“They were not high enough and not a reflection of how hard I studied,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mike Sung, ArtSci ’08, said his marks dropped 17 percentage points from high school to university, but there is nowhere else he’d rather be than Queen’s. Although he’s worried he won’t meet academic requirements for graduate school, Sung doesn’t think he’s alone in that respect. “I think everyone does [worry],” he said. Other students said they weren’t concerned about how their
marks will affect their graduate school applications. Kris Bergmann, ArtSci ’09, said he has spoken to academic advisors, and though his marks dropped 20 per cent in first year, he’s not worried about getting into graduateschool or an MBA program. “I feel good because I did all I could do,” Bergmann said. “In high school I was really concerned. Atuniversity, yes, marks are important, but I want to learn something.” The Journal interviewed university students across Canada, and most noticed significant decreases in their first-year university marks.

Chris Diplock, a first-year economics student at the University of British Columbia, expected his
marks to drop but was unprepared to see his average decline by 18 per cent.

“I knew they’d drop but I didn’t know how low they’d be,” he said.

Diplock said he isn’t thinking about graduate programs yet, but he’s nevertheless optimistic he will qualify for graduate studies. Zack Vitiello, a second-year media student at the University of Western Ontario, said he expected to see his grades fall. “We’re made to understand from Grade 11, or maybe earlier, that our marks are going to drop as soon as we get to university.”

“Last year, my marks were quite a bit lower in my first semester— more partying for sure, and I
also wasn’t used to the type of work that was expected of me,” Vitiello said. But by the end of the year, he said, he brought his average up to four percentage points below his high school average.
“I think that a lot of people are working the same way they did in high school because that’s what worked for them,” Vitiello said. “But I think university requires a different kind of work and once you can figure out what that is, you’ll have time to party and have fun and your marks will still be high.”
Melanie Lee, a fourth-year psychology student at LaurentianUniversity, said she’s all too familiar with the experience students have in their first year at university. Lee completed a Police Foundations program at Georgian College before attending Laurentian and saw her marks increase in college and then decline 10 percentage points in her first year of university.

“I know a lot of [first-year students] this year and their grades drop a lot—I know a lot of kids who are dropping out—but it’s happening to everyone,” Lee said.

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Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane told the Journal he doesn’t think grades drop for all students, but the drop some students experience is normal. Deane said it’s difficult to compare Queen’s to other
institutions because cultural, social and economic variables factor into students’ abilities to perform well academically. “I wouldn’t want to say whether marks on the whole are given lower than at other institutions,” Deane said. “If you were able to neutralize ll the variables you might be able to come up with an accurate way of looking at that issue.” Deane attributes the drop in grades to the environmental change students experience when they first arrive at university. “Often I suspect that the causes of it are cultural, of having to adapt to the cultural life of university,” Deane said.

He said students can often see this as a source of stress if they don’t recognize the drop in their marks is part of a normal adjustment. Deane said there are programs where it is traditionally more difficult to earn high marks, but that the same is true at other institutions in Canada.

“What you’d observe at Queen’s is more or less the same as you’d see anywhere else in the country.”
Students should consider that everyone entering Queen’s is a top student and not everyone can continue to stay at the top when it comes to grading, Deane said. Although marks tend to be lower in first year, he said students can expect to see their marks rise throughout their university career. “By the time you’re in your senior years you can be expected to do better,” Deane said. “Students have become more practiced as students.” Deane said even in the upper years, marks should be considered
in relation to the range of marks awarded in a course or program. “Basically it’s more sensible to say ‘what does an 87 signify in an English course?’ Well it might [be the same as] a 95 in another course,” he said. “It’s matching the relationship of what you receive by the range of the grading scale which you typically use.” In the November 2006 issue of Campus Connection, a newsletter to parents of students in residence, Queen’s estimates students’ marks will drop 10 to 15 percentage points during their first year of university, a reality experienced by other students across Canada, including students at the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto and St. Francis Xavier University. Last year, incoming St. Francis Xavier students’ marks dropped from an entering average of 84 per cent to a first-year average of 68.3 per cent, said Helen Murphy, university spokeswoman.
At the University of Toronto— where, according to its website, the university average entering grade in 2005 was 82.9 per cent—students’ averages decrease to roughly the high 60s, said Glenn Loney,
assistant dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Loney said students need to put their marks in perspective and remember that the students in university are not the same students they went to high school with. “When you get to university a whole part of the pool is missing,” Loney said. “There’s nobody left below.” At the University of British Columbia, students experience a 15 to 20 per cent drop-off in grades, said John Cooper, associate dean (students) in the Faculty of Arts at UBC and former Queen’s graduate. But he added, students’ averages tend to increase as they progress in their studies.
Cooper said emphasis is placed on third and fourth-year courses, where course work grows increasingly specialized. “First-year grades do not count too much,” Cooper said. “I got an 11 per cent in first-year French and look where I ended up.” The history department at Queen’s provides detailed grade distribution information for the past 25 academic years on their webpage to help
students and others interpret an individual’s grades.David Parker, acting chair of the history department, told the Journal the grade distribution information is a tool to gauge student performance.
“It’s used to provide students with something to put along with applications,” Parker said.

“It’s used by potential employers and graduate schools, especially American schools where marks arepotentially higher.”

“The report tells someone that 82 is way, way above average and if they see 78, it’s a pretty good student,” Parker said. Deane said the grade distribution information posted online by the history department is beneficial to students. “I think it is a very helpful thing to do, because marking practices
are not universal. … It certainly is helpful for students,” he said. “Students can look at this and see ‘yes, by the standards of this discipline, I would have a good chance of getting into grad school.’”
However, students in other programs worried about getting into graduate or professional programs should recognize that admissions offices understand that students’ marks are expected to drop in university, Deane said. He said it only really becomes an issue in cases where students switch from programs where the marking is more objective, as it tends to be in the sciences, to programs where
it is more subjective, as is the case in the arts and humanities.

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Mike Condra, director of psychiatry at Health, Counselling and Disability Services, said every student will react to changes in their marks differently. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, we expect a drop in grades,’ ” Condra said. “It’s another thing to experience it. Students are distressed, or panicked or upset in the beginning.” Students shouldn’t automatically consider switching programs, transferring to another school,or dropping out of university altogether, he said. “[First-year students] may be accustomed to getting marks 10, 15, 20 percent higher than they’re used to,” Condra said. “When you’re accustomed to getting high grades and now they’re lower, it’s a stress. In times of stress we ave coping strategies that we use.” Condra recommends two options if students are experiencing marks lower than they expect: students can access a variety of resources through The Learning Commons, located in Stauffer Library, or students can speak with a learning strategies counsellor at Health Counselling and Disability Services. Once the student and counsellor have identified the issue, the student may be referred to one of many resources available at Queen’s, or one-on-one counselling
may continue. Condra said 260 study sessionswere held for learning and study kills counselling last year, and every student’s coping strategy is different.

“The key thing is, a drop in marks for first-year students is typically an adjustment.”

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