Western Oregon University implements a strength-based grading approach to enhance student success

Written by Maureen Brakke

MONMOUTH, Ore. – Since 1856, Western Oregon University has been committed to the region, to serving the people of Oregon, and to the core values of student success. As an innovative public liberal arts institution historically serving first-generation college students from all four corners of the state, Western is announcing the implementation of a strength-based grade approach that recognizes, embraces, and focuses on student competencies and achievements.

Beginning this fall term, the institutional academic grading regulation will reflect a grade range of A through D; the letter grades of D- and F will be replaced with No Credit (NC) for undergraduate students. The grade of NC will be used in instances where the student does not meet the course learning objectives. The difference is that the grade of NC will not negatively impact student GPAs. 

Provost Jose Coll explains that the new grade annotation will not lower standards but is instead a way to focus on student learning outcomes and increase retention and graduation rates. “GPAs will now be a true reflection of student success and course mastery; failures will no longer mask the demonstrated abilities of our students when they pass courses,” he says. Coll also adds that this practice has been in place for decades at other higher education institutions such as Brown University while others such as Prescott College, New College, Hampshire College, and Evergreen College to name a few have opted for narrative transcripts that highlight the student’s performance in a given field of study.

The NC grade will also empower faculty and advising staff to proactively help students potentially transition to another degree or major, enabling them to explore and discover academic areas that interest them. Exploration and change of major, have historically been made more difficult by significantly lowered GPAs resulting from weighted grades of F. Coll shares that lower GPAs create barriers to registration, financial aid, and transferring. “Now, students at Western will have a new incentive to remain in classes longer, rather than dropping them out of fear of getting an F.”

This change is also intended to alleviate the pressure of learning, foster academic exploration, reduce grade anxiety, and shift focus to the student’s academic possibilities, and strengths. This is key since many students who struggle in a course in their first year of college and receive an F grade are discouraged from remaining engaged; their GPAs slip away, which in many instances results in students leaving college with debt and no degree. For example, a Western student earning an F during their first two quarters is 60 percent less likely to be retained. 

Conversely, students who earn NC in courses designated as Satisfactory/No Credit have a retention rate of 83 percent. The problem is especially acute in certain fields, and in particular with first-generation college students or students entering college from low-income families or traditionally underserved communities, a phenomenon that has contributed to national student debt being held by one-third of the population without a degree or 40 million Americans.

“We believe in the growth, learning, and potential of all Western Oregon University students, and this grading standard lets everyone know that we plan to walk with them every step of the way,” said President Jesse Peters.

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About Western Oregon University

Western Oregon University, established in Monmouth in 1856, proudly stands as Oregon’s oldest public university. Hosting around 4,000 students, Western embodies a mid-sized, NCAA Division II institution, with approximately 80% of its students hailing from within the state. Notably, its diverse student body comprises individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, veterans, and non-traditional learners. Western stands as the preferred campus in Oregon for those pursuing an enriching education within a nurturing, student-focused environment, characterized by faculty-led instruction. Together we succeed.

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