SEAS Faculty Hesitate to Approve CS50 Grading Change

Less than a week after Computer Science 50 Lecturer David J. Malan ’99 announced in an e-mail to his course staff that the introductory coding class would switch to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system, administrators within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and CS50 teaching fellows have expressed reservations about Malan’s plan—which might delay the grading change until the fall of 2011.

The proposal has prompted hesitation among some SEAS faculty and course TFs due to concerns that the new grading scheme may be incompatible with course credit policies and may weaken the academic rigor of the class, which drew more than 300 students when it was offered last fall.

“It’s not clear to me whether the good things outweigh the bad things,” said SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray. “I have a feeling it won’t be a done deal for next year.”

She added that there had been a flurry of e-mails sent among SEAS faculty over the weekend, and that several professors had expressed concerns about the changes in the grading scheme.

SEAS Associate Dean for Academic Programs Robert D. Howe stressed that some professors were especially concerned that students concentrating in engineering or applied mathematics typically take CS50 for concentration credit. In order for the course to count for an engineering or applied math requirement, it must be taken for a grade, which would potentially force these students to be among a small minority of graded students in a primarily sat/unsat class.

Murray said that final decision will be put to a faculty vote sometime in mid-May,

Associate Professor of Computer Science Matt D. Welsh addressed the issue of changing the grading scheme of CS50 in a blog post published yesterday. Though he noted that the post “represents [his] own thoughts on the matter, not the CS faculty as a whole,” Welsh wrote that he “question[s] the need to change the grading option for CS50, which potentially creates more problems than it solves.”

The response from the CS50 grading staff was also not immediately clear.

Six teaching fellows contacted for this article declined to speak on the record, with several citing an e-mail from A. Cansu Aydede ’11, the head TF for CS50, asking all inquiries to be directed to herself and Malan. Malan declined to comment until final decisions have been made.

Aydede said she had spoken to Malan about the plan before it was announced last Friday, and that she believes it will ultimately create a more accessible class with a broader appeal for Harvard students.

“I think it will actually encourage people to focus more on the CS part and less so on grades,” Aydede said, adding that she had spoken to several friends who have expressed greater interest in the class since hearing it would be graded sat/unsat.

But one CS50 TF, who wished to remain anonymous in order to preserve his relationship with the course staff, said that while he believes “the motivation behind [the change] is good,” he strongly disagrees with altering the CS50 grading scheme.

“Having seen the grading standards, you don’t really have to do much to get a C-,” the student said, referencing the lowest grade possible to earn a satisfactory score. “I think a lot of the people in the class will wind up learning nothing or nearly nothing.”

The student also said that his views were not unique among current and former CS50 TFs, noting that several other TFs he had spoken to about the possible change also said they were not in favor of it.

Another student, who has worked as a TF for CS50 and also asked for anonymity, said he was cautiously optimistic about the grading change, though he still has many concerns.

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