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How Come You Never Got an "E" in School?

With most schools in the US about to let out for the summer, reader Sarah in California had report cards on her mind. She wrote to ask how letter grades originated, and why no one ever gets an "E."

Making the Grade

Credit for the idea of grading students' work quantitatively generally goes to William Farish, a tutor at the University of Cambridge in the late 18th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Britain, and piecework payment systems—payment based on the number of pieces produced rather than hours worked—were becoming popular even outside of manufacturing. Some schools were paying teachers per student instead of per hour.

Under this payment system, Farish saw that any limit on the number of students he could take on would limit the amount of money he could make. So he followed the lead of the industrialists and devised a teaching tool that would allow him to streamline his work and process more students: grades. The time and effort it took to evaluate students' work and ideas were reduced considerably by Farish's grading system (exactly how that system worked is unknown). The system could be scaled up or down easily, too, and worked just as well with 100 kids in the classroom as with 10. Farish could take all the students he could get and rake in the dough.

Update, 10-2010: Dr. Paul Worfel, an Associate Professor of Education at Huntington University in Indiana, has commented below to point out that I did not check my sources carefully enough, and to clear things up a little. Information I was able to find on William Farish on a few websites echo statements made by radio talk show host Thom Hartmann. Worfel, who’s done a bit of research on Farish, has pointed out here and on other sites, that these statements are largely fabrication on Hartmann’s part.

Worfel says below: “Except for the reasonable evidence that Farish started using a numerical grading system in Cambridge in 1792, the rest of the article from a historical basis is fabrication by Hartmann to try and assert his point of view regarding grades… The reason Farish instituted the use of numerical grades was to provide better equity to an oral examination system that was filled with favoritism and bias… Farish would not have improved his financial picture a bit by instituting numerical grades since students were not graded in relationship to lectures. There was only one exam at the end of a three-year study at the university. And that exam was not open to all students, only those determined by the university heads to be possible honors students… [Farish was also] instrumental in promoting a petition for the abolition of slavery [in the] 1780s, instrumental in working with students to organize the Cambridge Auxiliary Bible Society, instrumental in the development Cambridge Missionary Society… In Cambridge he was vicar of the third largest church, but also the poorest, which lead to his involvement in starting schools for the poor children in his parish. I've just touched on a few of his accomplishments.

He also points out in the comments on this post from Beyond School: “…Farish used a quantitative system for grading the single exam given Cambridge undergrads. Notice I said single exam. This was the only exam used to score a select few undergrads in what was called the Senate House exam during what we in the US would call the senior year. There were no other exams or papers prior to this point. The grading system was not, as Hartmann claims, used to increase the number of attendees at lectures. In fact attending lectures was quite voluntary. …Farish along with many other fellows recognize there was a good deal of favoritism in the examination process. Farish introduced (this is based on a good deal of circumstantial evidence) numerical grading as a means of providing a more equitable means of differentiating students’ response. Farish didn’t need grading to attract students to his lectures because they were not used in the context of any of his lectures or teaching during Farish’s lifetime.”

My apologies for providing bad info to the readers here, and a big thanks to Dr. Worfel for calling out my blunder and setting things straight.

Grading in the USA

Universities and colleges in America spent the 19th century experimenting with different ways of grading their students with various numerical systems or descriptive adjectives.

Yale got the ball rolling in 1785, when it handed out the first grades in America to a group of 58 students taking an exam. Twenty earned an "Optimi," sixteen got a "Second Optimi," twelve got an "Inferiore," and ten got a "Pejores."

A few other highlights from the early years include Harvard's first numerical system, which was a scale of 1-200, except for mathematics and philosophy classes, which switched to a 1-100 scale. Yale, meanwhile, started using a four-point scale starting in 1813, switched to a nine-point scale at some point, then went back to four in 1832. Harvard later ditched the numbers and, in 1883, gave out the first reported letter grade in the United States (a "B," for what its worth). Harvard changed gears again three years later and graded students as Class I, II, III, IV (IV was not quite as good as the first three, but not failing) and V (fail).

In 1897, Mount Holyoke College instituted a letter grade system similar to what is used today (with the exception of an "E" grade), but by the turn of the century, percentage grading on a 100-point scale became the norm and stayed so until the 1940s, when letters again made a resurgence. Recent surveys show that letter grades are the most common grades used in elementary and secondary schools and two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Understanding the System

The ways that percentages correspond to letter grades and GPA point values varies from school to school, but the following grading scale is pretty common.

Grade Percentage GPA value
A (highest grade, excellent)
90-100 3.5-4.0
B (above average) 80-89 2.5-3.49
C (average) 70-79 1.5-2.49
D (minimum passing grade, below average)
60-69 1.0-1.49
F (fail)
0-59 0.0

Some schools tack a plus or minus onto a letter grade and, if they use a 100-point scale, will usually assign the regular letter grade a value at the middle of a decile, the + grade a value in the top part of the decile and the − grade a value in the bottom part. In other words, getting an 80 to 83 in a class would earn you a B−, an 83.01 to 87 would be a B and 87.01 to 89.99 would get you a B+.

In most schools, an A corresponds to a 4.00 GPA, the highest one can achieve, which makes the A+ a strange beast. Some schools will award A+'s as marks of distinction, but still cap the GPA at 4.00. Others extend the GPA scale beyond an even four and assign an A+ a value of 4.33.

Where's the E?

Simply put, there's no E grade because there doesn't need to be. The only alphabetical intent in the letter grading system is in the four passing grades: A, B, C, and D.

The F comes next not because of a missing E and alphabetical order, but because it stands for "Fail." Even if F were the last letter in the alphabet, it'd probably be used the same way on report cards and mean the same thing.

The E is actually used in some grading systems, though. Since WWII, some schools, mostly Midwestern, have used E instead of F to denote a failing grade. A few schools even use U ("unsatisfactory") or N ("no credit") instead of F.

Grading the Grades?

Since their inception, grades have been the subject of simmering controversy. Critics claim that they're unreliable and encourage students to take only courses they know they'll do well in, while proponents say that they're necessary for the evaluation of student performance. We no doubt have both students and educators out there reading the blog (my girlfriend and I both majored in secondary education for a little while in college), so tell us: does the grading system at your school get an A, or are we better off with a different system—or no grades at all?

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Why Reading Aloud Helps You Remember More Information
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If you're trying to commit something to memory, you shouldn't just read the same flashcard over and over. You should read it aloud, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The research, published in the journal Memory, finds that the act of reading and speaking text aloud is a more effective way to remember information than reading it silently or just hearing it read aloud. The dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly, the study reports. The new research builds on previous work on the so-called production effect by Waterloo psychologist Colin MacLeod, who is also one of the current paper's authors.  

The current study tested 95 college students over the course of two semesters, asking them to remember as many words as possible from a list of 160 nouns. At one session, they read a list of words into a microphone, then returned two weeks later for a follow-up. In some situations, the participants read the words presented to them aloud, while in others, they either heard their own recorded voice played back to them, heard recordings of others reading the words, or read the words silently to themselves. Afterward, they were tested to see how much they remembered from the list.

The participants remembered more words if they had read them aloud compared to all other conditions, even the one where people heard their own voices reading the words. However, hearing your own voice on its own does seem to have some effect: it was a better memory tool for participants than hearing someone else speak, perhaps because people are good at remembering things that involve them. (Or maybe, the researchers suggest, it's just because people find it so bizarre to hear their own recorded voice that it becomes a salient memory.)

The findings "suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component," the researchers write. "This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering: We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

The message is loud and clear: If you want to remember, you should both read it and speak it aloud.

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The Brooklyn Public Library is Now Home to a Tiny Mollusk Museum
Courtesy of MICRO
Courtesy of MICRO

The Brooklyn Public Library is one of America’s largest public libraries—and now, its lobby is home to what’s being billed as the world’s smallest mollusk museum (and its first, no less). The vending machine-sized installation contains 15 different educational “displays,” all of which highlight fun facts about bivalves, snails, octopuses, and other soft-bodied creatures, according to The Washington Post.

Installed on November 10, the mollusk museum is the brainchild of Amanda Schochet, a computational ecologist, and media producer Charles Philipp. In 2016 they co-founded MICRO, a nonprofit organization that makes and distributes compact science museums.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

“Science museums are amazing,” the duo said in a video about their company, which is supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. “There’s just not enough of them. They’re all in wealthier neighborhoods. It’s fundamentally important for everyone to have access. So we decided to reinvent the museum, taking everything that we love about museums and putting it inside a box that can go anywhere.”

The factory-made museums are designed in collaboration with scientists, and created using 3D printing techniques. They’re easily reproduced, and can be set up anywhere, including libraries, airports, or even the DMV.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The BPL’s Smallest Mollusk Museum is MICRO’s first public project. Why mollusks, you might ask? For one thing, they survive in every habitat on Earth, and have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Plus, a mollusk museum of any type—large or small—didn’t exist yet, as Schochet learned after she once misheard Philipp say he was going to the world’s “mollusk museum.” (He was instead going to the “smallest” one, located inside a Manhattan elevator shaft.)

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The Smallest Mollusk Museum is “packed with exhibits including miniature movie theaters, 3D-printed sculptures of octopus brains and leopard slug hugs, optical illusions showing visitors what it’s like to experience the world as mollusks, and a holographic mollusk aquarium,” Schochet tells Mental Floss. “We've identified nearly 100,000 species of mollusks, but there could be as many as 200,000—they’re all around us, all the time. Every one of them is a lens onto a bigger universe.”

Librarians have also joined in on the mollusk mania, prepping an accompanying series of books for kids and adults about the many creatures featured in the museum's exhibits.

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

MICRO's Smallest Mollusk Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of MICRO

The Smallest Mollusk Museum will gradually circulate through several of the library system’s branches. Meanwhile, MICRO’s next public offering will be a second mollusk museum, which will open in the Ronald McDonald House in New York City in December 2017. Additional locations and projects—including a small physics museum called the Perpetual Motion Museum—will be announced soon.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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