STEM GPAs reflect department, grade level differences

“I won’t put it lightly, it is a struggle,” said junior mechanical engineering major Anna Giboney of her major. Other STEM majors across campus echoed her statement.

STEM isn’t just challenging at Calvin. A study run by the National Survey of Student Engagement found that STEM majors dominate the top of the list of hardest majors, as measured by the amount of study time required outside of class.

At Calvin, the Center for Student Success runs consistent help sessions for chemistry, computer science, statistics, calculus and physics classes, which indicates these are subjects students request help with the most. Engineering is not on that list; however, many of the courses that have help sessions are required for engineering

Despite the difficulty, Giboney loves her major, as do many other STEM majors on campus.

GPA distributions among STEM majors

Chimes obtained data from Todd Dornbos, associate dean for retention, curriculum, and planning, about GPAs across biology, math, chemistry, computer science, engineering, and nursing. Is the difficulty (perceived or accurate) of these courses of study reflected by variations in student GPA? The results are inconclusive at best, though some interesting trends do emerge. 

When comparing the average cumulative GPAs from Fall 2021 of all undergraduates in biology, math, engineering, computer science, chemistry and nursing, provided by Todd Dornbos, associate dean for retention, curriculum, and planning, engineering and computer science majors do have the lowest average cumulative GPA, at 3.36 and 3.19, respectively. The others are all in the 3.4 range. 

The average cumulative GPA of all undergraduate students on campus as of Fall 2021 is 3.33. Students in the above-listed STEM departments have a mean GPA of 3.39; higher than the campus-wide average.   

First-year students campus-wide have lower average cumulative GPAs than seniors, almost without fail. 

The average grades in STEM courses tend to be higher in upper-level courses. The average GPA earned in STEM courses is lower than the cumulative GPA of STEM majors. In biology, the average GPA in 100 level courses is 3.01, in 200 level courses it is 3.14, and in  300 level courses it is 3.39. Chemistry shows an upward trend as well, although the courses start at a lower average. Grades in 100 level chemistry courses average to 2.87. At the 200 level, grades average 2.89, and at the 300 level, they average 3.24.

The outliner is engineering. One hundred level engineering classes have an average GPA of 3.40. Two hundred level courses drop to 3.09, and 300 level courses swing back up to an average of 3.32. 

David Dornbos, department chair of biology, said students often find early courses challenging due to difficulties adjusting to college and the sheer amount of content covered in early classes. As students progress further in their courses of study, their knowledge base increases, as does their investment, according to Dornbos.

Jonathan Holdridge, a sophomore studying chemistry with a focus in secondary education, supported this conclusion. “CHEM 102 especially was really challenging for me, just because I didn’t really know how to study for a class like that,” he said.

Gayle Ermer, the engineering department chair, said that in engineering, the sheer variety of professors, students and difficult classes make it hard to judge if students actually get higher GPAs as they move through the engineering programs. 

Randall Pruim, department chair of mathematics and statistics, attributes the general trend of students finding increasing success over their academic career to the fact that in their early years, students are trying to figure out where they actually want to be. Students “do better in the junior and senior-level courses because the only students who get there are the students who did well in the first two years worth [of classes].”

GPA reflects different learning goals

Each department has subtle differences in what a GPA means for their major. 

“A lot of a GPA in biology courses is going to be a reflection of how we perceive the students understand content,” Dornbos said. “That’s a little bit facts, it’s more how you use the evidence we have.” Because many biology students are planning to go to graduate school, medical school or pre-veterinarian school, a GPA must be a relatively reliable indicator of content knowledge so the student will be prepared for further education. 

Chemistry Department Chair Carolyn Anderson said, “Your GPA is measuring your mastery in the moment … not your ability, not necessarily your long-term prospects.” If a student wasn’t really trying, then the C they got wasn’t representative of their actual ability. Conversely, some students may truly put in the effort, and still not master the skills. Because of this nuance, Anderson said it is important to be careful when making judgments and evaluations about GPA.

Emma Schmidt, sophomore math and music major, echoed this sentiment. According to Schmidt, some students are just bad at taking tests, while others may be good at taking tests, but bad at real-world applications. Schmidt thinks GPA is often a measure of effort. However, she notes that this isn’t always the case, and therefore realizing the limitations of what a GPA can tell you is paramount. 

GPA is a valuable, but nuanced measure

GPA is a valuable indicator for professors and employers about what a student is capable of. Ermer told Chimes that in the engineering department, “We think of GPA as a proxy for a student’s ability to do professional work.” Similarly, Keith Vander Linden, department chair of computer science, said that in this major “often your grade is based upon your project.” Therefore, getting a high GPA indicates to employers that the student has “demonstrated ability to solve problems computationally.” 

Senior Tyler Warners, a civil engineering major, has a different take: “[GPA] should be a measure of your ability to learn.”Because Calvin is a liberal arts institution, a high GPA would indicate that a student was able to learn and do well in many different areas, according to Warners. 

Pruim noted that GPA does, to a large degree, measure understanding and mastery of mathematical or statistical concepts, for example, a student must receive a certain grade in CALC I in order to move on to CALC II. Over the years, his department has found that students who don’t meet a certain grade threshold in the first class don’t have the foundation to do well in the second. 

He also noticed a trend in GPAs rising over the last several years, and tentatively attributed this to financial aid being tied to GPA, among other factors. “That alone, unless you believe your parents were a whole lot dumber than students are now, says that there isn’t really an absolute meaning to these things.”

Every professor Chimes spoke with on this subject indicated that though GPA impacts career plans, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Anderson and Dornbos in particular stressed the importance of experience and recommendations, not only GPA, for future plans. On the student side, Giboney highlighted the importance of internships. 

 According to Anderson, “[GPA] can be a good measure, but it isn’t always a good measure.”