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Honors in Computer Science (#985)

Topics/tags: Academia, Grinnell

I’m not sure why, but I’ve recently been thinking about the requirements for honors in CS at Grinnell. In order to be awarded honors in a department at Grinnell, you need at least a 3.4 overall grade-point average (GPA), at least a 3.5 GPA in the major [1], and to meet the individual department’s requirements. You also should not have been found responsible for a violation of academic honesty.

Early in my career at Grinnell, we had a fairly clear set of requirements for honors in CS: You had to take both CSC-211, Computer Organization and Architecture, and CSC-213, Operating Systems and Parallel Algorithms; you had to take an extra upper-level CS or math class; you had to do extra-curricular work on campus judged as excellent by the members of the department; and you had to do external work judged as excellent, such as high performance on the Putnam or GREs or publishing a paper.

That’s a lot of requirements. Hence, we often awarded honors to students who had met only three of the four requirements, provided they had done particularly well at one of the last two requirements. That is, if you did really good research at Grinnell or elsewhere, we might waive the need to take both CSC-211 and CSC-213, or might skip the extra course. We also tended to allow PHY-220, Electronics, as an alternative to CSC-211, particularly since we used to offer CSC-211 and CSC-213 in alternate years.

A few years ago, we changed the requirements to be more like those of other departments [2]. They now read,

To be considered for honors in computer science, graduating seniors, in addition to meeting the College’s general requirements for honors, must also demonstrate exceptional commitment to the discipline and its values, as evidenced by significant engagement in the department and excellence in computing-related work, both in the classroom and beyond.

Isn’t that wonderfully vague? But there are still three criteria in the paragraph: significant engagement with the department, excellence … in the classroom, and excellence … beyond [the classroom]. Engagement is often evidenced by service as a peer educator or member of one of the department’s student groups, along with attendance at department events, such as CS Table and the weekly CS extras. Excellence in the classroom is obvious. While grades are a start, we do look beyond grades to see how students engage with the material [3]. For excellence beyond the classroom, we often look toward research, either at Grinnell or elsewhere. We also try to accommodate internships. However, because of non-disclosure agreements, it can be difficult to tell how well a student did in an internship.

I was originally in favor of the change from the specific rules to the more vague paragraph, but I must admit that it’s getting harder and harder to decide whether or not individual students deserve honors, particularly as we deal with larger and larger numbers of students in the department and, therefore, larger numbers of candidates for honors.

In any case, as I think about our core requirements (significant engagement in the department and excellence in computing-related work), I begin to wonder why Grinnell requires a high GPA for honors. Isn’t it honorable if you do excel in those two things, even if your GPA is lower? And don’t students sometimes achieve higher GPAs by taking fewer risks? I recall one peer in high school who refused to take AP Calculus because they knew they’d get an A in the non-AP math course and worried they might get a B in the AP course. I’d rather a student who takes courses in which they might get lower grades because they want to challenge themselves. Why do we, as an institution, focus so much on GPA?

Beyond GPA, I’d like to see a return to more explicit criteria, along with an explicit description of whether or not you need to meet all of the criteria. I identified three things we’d like to see. We could separate those out and describe how students achieve those criteria. I’d like to see us put back the extra courses; it’s hard to believe that a student who has taken a minimal major has shown exceptional commitment to the discipline. We should tell them that.

Given that I usually prefer holistic assessment, I’m a bit surprised to find that I am inclined to use a rubric or checklist for assigning honors. However, holistic assessment requires deeper knowledge and deeper evidence than we normally have of a student. For example, is a student who seems less engaged perhaps introverted, or do they have other obstacles, such as workload? And it seems fairer to students to have explicit criteria.

I wonder what other departments do. I expect that those with similar requirements rely on years of experience working without a strict rubric. Since they also have fewer majors, they likely have fewer candidates for honors, too. Perhaps I should ask colleagues. Perhaps I should read other departments’ requirements more closely [4].

On a separate note, there’s a question of when we should notify students. Traditionally, most students only found out that they had received honors when they arrived at graduation and saw honors listed after their names in the program. Over time, some departments started to send congratulatory notes. Then the Registrar’s office took over sending congratulatory notes so that they all went out at once [5].

There are some advantages to late notification, at least from a departmental perspective. Perhaps most importantly, you are less likely to have students challenge the decision not to award honors [6].

But there are also some significant disadvantages. Among other things, it means that students can’t put their honors on their résumés and CVs. That can affect their applications for jobs and graduate school, particularly if other institutions award and announce honors earlier. With the many changes to hiring, such as many companies hiring in fall, rather than spring, should we change when we announce honors?

Perhaps that’s a question for Careers, Life, and Service [7].

[1] I don’t know whether they count required courses from outside the department in that computation. For example, do we count MAT-218 or the other course in Mathematics and Statistics creditable toward the Mathematics major in the computation?

[2] Or at least that’s what someone said.

[3] We use engage a lot. Do we expect students to marry our discipline?

[4] I started to gather all of the requirements for honors that I could find, taking them from the 2019-2020 College catalog. Then I realized that they deserved some reflection. Perhaps you’ll see them in a future musing.

[5] At least that’s what I thought. Eldest tells me that he recalls hearing about each of his three honors at separate times, but is not positive.

[6] Why did X receive honors and I did not?

[7] While they should not make the decision, they do have the expertise to provide the faculty with some context as we consider options. I do think the decision should be institutional rather than departmental.

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-13.