Encouraging Risk

From the President,

From the President

A Wellesley education has always been about providing students with a supportive environment in which they can take advantage of opportunities and be willing to take the risks that those opportunities often entail. As students and alumnae will attest, the Wellesley experience is about stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s about testing yourself, competing, failing, learning from that failure, and ultimately succeeding. The Wellesley experience is about gaining confidence—the kind of confidence that enables humanities majors to do science, or science majors to write poetry, or music majors to go to business school.

Some students come to Wellesley knowing exactly what they want to study; many others arrive on campus less sure of what their path will be. And we encourage all of them to challenge themselves by exploring new areas and fields they hadn’t previously considered. That is a hallmark of a Wellesley education, and our academic program is guided by this notion.

We encourage students to become engaged learners from the beginning, to become an immediate and integral part of the thriving intellectual community on campus.


A Wellesley education fosters a love of learning and reflection. We encourage students to become engaged learners from the beginning, to become an immediate and integral part of the thriving intellectual community on campus. The first-year experience at Wellesley is structured to encourage that early engagement. It is designed to help students develop the skills and habits they will need for our wide-ranging curriculum, and to navigate the complicated and rapidly changing world that awaits them when they graduate. We do this with our common reading and lecture, a program in quantitative reasoning, a required first-year writing course, and our first-year seminars.

Now, a new component to the first-year program will support and complement what we are already doing. This fall, we will begin a “shadow grading” pilot. In their first semester, first-year students will be graded as usual by their professors, but those grades will be known only to the student and faculty member; the grades will not be recorded on a student’s transcript. Shadow grading allows students and professors to focus on progress toward developing skills and habits for the future, and not just on how many of those goals are met by semester’s end. It also gives students time to acclimate to college life, and to understand our academic standards.

While Wellesley is not the first college in this country to adopt such a policy for first-year students—indeed, we looked to the success of the shadow-grading program at Swarthmore and some others as we developed our own—few schools have taken this step. Our new shadow-grading program was informed by a longitudinal study led by Professor of Sociology Lee Cuba and colleagues at six other liberal-arts schools, as part of the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning. The adoption of this new program followed much discussion among, and support from, our faculty, who approved the policy last fall.

I admire our faculty for recognizing the potential benefits of shadow grading, and its importance to the first-year experience. In implementing this change, our faculty showed wisdom and courage.

Shadow grading is just one of the many ways Wellesley remains committed to the liberal arts. We look forward to evaluating the contribution of this innovation in helping our students understand and master the core elements of a liberal-arts education.

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