Students, admins mull changes to Cr/D/F

Next year, students may be able to decide whether to take a course for credit instead of a grade after the end of the term.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she has spoken informally to her colleagues in the Dean’s Office this semester about possible changes to the system, including permitting students to change courses from letter grades to Credit/D/Fail after they see their final grades. Fourteen of 18 students interviewed said they would support a policy that allows Yalies to change from letter grades to the Credit/D/Fail designation because it could decrease pressure to earn high marks, though fewer said the ability to switch should extend to the time when final grades arrive.

“I’m interested in thinking about Credit/D/Fail anew,” Miller said. “I’m just asking myself, ‘Do we deploy these resources in the very best way?’”

Current policy aims to encourage students to branch out and explore fields that they would otherwise avoid, she said. The goal of the Credit/D/Fail option will remain the same, Miller said, though any formal discussion about possible changes to the grading system would not happen until next fall.

Use of the Credit/D/Fail option among students interviewed fell into two distinct categories: Nine of 17 students who have taken courses Credit/D/Fail said they used the option to take a course about an unfamiliar subject, but the rest said they wanted to lighten their course load or avoid a poor grade in a potentially difficult course.

Miller said a benefit of allowing students to convert classes to Credit/D/Fail after the end of term is to “accommodate” a poor finish in a course, but she acknowledged that such a policy could possibly discourage academic experimentation.

Nihal Kayali ’13 was one of 11 students interviewed who said she would appreciate the chance to change grading scales after the semester ends in order to strike a poor grade from her transcript.

“If something goes horribly wrong, you would have the ability to rectify the situation,” Kayali said.

Ashley McCormick ’14 said this change would encourage experimentation, since students would worry less about their grade point averages.

But other students said they disapprove of such a policy because it would undermine the Credit/D/Fail system’s purpose.

“It would send the message that it’s okay to slack off in class,” Alma Zepeda ’12 said.

Professors also expressed skepticism about permitting students to convert final grades to Credit/D/Fail. Five of six interviewed said they would not support such a change. Political science professor Nuno Monteiro said the policy would be a “disaster” since many students who are fixated on earning high marks would eliminate grades they should not otherwise be afraid to keep.

Shelly Kagan, a professor of philosophy, said transcripts would become less valuable to graduate schools and employers.

“All that does is offers protection against having bad grades,” he said. “It robs transcripts of any information.”

Still, the vast majority of students — 14 of 18 undergraduates — and three of six professors said they are open to the idea of allowing the switch to Credit/D/Fail during the semester. Jade Nicholson ’14 said she would have used such an option this semester because she “tanked” the midterm exam in her “Sociology of Crime and Deviance” course, and Blake Zwerling ’12 said the policy would encourage students to complete courses they would now drop under the current regulations.

Proposed changes aside, students and professors described imperfections within the current system. Two students said distributional requirements should be open to the Credit/D/Fail option to encourage non-science majors to take higher-level, more difficult quantitative reasoning or science courses.

“I didn’t even consider taking more physics [after high school] because I didn’t want to take the risk,” Max Mikitish ’13 said.

Kagan said students should be able to see their final letter grades even in courses they elect to take Credit/D/Fail to better gauge their performance. All of the students in Chemistry Director of Undergraduate Studies Kurt Zilm’s general chemistry course are currently taking the class for a grade. Still, Zilm said teaching a course that many students take Credit/D/Fail would confuse his perception of his effectiveness since those students would likely invest less effort.

“I would like to know who to count and who not to count,” he said. “That can drag down the overall character of the class.”

This spring, 59 percent of students enrolled in “Constitutional Law” registered the course as Credit/D/Fail at the beginning of the semester — the largest proportion of any course with an enrollment over 25.


  • Grad2013

    From the perspective of a humanities grad student and TA…

    The Credit/D/F system at Yale is a disaster, and allowing students to change their grades after receiving their final marks would only exacerbate the problem. In my experience, Yale students use the the C/D/F option not to explore areas of study that are radically different from their major but to shield themselves from getting a (GASP!) B. In a humanities class at Yale, it is pretty difficult to get below a C, as long as a student turns in every assignment. As a result, students taking courses Credit/D/F often turn in work they should be ashamed of. I have more than once felt a Credit/D/F student was daring me to give him or her a D.

    The Credit/D/F system also complicates the jobs of TAs and professors in a way that, I believe, undermines our ability to help struggling students. When a Yale undergrad is earning a C in a course, there are generally three possible reasons: 1) the student does not understand the course material or expectations, 2) the student is having some kind of personal problem and is being distracted from his or her work, and 3) the student is taking the course Credit/D/F and thus does not care about the work at all. In my experience, the reason is most often #3, that the student is taking the course Credit/D/F. Believe it or not, most TAs care deeply about their students and their ability to help struggling students. We actually worry about our students who are struggling (as well as those who are excelling!). I have more than once spent much of a semester agonizing over how I could help a struggling student, only to find out that he or she was taking the class Credit/D/F. I later had another student who was struggling in my course. After too many students putting in no effort because they were taking the course Credit/D/F, I assumed he or she was probably doing the same, and I did not reach out to him or her for help and support the way I had in the past. When I found out he or she really was struggling, I felt awful for having overlooked the problem, but I also felt infuriated at the Credit/D/F system which has created a “boy who cried wolf” situation for TAs. We simply don’t know who needs help and who frankly just doesn’t care one iota about his or her performance in our course.

    Yale can do better. Do we really want students to be able to erase every B from their transcript? Those of you who are working hard and earning A’s should worry that this system makes your impressive grades mean much less.

  • chandlerpv

    I’m sorry that you have had bad experiences with Credit/D/F. Although what you must recognize is that there ARE other subject areas where Credit/D/F is used, and most often with good intentions. It is no secret that Yale is trying to boost the quality of their science programs. Credit/D/F affords people opportunities to attempt the science department here at Yale without sacrificing their other interests.

    In addition, allowing the change to Credit/D/F from letter grade in the semester may actually solve and mitigate some of your problems as a T.A. Rather than a class of students that pre-empt future problems in your section with the Credit/D/F option, you will be exchanged with students taking your courses with full attention and effort who change to the Credit/D/F option if something goes wrong. Then you are really pushed to assist students in need of help and can measure your own effectiveness with how many of them change grades.

  • River Tam

    Fourteen out of eighteen students interviewed have not taken Game Theory with Professor Polak.

  • Grad2013

    While I understand your point that if students knew they had the option to switch their grades from letter grades to Credit/D/F at the end of the term some would work harder throughout the semester rather than producing deliberately low-quality work throughout the term, I think such an argument undermines the purpose of the Yale education. Students should work hard not because they “must” earn all A’s, but because they want to learn and because their professors and TAs actually have things to teach them. I have made many conversations with students in which they have told me explicitly that they will switch to Credit/D/F to avoid a B. This is ridiculous. All students shouldn’t have all A’s on their transcripts. Given the rampant grade inflation at Yale (and elsewhere), it is already difficult to make distinctions among students’ work. Some students do absolutely outstanding work. Their grades at Yale are not much higher than those who do work that is frankly mediocre. Allowing students to purge their transcripts of Bs only de-values the work of the students who have earned excellent grades.

  • attila

    Pretty soon a Yale transcript (at least in the humanities) will consist of As and “Credits.” It’s amazing, when our peer universities are doing something about grade inflation, that our Dean is trying to make it worse.

  • Leah

    I agree that there are probably a fair number of students abusing the system, but I don’t really want to build the rules around the sucky people trying to cheat. I’d rather let engaged students try out really far afield classes comfortably than limit their options to prevent lazy/unmotivated people from behaving badly.

  • SY10

    Leah, the rules already let people take courses Credit/D if they’re hoping to “try out really far afield classes.” They can even switch from Credit/D to a grade if they turn out to find the material more accessible than they expected. But letting people switch from a letter grade to Credit/D after seeing their final grade (as the proposal under discussion seems to) would only help those who only care about maximizing their GPA.

  • piersonpiersoncollege

    Switching to Credit/D after seeing a final grade seems shady, but having the option to switch to Credit/D after shopping period would greatly benefit students, I think. It’s really difficult to gauge one’s course load during shopping period, especially if you’re interested in visiting a lot of different classes. I’ve also had the misfortune of taking two science classes – one intro-level and one higher level – in which the organization of the class and the professor’s teaching ability simply made doing well way more stressful than it was worth for me, a non-science major looking to explore what Yale has to offer (subpar teaching in science/math classes, especially at the lower level, is a separate issue, of course). It sucked to come out of those semesters with a grade damaging to my GPA simply because I didn’t opt to take the courses Credit/D in the first two weeks of the semester…

    Also, Grad2013, it seems to me asking your students in a survey at the beginning of the semester might be the way to go. That way it’s not too threatening (the slack-offs haven’t yet shown you that they’re slack-offs as opposed to busy students trying to balance difficult courses yet, so they won’t be afraid to tell you the truth) and you get the information ahead of time. While there certainly are ridiculous students who are afraid of Bs on their transcripts, there are also students who, in trying to balance schoolwork with delving into everything Yale has to offer beyond the classroom, would greatly benefit from a change in this policy – and who do benefit from the policy as it stands. One of my favorite classes I’ve taken at Yale was a class I took last semester Credit/D. I was more prepared for that class than I was for another seminar I took for a grade, although I definitely didn’t have time to do every assignment. Credit/D enabled me to take an awesome class where I really learned and contributed.

  • Grad2013

    It is my understanding that TAs are not allowed to ask students if they are taking courses Credit/D/F. In fact, we really aren’t supposed to discuss this with the students at all, though they often approach us when they are debating switching from a grade to Credit/D/F.

  • Jaymin

    C’mon people, the Cr/D/Fail system is already way more than generous.

  • Leah

    @SY10: Sorry for lack of clarity. I meant to direct my comment to the criticisms of the current system, not in support of the post-final grade change.

  • lmnop

    Some colleges allow you to state ahead of time what the lowest grade you will accept is. Then the letter grade only appears on your transcript if you get that grade or above. If below, but passing, it gives you a credit and a notation that the real grade was not recorded.

  • attila

    The loonies in the lefty-humanities departments are saying no ROTC because it will be the end of standards at Yale. (our crazy Dean included). But now the Dean wants to make it possible to change to Credit/D/Fail after you see you grade. Standards indeed.

  • yalie13

    I love Cr/D/Fail. It’s anxiety-relieving, lets me take classes for once with a peace of mind, and allows me to take classes I’d otherwise never take. I don’t think this proposal will happen, but I think if you’re allowed to do it a limited number of times, it could be beneficial. It’d prevent people from dropping classes often and wasting half of their semester because of a class that backfired.

  • wellwell

    As someone who’s currently contemplating a ‘W’ since I didn’t get my midterm back before the drop date, Cr/D/F would be a godsend.

    And yes, I’m really a struggling student, not a slacker.

  • JohnnyE

    Let’s get rid of the transcript altogether. No more letter grades, as they are far too judgmental. Strictly smiley face stickers. If you do exceptionally, you can get the ones that smell good when you scratch them.

  • ll394