Fixing the weaknesses in Yale’s Credit/D/Fail policy is a noble goal. But the changes to Cr/D/F approved by Yale’s faculty last week both fail to repair the current system and threaten to exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve.
The rationale Yale’s recently completed academic review presents for the changes is reasonable enough. Especially in Group IV, the review noted, students see Cr/D/F as the path of least resistance to fulfilling distributional requirements. Consequently, the new rules, in place beginning with the Class of 2009, prevent Cr/D/F courses from being used to meet those mandates. But rather than encouraging students to take more difficult courses outside their own distributional groups, the new policy could actually push them to take easier ones. And for those students who don’t take seriously courses in distributional groups they dislike, altering the Cr/D/F policy will do nothing to change that.
At the same time, the academic review said that disallowing Cr/D/F in more difficult courses discourages the kind of intellectual experimentation the option is supposed to foster. In response, the new policy allows every course in Yale College to be taken Cr/D/F, while still limiting students from taking more than four such courses. The logic here is right: There seems to be little rationale to why some professors allow their classes to be taken for credit and others do not. The Cr/D/F system should provide a way for students to avoid being penalized on their transcripts for choosing difficult classes, yet frequently, the most challenging classes are precisely the ones that must be taken for a grade.
Nevertheless, the solution approved last week misses a basic point: In some classes, offering a Cr/D/F option just does not work. Much of the value of a Yale education comes from engaging with other bright, talented students in the classroom. But that can only happen if students are actually engaged. In a large lecture class, it may not matter if the senior sitting next to you hasn’t opened the reading or even bought the books. But in a small seminar, the level of commitment your neighbor shows to the class can make all the difference.
The University could do well to search for a middle ground between the existing policy and its planned changes. More classes should be offered Cr/D/F, and if professors are going to take away that option, they should have good reasons. The solution likely lies in setting up a more uniform standard to determine which classes should have a Cr/D/F option; for example, requiring all courses to offer it except those smaller classes where participation is central to the learning experience. And the University should consider one additional change that is now being floated by the Yale College Council: making the deadline for changing a course from Cr/D/F to a grade two or three weeks later, a shift that would provide incentives for students to work as hard as possible for as long as possible.
If Cr/D/F is going to work better for students and improve the quality of a Yale education, it should encourage academic risk-taking without hurting the classroom environment. Unfortunately, the changes passed last week fail on both counts.