While sitting on an early morning bus to visit some friends at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I ran through several different scenarios in my mind: I was still traumatized from my latest physics midterm. I estimated what score I would receive, calculating what I would need to get on my next one to get that highly coveted “A,” predicting how a below-average grade would affect a potential application to graduate school years from now. All these convoluted thoughts and possibilities provided my worried mind with no reassurance, so I simply repressed the fear and moved on.
When I finally arrived at MIT, I was oddly eager to complain about the stresses of classes and grading with my friends, as we had done in high school. I went on rather lengthy tangents about my grades and my futile attempts to perfect them. I expected to hear similar stories of late nights and hardship from my peers. You can imagine my surprise when they claimed to have had no such experiences. “We have P/NR,” they said. “We don’t have to worry about grades yet.”
Pass/No Record, they explained to me, is MIT’s grading system for first-semester first years. Rather than giving students grades ranging from A to F, the school simply awards passing grades, “P’s”, for those students who successfully complete a class. They don’t keep record of any class that a student fails. According to MIT, they adopted this policy to “help [students] adjust to teaching and grading methods … without having to worry about accumulating a GPA.” It is like Yale’s Credit/D/Fail policy in that it serves as a kind of insurance policy. Unlike at MIT, however, our Credit/D/Fail classes count for almost nothing.
Pass/No Record for first years is not unique to MIT. Many other academic institutions employ similar variations of this system. Given that Pass/No Record can provide students with an easier transition into college, Yale should not hesitate to consider a similar system for its own first years.
The primary benefit of Pass/No Record, as MIT outlined, is that it allows students to gradually transition from their high school to university. At a school as rigorous as Yale, we can expect that students will find it difficult to adjust to coursework that is often more difficult than that they are used to. What’s more, some students might not have worked very hard in high school — not because they were lazy, but because they simply didn’t have to. Students who coasted through underprivileged high schools now find themselves in a situation where they have to fashion a work ethic out of nothing. And at the end of the day, Yale is about more than academics. Some might be so anxious about nonacademic pressures that their academic performance suffers as a result. Put all these things together and add the stress of a five-scale grading system and you’ve impeded overall adjustment and amplified stress to an often untenable level. Under a Pass/No Record system, a student can be free to explore their classes, adjust to academic rigor and dedicate time to ensuring their well-being, all without the persistent, subconscious fear of ruining their GPA.
A two-tiered grading system also helps eliminate the notion that earning high grades is the fundamental purpose of a formal education. Many undergraduate students come from a high school environment in which the priority was less about learning and more about earning high marks. While Yale would like to encourage its students to worry more about learning and less about the grades they receive, it cannot expect that students will suddenly adopt this mindset when placed in an academic environment that is, when it comes to grading, identical to the one from which they came. If they have been working for As rather than for knowledge their entire life, they will not do differently at Yale.
A fair criticism of the Pass/No Record system is that grades incentivize students to work: without grades, students will actually be worse off when grades are reintroduced. This is a legitimate concern. It is unrealistic to assume that every Yalie will just work “for the sake of learning.” Admittedly, with Pass/No Record, students would have to manufacture some internal motivation for the system to truly serve its purpose, but such an effort pays its dividends in the long run. A person capable of working through intrinsic discipline and not external goals is one best prepared to become successful in whichever field they choose. Removing grades for the first semester of the first year can set students on this path.
There is no variation of the grading system that will completely ease a student’s transition into college. There’s often no way to avoid the inevitable late nights, stress sessions and midterm tears that are unfortunate cornerstones of college life. There are, however, ways to limit the extent of that suffering and better prepare students for when it arrives. Pass/No Record, as opposed to a traditional, grade-oriented system, is one such way.
Carlos Carrillo-Gallegos is a first-year in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .