Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer

When Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun stepped into his position in the fall of 2017, he brought with him a host of ideas for change, particularly in one academic policy area: the Credit/D/Fail option. Now, Chun has set his sights on pushing the deadline for declaring the option further into the semester “as much as possible,” he said.

Over the past four years, the Credit/D/Fail [CDF] option has undergone several major revisions — and Chun has no plans to slow down anytime soon. In a recent interview with the News, Chun shared his thoughts on the future of CDF, with students and faculty weighing in, too.

“I’ve been on a mission since I became dean to push the [CDF] deadline later and later,” Chun said.

Chun hinted at a desire to further extend the deadline until after the term to convert a course credit from a letter grade to CDF — students should have access to “full information to make their decision,” he said. He also discussed the debate over whether CDF should apply to courses taken to fulfill distributional requirements or the requirements of a major. 

Several students diverged over questions of specific policy proposals, but they agreed on one thing: the current grading system often pushes students to prioritize GPAs over intellectual curiosity. Computer science professor Michael Fischer concurred.

“I’m afraid the message that gets conveyed to the students is that grades and GPAs are a game, and your job is to play the game so as to maximize your GPA, not to maximize the value of your Yale experience,” Fischer told the News. 

“Unintended consequences”: Yale’s current policies and their side effects

According to the 2021-2022 Handbook for Instructors of Undergraduates in Yale College, the goal of the CDF option is to “encourage academic experimentation and to promote diversity in students’ programs.”

Students have a maximum of six opportunities to convert courses from a letter grade to CDF during their undergraduate career. Two of those opportunities are intended specifically for newly-matriculated students and expire if not used in the first two terms of enrollment, a policy first introduced in the 2020-2021 school year. Students may take up to two courses CDF in any given semester and must also take at least two courses for letter grades or for a mark of “pass,” such as in an independent study course. Students may convert course credits to CDF until the last day of classes in a term — this semester, Dec. 10.

Students seeking a bachelor’s degree are not currently permitted to apply credit earned in courses taken CDF towards fulfillment of distributional requirements. The ability to fulfill major requirements with courses taken CDF varies between departments. Major-specific regulations can be found on the 2021-2022 Yale College Programs of Study website.

Erin Bailey ’24 — a former copy editor for the News and a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major on the pre-med track — said that she has yet to CDF a course because of its limiting effect on fulfilling distributional requirements. Bailey added that while she would love to explore more language courses beyond what is obligatory for distributional requirements, she worries about the potential impact on her GPA, especially because she plans to apply to graduate programs.

Chun expressed similar concerns about whether the current grading system limited intellectual curiosity and experimentation. 

“I just worry about the unintended consequences of forcing a letter grade, which is that it actually limits their exploration and forces them to take easier courses that are more manageable even if it’s not what they’re truly interested in,” Chun said.

In the spring of 2020, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yale College Dean’s Office decided to extend the CDF option to all courses taken in that semester. Under that policy — announced in late March — students were allowed to CDF an unlimited number of courses, including courses taken to fulfill distributional or major requirements or the senior essay. Courses taken CDF that semester would not count against the four-credit limit in place at the time. In early April 2020, the College decided to instead adopt a universal pass/fail policy for the semester following similar moves from peer institutions and weeks of student advocacy.

Iris Li ’24, academic policy director for the Yale College Council, told the News that she supports changes to the current system. Li said that she wishes students could “push [themselves]” academically without fear of how it might affect their GPAs or come across to employers or graduate school admissions officers. 

In the absence of reform, students have devised strategies for navigating the CDF system.

A student on a varsity sports team — who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from teammates — said in an interview with the News that when they arrived at Yale as a first year, they quickly learned from teammates how to use CDF to their advantage.

“There were courses that were whispered about that were kind of the [CDF] courses,” they said. “And that would mean if you needed another class — a fifth or a fourth class — you could [CDF] a class and you could do absolutely nothing for the course. You didn’t have to go to class, you didn’t have to do the reading, you didn’t have to do the work. You could simply show up for the midterm and the final and you could pass them knowing absolutely nothing.”

“The biggest waste”: The push to extend conversion deadlines

At the end of every term, professors submit final grades in letter form for all their students. For courses in which students have elected CDF, the registrar subsequently converts grades ranging from A to C-minus into credit, while grades of D-plus and below are recorded in letter form. Students only see their transcripts following that conversion process.

Professors are unable to see which students in their courses have converted to CDF until after final grades are submitted. Fischer said that he occasionally sees students convert to CDF who earned a reasonably high grade in the course, like an A-minus or a B-plus, and “feels so bad” for the student. 

“I think that’s the biggest waste,” Chun said. “You know, you take a course all the way, three-quarters of the way in, and then drop it and all that effort goes away.”

Major reform came in the fall of 2018, when the CDF deadline was extended to the midterm point of the semester. Prior to the policy change, students had to choose whether to take a class CDF or for a letter grade before sealing their schedules, meaning they weren’t able to experience a class before deciding whether to convert it.

One major difference prior to the 2018 reform, though, was that students had until the midterm period to convert a course taken CDF back to a letter grade. Now, there is no option to reverse the application of a CDF.

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, the conversion deadline was again extended from midterm to the last day of classes.

According to Chun, pushing back the CDF deadline carries multiple benefits, most significantly that students are empowered to make more informed decisions. Extending the decision deadline enables students to “persist” in challenging courses, Chun said, and also helps prevent students from dropping courses entirely.

Li supports the retroactive conversion proposal in part because many students often end up performing better than expected in courses they CDF, but never have the opportunity to learn their final grade. Nate Reid ’24, a double major in art and architecture said that extending the conversion deadline to after transcripts are released seemed “feasible and fair.”

“Accessible and appealing”: CDF for distributional and major requirements

According to Li, the YCC in recent years has advocated for the expansion of CDF’s applicability to distributional requirements.

“I think for a lot of people, the classes you may end up choosing to fulfill a distributional requirement are out of your comfort zone or out of your major,” Li said. “It’s not a totally mind-blowing idea to have students count the courses that they take out of their comfort zone as pass-fail.”

Bailey concurred, saying that she thinks students should be able to CDF distributional requirements because “you don’t need to master them and the greater purpose is to explore areas of interest.”

Chun acknowledged the validity of concerns about applying CDF to distributional requirements, particularly small seminar-style classes like language courses. If students use CDF as an opportunity to decrease attendance or participate less frequently, that disrupts the class as a whole, Chun said.

Standardization should be central to any proposed CDF reforms, Li told the News, adding that her experience with CDF policies across different departments has been inconsistent. Li, who matriculated to Yale as a prospective applied math major, said that one main appeal of the department was the ability to CDF a core course. But now, as a combined major in economics and mathematics, that provision no longer applies.

Applying consistent CDF policy across majors would make certain departments more “accessible and appealing,” Li said, especially majors where “there is just one class to get hung up on.” She cited as an example the computer science course entitled “Introduction to Systems Programming and Computer Organization.” The course has an average workload rating of 4.9 on a 5-point scale on the website CourseTable.

Chun said that he understands the perspective that if students are able to CDF a course that fulfills a distributional or major requirement, they will not fully engage with the course content. Especially in disciplines where knowledge from foundational courses is “scaffolded” and built upon in more advanced courses — like mathematics or computer science, for example — taking foundational courses CDF might run the risk of “setting yourself up for failure,” Chun said.

“In some majors there is a very strong pedagogical justification for why it should not be allowed,” Chun said. 

Lari Ho ’23, a double major in French and economics, said that while she would love the opportunity to take more electives in her major, like advanced econometrics, her fear of performing poorly in the intensive course has kept her from enrolling, even though the material interests her.

“I wish there was more flexibility in ability to use [CDF] for major prerequisites, but understand due to the building nature of majors, you want to ensure mastery in the core foundations of the major,” Bailey told the News.

Reid told the News that as a first year, he withdrew from a mathematics course rather than electing the CDF option because he was unsure of whether he could pass the class with a high enough mark to earn credit. 

While Reid said he thought that the proposal to extend CDF to major requirements seemed like a “cop-out,” he added that he wished a provision was in place to CDF courses required for a major that weren’t directly related to the department — for example, as an architecture major, Reid is required to take a mathematics course, though the major itself is much more design-based, he said. 

But Fischer, a computer science professor, took a different view. He said that proposals to extend CDF to distributional requirements and major requirements “are both absolutely bad.”

Fischer said that he worries students lack the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions about how options like CDF might impact their future. He speculated that external people reading transcripts — like employers or graduate school admissions officers — might lack the necessary context to assess the appearance of a “credit” on a transcript and surmise that it represents poorer performance than the mid-level letter grades that often lead Yale students to CDF a class.

According to Chun, the issue of CDF has been “carefully reviewed” by the Committee on Teaching and Learning multiple times, and every time, the same decision has come back to not extend CDF to distributional or major requirements. 

“It’s a view that I personally do not share as a faculty member, but I respect the fact that some faculty feel that students do not fully engage in a course if they’re taking it CDF,” Chun said. “These are all healthy debates the faculty have.” 

“Look at Harvard and what they’re doing”: How other universities compare

From Li’s perspective, if the College reformed its CDF policies, courses typically known as “guts” for their lower-intensity status would attract more applicants who are enrolling because they are genuinely passionate about the material, and courses known to be more intense would attract applicants who want to fully engage in the material without grade-induced anxiety. 

“Yale often acts like [CDF] goes against the entire premise of liberal arts institutions, and I’m like, well, look at Harvard and what they’re doing,” Li said.

There are myriad similarities and differences between the pass-fail policies of Yale’s peer institutions. Like Yale, Princeton students may take up to four classes pass/d/fail during their undergraduate careers, but they are only permitted to pass/d/fail one course in any given term, versus two at Yale. Unlike Yale, students at Princeton may take distribution courses pass/d/fail. 

While Yalies can opt-in to CDF up until the last day of classes, Princetonians may only convert to pass/d/fail between the seventh and ninth week of the semester. At Brown University, students may elect the satisfactory/no credit option for a class within the first four weeks of the semester. At Harvard, undergraduates have an unlimited number of pass/fail opportunities, with some exceptions for degree requirements.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the grading landscape looks quite different. During the first semester of an MIT student’s first year, all courses are graded on a pass/no record scale, and during the second semester, all courses are graded on an ABC/no record scale. After the first semester, students may use the flexible pass/no record option on up to 48 units during their undergraduate careers.

“All three of these proposals… throw back to the student the job of deciding, ‘Okay, now that I’m allowed to manipulate my transcript in certain ways, how should I play this game to maximize my advantage?’” Fischer said. “This is not what we teach at Yale and so I don’t expect you or any other students to know really how to play that game. Some people will be better at it than others. But it becomes a game, not a serious academic endeavor, which is what an education should be about.”

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Olivia Tucker covers student policy and affairs. She previously served as an associate editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and covered gender equity and diversity as a staff reporter. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in English.