The Pitfalls and Privilege of Pass/Fail

I’ve never left a faculty meeting more incensed than I did today. For over 2 hours, the faculty body at my College nitpicked over the smallest things such as the presence or absence of 1 additional faculty member on the College writing committee/international programs committee/advancement committee/honor council. The primary reason for these amendments to a 1-year piloted proposal was that faculty should not risk losing their voice. What’s more is that we must ensure that every academic division has equal voice in these committees. God forbid the staff or even worse, the students, have more to say than us. For that reason, we must invoke 2 hours of conversation about 5 faculty slots on 4 College committees.

I stayed through those tedious conversations and did not actually get upset until the final bullet point on the agenda: should students be limited to 6 Pass/Fail courses?

pass fail

Now let’s take first things first. I have NO IDEA why students are allowed to take more than ONE course pass/fail. Who goes to college and doesn’t want to be assessed? But I will get to that in a second. Two primary arguments in support of UNLIMITED pass/fail were: a) what if the student is experiencing mental or physical health issues and can’t meet course requirements? b) it encourages students to explore different academic disciplines without the risk of a low grade affecting their GPA.

EXCUSE ME?????  As a psychologist, I am appalled we think we should encourage students with proven mental or physical illness to remain in college instead of taking a medical leave of absence and focusing on their health. This type of implicit expectation makes students who do choose to prioritize their health feel lesser than students who ‘tough it out’. As a result, we’ve seen the increase of college students with mental health diagnoses—especially anxiety disorders—rapidly increase over the last few years. We’ve consequently seen an increase in suicides and suicide attempts. We are so heavily invested in the culture of achievement that we are telling students to ignore their health needs and to help you do so, we will lower the standards for you just so you can ‘pass’ this course.

And yes. Taking a course pass/fail is indeed lowering the standards for that student. We are in essence saying that if you master 60% of the content (or 65%–whatever the cut off is for a D), that is good enough for you to receive college credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. In what vocation are you allowed to do just 60% of your job duties and still receive a pay check? What teacher begins a course hoping that students get 60% of the content? In what world is 60% proficiency acceptable?

I will tell you what world: the world of the privileged. The world where there is a perpetual and unyielding safety net. The world where there are no consequences associated with any decisions because someone else is there to either mitigate risk or assume it for them. Coming to college is in itself a risky decision. You are moving away from your family and your home and striking out on a new adventure full of social, emotional and academic challenges. Every course for which students sign up is a risk. No one but the professor knows the demands of that course and what it will take to be successful. It is not the faculty’s job to mitigate student risk. It is our job to ensure we provide them with the tools necessary to manage risk. If you enroll in Organic Chemistry because you were awesome in chemistry in high school, then you are knowingly making a decision to enroll in a course in which you may not earn an A. You are not entitled to an A. It is not my job to give you an A. You earn what you earn. And if you earn a D, deal with the consequences of it.

My next concern is with the cognitive concomitants of pass/fail. Any educational or social psychologist familiar with role theory understands the importance of expectations and accountability in the construction of a role. The message we are sending with unlimited pass/fails is that we don’t expect much of you in your role of student and we will in fact, give you the same reward for taking this course as someone who is being evaluated and held to higher standards. We are therefore failing to properly teach the rights, duties, obligations, and expectations of their social role in a college context. Empirical research suggests that being held accountable for one’s role behaviors is correlated with higher effort, higher intrinsic motivation to learn, an incremental view of intelligence, and more collaborative behaviors. To say it more simply, when students are not held accountable, they don’t invest in their learning. And for a school charging 55k a year, we are certainly encouraging a financial investment.

Lastly, the driving force behind my outrage is how this particular policy disadvantages marginalized groups lacking the social capital to effectively use it. Students who take a lot of courses pass/fail are those who don’t understand the long term consequences of a transcript with 4 courses without grades. Students from highly educated families have parents who tell them the pitfalls of not having a GPA or not being able to represent your competency through course grades. Students from families whose parents may not have attended college, who don’t know how higher education functions, or who’ve never had to produce an academic transcript for employment do not automatically know how to effectively use pass/fail options. When students come to me proposing to take a course pass/fail, I am sure to ask the following questions: How can a prospective employer evaluate your job readiness when all you have is a listing of courses with credit allocations beside it? How do they know your differential proficiencies in the discipline when your 200 level courses have the same outcome as your 400 level courses?  How will you be able to relay your achievement when a 90% is being interpreted as a 60%?

What’s more is the social perception of students who take classes pass/fail. I strongly believe that marginalized students enacting this option will be viewed differently than wealthy and/or white and/or legacy students doing the same. If I, as a 20 year old black girl, presented a transcript to prospective PhD programs with a lot of pass/fail courses, I would have been perceived as not having confidence in my abilities, not having a strong skill set, or afraid of failure. My white friends on the other hand would be perceived as academically venturesome, courageous, and smart in their decision to mitigate risk.

I was outraged that this dichotomy was not voiced at the faculty meeting. Where was the representation of marginalized students’ voices? Where were the faculty speaking on behalf of the students who are in my office in tears saying ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take courses pass/fail’? Faculty were instead concerned with ‘punishing’ students for taking a course outside of their comfort zone. They were also concerned with ‘students who are managing anxiety issues and wouldn’t be allowed to count a pass/fail course in their graduation credits’. Or my favorite, ‘the logistics of how much work it will take to track how many pass/fail courses a student has taken.’

At this point it is natural for you to wonder why I did not stand up and say these very things. I was close. So close, I did stand up. So close that a senior colleague sitting behind me asked what I was going to say and then suggested I ‘not say anything because this really only affects about 5% of the student body who actually take 8 or more courses pass/fail.’

Translation: those 5% are not worth this discussion.

That sentiment is what caused me to walk out. Her comment reinforced what I already knew to be true: anything I said would fall on deaf ears. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 3 years of these meetings is that voices are only heard when people consent to listen.