Faculty Debate Future of Pass/Fail

By Ethan Brady

At their plenary session on Nov. 6, faculty introduced a motion to reinstate the Pass/D/Fail option for Middlebury undergraduates. The Pass/D/Fail (P/D/F) option, which was approved by the faculty in May 2012 under a six-semester trial period, will expire on Dec. 31, 2015. Faculty members will meet in small groups on Dec. 14 to discuss the measure, and then will formally vote on the motion at their next plenary session on Jan. 15. If the motion passes, the option will go into effect immediately, so that students can invoke it as soon as the spring 2016 term.

Faculty rules state that a proposal to change major educational policy cannot be voted on at the same faculty meeting in which it is presented. According to Suzanne Gurland, Dean of Curriculum, the motion is considered to be major educational policy.
“The idea behind that is to ensure the faculty have time to fully discuss and consider thoughtfully what the proposal is rather than voting in the moment without proper consideration,” she said.

For the current semester, students taking a course under the P/D/F option who receive a grade of C- or higher will have a pass (P) grade recorded on their transcripts. Students who receive a grade of D or F will have that respective grade recorded on their transcripts. A grade of D or F will count in the GPA. A grade of P will not.

The student handbook currently limits students to taking one P/D/F course per semester and they must be enrolled in at least three other courses with standard grading to take an additional course P/D/F. Students may only take a maximum of two courses under P/D/F in their undergraduate career. Classes taken with the option may not be used to satisfy distribution, college writing or cultures and civilization requirements and do not count towards a major or minor.

BannerWeb allows professors to see which of their students have invoked the option, but not by default. Some may choose to view this, but others may not. Faculty will be required to enter a letter grade for all students, but behind the scenes letter grades of C- through A will be converted to a grade of “P” (Pass), while a grade of D or F will remain.

The largest point of contention at the Nov. 6 plenary session was the deadline for invoking the P/D/F option. Currently that deadline is the end of the second week of classes. Students may elect the P/D/F option for a course in which they are already registered during the add period (i.e., within the first two weeks of the semester). The deadline for changing a course from P/D/F to standard grading is the drop deadline, or the end of the fifth week of the semester.

Some faculty spoke about shifting the deadline back in the semester so that it coincides with the drop deadline, which is the end of the fifth week of classes. They indicated that extending the timeline would reduce the stress scheduling among students. Many courses are structured so that graded work is not returned until well into the semester, some faculty said, so that it may be difficult for students to gauge their standing in a course by the second week of classes. Moving the P/D/F deadline to the fifth week might allow for more informed decisions by students as to whether they feel they should invoke the option.

At the most recent meeting of the Commons deans, Natasha Chang, Dean of Brainerd Commons, proposed pushing all deadlines related to P/D/F, as well as the Add/Drop deadline, back to the end of the eighth week of classes. Tiffany Chang ’17, student co-chair of Community Council, has been in communication with Chang and initiated a response in the SGA senate. She and Senator Reshma Gogineni ’16 drafted two bills regarding the Add/Drop deadline and along with Senator Madeleine Raber ’17 are hoping to get those bills merged with amendments to the faculty proposal in time for January’s formal vote.

According to Gurland, the faculty Educational Affairs Committee (EAC) has introduced the motion with the same wording as the current P/D/F option. The only difference, she said, is that the proposed motion has no expiration date, or sunset clause. When approved in May 2012, the original language specified a six-semester trial run after which the option would expire.

“I think in general there was some sense that we should be cautious about this; it was a brand new thing that Middlebury had never done before,” said Gurland. “Since all handbook language can be changed over time, the act of putting a sunset clause in the language was a way of explicitly identifying it as a trial run. Some faculty felt like we should try it out for a period of time and then evaluate how it is working—whether it would be doing what it was intended to do.”

Jason Arndt, professor of psychology and a member of the Educational Affairs Committee who presented the motion, said that this proposal to shift the deadline for invoking the option might be considered an amendment to the motion. He also said the EAC’s opinion on the matter is very much in flux.

“Since this is a major academic policy, we are operating according to standard procedures, which is to allow faculty to discuss the motion, provide feedback, and then use the data and suggestions to help us refine the proposal, if necessary,” Arndt said. “However, the ultimate decision on Pass/D/Fail rests with the faculty in the January faculty meeting—the EAC’s role is to propose educational policy for the faculty to vote on. We will have a better sense for how the faculty feel about the fifth-week proposal after we hold small group meetings, and when it comes up for debate and discussion in the January faculty meeting.”

In preparation for introducing the original motion at the Nov. 6 faculty plenary session, EAC requested data about students’ use of P/D/F from the Office of the Registrar. Of the 514 individual grades given under P/D/F between spring 2013 and spring 2015, there were no grades of D, one grade of F, and one grade marked incomplete. The most commonly awarded grade was B. In every semester since spring 2013, more than half of the students who invoked the option were seniors.

At the plenary session on Nov. 6, several faculty members presented mixed interpretations about the data, which were sent to all faculty in a document prior to the meeting. Some questioned whether the data gathered by the registrar accurately portrayed students’ tendencies in invoking the P/D/F option. According to Gurland, the data was not conclusive on the efficacy of the option in encouraging students to go outside their academic comfort zones.

“The hope in passing the option in 2012 with a sunset clause was that by the time six semesters had passed we would know if it’s working,” she said. “Ideally, by now we would be able to see concrete results showing whether the option was achieving what it set out to do—which is to encourage students to explore the curriculum beyond their comfort zone. Yet the results are not concrete either way, so we can’t draw definite conclusions.”

The current system of distribution requirements for the baccalaureate degree gives students the option of taking courses in seven of the possible eight academic categories. A student can neglect to take a course in one of the eight academic categories and still graduate. The two most common categories for students to skip are foreign language (LNG) and physical and natural sciences (SCI).

“One way to think about P/D/F is to say, if it’s succeeding in encouraging students to branch out where they otherwise wouldn’t, then probably we should see many students using P/D/F in courses that have a LNG or SCI tag,” Gurland said. The data do not show any significant increase in students who invoked P/D/F for these courses, she said.

The discussion about distribution requirements at the faculty meeting prompted some faculty to speak about P/D/F’s implications on grade inflation at the College. An alternative interpretation to the proposal came at the faculty session, when Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry expressed his worries about high-achieving students gaming the system. He spoke about two students who took his course PSCI 0102 American Political Regime under P/D/F. Both students got an A-, which converted to a grade of P, and both graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He suggested that the students might have taken his course P/D/F because an A- might have prevented them from being elected to PBK.

Election to Middlebury’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter is determined on a percentile basis, rather than by a raw GPA cutoff, as is the case for academic honors. There is no absolute GPA cutoff for eligibility, and since the basis for election is no more than 10% of the graduating class, the College cannot stipulate in advance what the minimum GPA needed for election to Phi Beta Kappa will be in any given year.

Dry said that relegating PBK qualification to GPA in the context of the class prevents any consideration of the rigor and comprehensiveness of the transcript. “This is just inference,” he added. “The point of this option was to encourage students to take courses outside their comfort zones. But as perhaps an unintended consequence, I report that some students might be gaming the system. They’re good students—but I’m suggesting they might see the difference between an A- and an A in their GPA as the primary factor in deciding to take a class Pass/D/Fail.”

During the trial period, about one percent of all individual grades assigned to Middlebury undergraduates were under P/D/F, while about six percent of all grades were eligible to be taken under the option. Students invoked the option for about 17 percent of eligible courses. “Since only a tiny proportion of all grades at the College are given under Pass/D/Fail it would be hard to argue that some massive harm is being done to the integrity of the curriculum,” said Kathryn Morse, Professor of History and John C. Elder Professor in Environmental Studies.

She suggested that both faculty and students gather more data in order to see exactly how students perceive and use the option. “I remain curious,” she said. “The data are as yet inconclusive, but we should keep the experiments going further and see what the data show us.”

Morse expressed excitement for the discussions leading up to the January vote, informally polling students in many of her classes about their feelings on P/D/F.

“It seems to me to be used more often as a tool for workload management than as a vehicle for intellectual curiosity. But I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”