Universal pass/fail puts grades before learning


View other op-eds about Middlebury’s remote grading policy here.

What is the purpose of Middlebury College?

I’ll spare you the flowery language of the college’s official mission. I think the mission for every liberal arts college could be boiled down to one sentence: “To teach and educate its students.”

Therefore, when the college considers any policy, the first thing to do is to ask, “Does this policy address the ultimate goal of educating students?”  Does universal pass/fail system, under which all classes for all students would be graded pass/fail with limited exceptions (the #NoFailMidd petition has changed at least twice regarding who exactly would be exempt), help teach Middlebury’s students?

The answer is that it does not. In fact, as of the time this is being written, the petitioners do not argue that it does, either. There is no doubt that this pandemic will disproportionately affect some students more than others. However, we should not ask ourselves how we can make sure everyone receives the same on-paper outcome, but rather how we can help those who need support.

I propose that the college should provide the option for students to retake their classes for grades in future semesters, even if it means they take six classes at a time. This would solve the root of the problem — not learning the material — as opposed to the outcome of the problem — not getting a job or a place in graduate school. I concede that this would be a harder and more costly solution. We would have to expand class sections and section sizes, perhaps providing online options for those who have graduated or could not physically make it to class. But it is ultimately the right thing to do to serve what should be the college’s ultimate goal: teaching its students. Getting a C this semester is not a reflection of a student’s intelligence, ability, character or strength. There is no shame in getting a C or an even lower grade this semester.

Pragmatically, of course, a C would be harmful for graduate school applications and job applications, but worse is not sufficiently learning the material before taking those next steps. Not knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, for example, is detrimental for those who wish to enter med school. Universal pass/fail does absolutely nothing to help struggling students learn; in fact, it disincentives some from paying attention.

Adopting the universal pass/fail system suggests that the college is more focused on getting its students jobs or places in grad school, rather than providing them with the knowledge they need for those paths. Middlebury should be an institution that priorities teaching and dedicates itself to the education of its students, not a factory of good looking transcripts.

Tim Hua is a member of the class of 2023.5.

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