Massachusetts Institute of Technology does it. So does John Hopkins University. And Brown University. Maybe we should think about it too. What exactly is it that these schools do, you ask? They allow first semester grades to be pass/fail for freshmen, providing a blessed grade buffer during that stressful time when students are first adjusting to college life. I’d like to think that in terms of rigorous course load and caliber of students, the University of Michigan is no less than the big names on the East Coast. And perhaps we should consider taking a leaf out of their books.
Having almost completed my first year and looking back on the first semester, I can conclude that along with being a completely new and exciting experience, freshman year was the biggest blur of my life. Between adjusting to living away from home, keeping up with class work, meeting dozens of new people and, on top of it all, maintaining a pretty respectable GPA, there was no time for anything else. Needless to say, freshman year is a challenge — with so much to keep track of, it’s difficult to juggle everything without losing your mind.
Taking into account the stress of adjusting to college, some of the nation’s top universities have installed a grade buffer for incoming freshmen. At these universities, the first semester for freshman year is pass/fail. This is something the administration here should seriously consider. There are regular concerns about the mental health of college students, especially when they are first adapting to college life. And let me tell you, the looming pressure of writing an A grade English 125 paper, while simultaneously not failing the upcoming orgo, calc and econ exams, doesn’t do much for mental health.
Coming into college, what I found most shocking was how much grading differed across classes. It isn’t just about managing time skillfully enough to do all the work (and do it well), but there is also the added burden of calculating exactly what counts and how much it counts for. It very quickly becomes a game of figuring out what percentage of points is necessary to get by, and what is the easiest way to achieve that.
Not only that, but each professor and GSI has a different lecturing and teaching style. It’s one thing to have to adjust to a new schedule and course load, but to also have to decipher the teaching and grading styles of each instructor is an added burden. It often takes new students a good three to four weeks of classes to get a grasp of what is demanded and how they will be evaluated. And, in a 15-week class, there isn’t always much time to catch up.
Not fretting about safeguarding a delicate GPA frees up time and brainpower for first-year students to delve into classes. As a freshman, when you’re taking classes to explore potential career paths or reaffirm current ones, it makes sense to do just that — explore. But, when you’re stressing about getting a 90 percent on the next exam, there isn’t much time or energy left for exploring.
There are people who will say a pass/fail policy will just give incoming freshmen an excuse to not take school seriously. But, the students who genuinely care about the class will still care. By not being bogged down by the pressure to get good grades, they will have more opportunities to creatively explore the subject. They’ll be less worried about making mistakes or getting penalized for having the wrong answer, which means students will be more likely to take risks in terms of how they approach a topic. They’ll be inclined to begin thinking about the topic and field of study itself, as opposed to the end grade.
Sure, there’s a difference in the quality of work demanded at the college level, and freshman year is expected to be tough. But we’ve all heard the disaster stories from freshman year — the classes that we never imagined would be so tough, the professors whose lectures were more a cryptic code than lessons and the papers that just didn’t get written coherently at 3 a.m. I’m not saying this should be a free-for-all. I’m saying we all would have wanted a little bit of a break. Just for one semester.
Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor.