Students, faculty react to spring credit/no-credit grading system

by Kyle Mullins | 3/24/20 12:43am

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by Arya Kadakia / The Dartmouth

In light of the College’s decision to implement a credit or no credit grading system for all spring undergraduate courses, many students have applauded the administration for a measure that they believe will make grading fairer for those faced with extra difficulties posed by remote classes. Meanwhile, a number of students have called for an option to opt out of the policy. 

Spring term classes will be recorded on students’ transcripts as “CT” for credit or “NC” for no credit, provost Joseph Helble wrote in a campus-wide email on Monday morning. While these courses may still count towards majors and general education requirements, they will not factor into students’ grade point averages and that median grades will not be reported, according to Helble. 

Student Assembly president Luke Cuomo ’20 said that he agreed with the move, noting that the decision is the “fairest and most appropriate policy.” 

Cuomo said that he thinks the policy makes sense because this spring will be the first time online classes will be implemented at Dartmouth — increasing the strain on professors and students alike.

Helble wrote in his email that the new grading policy is intended to accommodate students amid the various challenges that will arise from remote learning, such as time zones differences, limited internet access or the need to provide care for family members. 

Some students, however, do not agree with the change. Max Orman-Kollmar ’20 said that while he understands the move to credit/no credit in order to support students with accessibility issues or other circumstances, he was “annoyed” by the decision to deny students a choice. 

“Not even giving us the option of opting in to release our grades if we do well enough is absurd,” Orman-Kollmar said. 

He added that he was looking forward to receiving grades, hoping to boost his GPA with an easier art course to fulfill a distributive requirement. Additionally, he wanted his grade in the engineering class ENGS 26, “Control Theory” to appear on his transcript because it relates to his career aspirations. 

“I want to illustrate, ‘Here, look, I got an A in this course, I did such-and-such project,’” Orman-Kollmar said. “Just getting a ‘pass’ takes that away from me.”

Hannah Jarvis ’23, on the other hand, said she agreed with the change because she has friends who need the flexibility that the credit/no credit grading system offers. 

“I have a lot of friends who do have those circumstances — they don’t have internet or they have a sibling to take care of — and so I was thinking about them, because I want them to do well,” Jarvis said.

The decision comes as Dartmouth’s peer institutions have also made changes to grading policies for the remainder of their spring semesters. Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Yale University and some departments at Harvard University have all expanded pass/fail grading or similar options in some capacity. The structures of the policies differ from school to school. At Penn, for example, students must opt in to the system, whereas at Duke, students must opt out and can petition to receive a letter grade.

Economics department chair Nina Pavcnik indicated that some details of the new grading policies — including how credit and no credit grades should be determined — are being left up to academic departments and professors. 

According to the Office of the Registrar’s website, a grade of “NC” indicates a “failure to complete the course satisfactorily according to criteria to be announced by the instructor at the beginning of the term.” College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email statement that “credit” and “no credit” marks do not correspond to any specific letter grades.

Thayer School of Engineering dean Alexis Abramson, who was involved in conversations with Helble and other deans about crafting the policy, said that faculty are being advised to continue to give letter grades on assignments in order to provide more nuanced feedback as to student performance in the class. 

“It provides students with the feedback that they need,” Abramson said, pointing specifically to prerequisite courses, in which getting a specific grade may indicate how well a student has mastered information before moving on to the next level. 

Pavcnik said that after the decision to move to credit/no credit grading was announced, the economics department received requests from a number of students to switch into ECON 20, “Econometrics” and ECON 21, “Microeconomics” — two difficult courses that are required for all economics majors. 

Abramson said that students choosing to change their courses for the spring term is simply something that will occur under this new policy.

“The goal here is not to achieve perfection. There's no solution to all of this that is going to be perfect — we are not living that life right now,” Abramson said. “So, if some students are going to play the system a little bit to change things around, then they do, and that's just gonna have to be how it works for this term.”

Lawrence wrote that class enrollment will continue to be determined by departments and professors during the spring term. She added that only a net 46 additional students have changed their D-Plans to “R” this term — indicating that they will take classes during the spring — because Dartmouth “also had almost as many students change from R to leave.”

Pavcnik and Abramson both said that in the case of their respective departments, enrollment would not be expanded beyond the current offerings in their respective departments. Pavcnik noted that it is difficult to add sections of classes at this point, as the department has to be prepared for contingencies like faculty illnesses.

“One thing we pride ourselves on at Dartmouth is that there is a lot of close interaction between faculty and students,” Pavcnik said. “If we increase enrollment, even if those courses happen online, we can’t offer the same range of interactions that would otherwise happen.”

Thomas Knight ’22 said that while he agreed that some form of grading changes was needed, his ideal scenario would have allowed students to be able to see their grades, perhaps at the end of the term, before choosing whether to use a credit/no credit grading system for the class or remain with the normal letter grading system. 

“When you take a class at Dartmouth, you are paying to have your work assessed critically,” Knight said. He also worried about the impact that the lack of grades on a transcript would have on students who were seeking competitive internships or jobs.

Cuomo, on the other hand, posited that allowing students to opt out of the credit/no credit system would “penalize” students with external circumstances that prevented them from opting out. 

“In theory, if they’re opting in [to letter grades], it’s because they think they’re going to do well, and those students will improve their academic standing, while students who aren’t able to opt in won’t have that same benefit,” Cuomo said. 

Jarvis, a pre-med student, said that she was switching out of a difficult biology class this term because she wants medical schools to see her grade on her transcript. 

“It’s a hard class, and I want to show that I got the good grade,” Jarvis said. 

According to Helble, summer term courses will be evaluated using the normal letter grading system, even if they are taught remotely. 

Kaitlyn Kelley ’22 said she sent an email to Helble stating that she supports the move to credit/no credit grading for the spring, but that she questions why the College would return to normal grading for the summer term even if it is online. In the email, she argued that students will still “be challenged by time zones, have limited access to bandwidth or necessary hardware, have caretaking demands and may fall ill” should the pandemic continue. 

Government department chair Russell Muirhead said that, regardless of grading policy, professors are working hard to put together courses for the spring term. 

“The campus is lonely without you,” he added. “We can’t wait for you all to come back and to see you all again in our real, actual classrooms.”

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