Colin: A is for Academic Enthusiasm

The new credit/no credit grading system is not as bad as we make it out to be.

by Sarah Colin | 4/9/20 2:00am

Dartmouth’s enactment of a mandatory credit/no credit grading system was met — perhaps surprisingly — with widespread frustration among students. Students have cited various issues with this new system, including the lack of opportunity to raise one’s grade point average or to show achievement in a particular course. This reaction is a testament to the strong work ethic of Dartmouth students. While it’s natural for high-achieving, aspirational students to feel lost in a class without the incentive of an A, we don’t have to see things that way. Instead, now’s the chance to view the credit/no credit grading system as an opportunity to embrace learning for its own sake and — as too infrequently happens at Dartmouth — to focus on our passions without the stress of grades.

Despite the love of learning that characterizes Dartmouth students, our concerns about grades often lead us to make decisions based on considerations other than our academic passions.  Unfortunately, the prospect of doing poorly frequently deters students from taking classes that interest them. For instance, in the introductory computer science class, “COSC 1,” Introduction to Programming and Computation, there were only 128 and 190 students enrolled in 19F and 20W respectively, whereas 275 students are enrolled for this spring. COSC 1 is widely regarded as a difficult course. While the non-recording option should provide the opportunity to regularly take academic risks, students often hesitate to choose the NRO and potentially forgo distributive credits, never mind concerns over how an “NRO” might look on a transcript. Even with the NRO, there is still some pressure on the student to meet their cut-off grade. This term’s enrollment shows that there is clearly a widespread interest in learning to code — and that students are much more willing to pursue this interest when their GPAs are not at stake.

Beyond course selection, one of the main concerns with the credit/no credit system is its potential effect on students’ conduct and performance in class. Grades normally incentivize students to actively participate, seek extra help and study the course material. This term, that incentive is gone. Realistically, students could do very minimal work in some classes and still finish with the exact same passing grade they would receive if they tried their hardest. In these circumstances, what’s to say students will put in effort this spring? 

Since the 1920s, Yale School of Medicine has operated under a unique system without grades or exams. And yet, Yale consistently boasts one of the most impressive lists of medical residency  placements, showing that Yale medical students are still highly motivated and academically successful despite the lack of quantification of their achievements. As an elite institution with a similar focus on academics and learning, Dartmouth ought to expect its students to rise to the occasion and engage in classes with the same enthusiasm rather than using it as an excuse to slack off.

Of course, nothing is forcing students to give their usual effort this term. But instead of slacking off, let’s use this as an opportunity to experience the joy of learning without the worry that grades normally inflict. Without our normal sports practices, club meetings and social activities, we now have extra time to dive deeper into topics we find genuinely interesting. An intriguing news article? A complicated proof? Take that passion and run with it, and it may even lead to a project that will serve you well down the road. Without grades at stake, we can take more risks in our classes, whether that’s taking on a controversial essay topic or tackling a difficult yet rewarding research project. School is not always fun, but this term certainly can be.

While many students are still upset about the credit/no credit grading system, it isn’t going away, and it’s crucial that we learn to embrace its merits. Rather than cutting corners, we should use the new system as an opportunity to pursue our academic passions and develop balanced practices normally inhibited by the stress of grades.