Opinion: Why Freshmen Should Be Able To Take a Class Pass/Fail

I feel a pang of empathy for the bored freshman a few rows away from me in our introductory Molecules and Cells class. He has his Macbook Pro out, and instead of diligently taking notes like the girl next to me, he is Googling “Boston College, computer science course, pass fail”. He’s out of luck because at Boston College, unlike Brown University (notorious for liberal P/F policy), freshmen are not permitted to take any courses, including electives that do not count towards core/major/minor, pass/fail. And for those of us lost souls who are kept up at night by seemingly never ending possibilities of study, this stringent policy serves as the lock to the door of self-discovery.

The motivation for taking a class pass/fail stems from an interest-ability dichotomy that I am all too familiar with. Being fascinated by a subject and absolutely sucking at it are not mutually exclusive. Coming from a public high school that lacked higher-level math and science courses, I was eager to learn about logic and computer science in a university setting. And despite failing to teach myself C ++ over the summer (I couldn’t get past Hello World), I greatly underestimated my lack of affinity for programming. Generally speaking, I don’t think it is uncommon for freshman to be unaware of their natural talents and capabilities; getting a 5 on your AP Econ exam doesn’t mean you were destined for CSOM, and being able to regurgitate Sparknotes doesn’t mean you should major in English. There is a lot of uncertainty and room for change in the first semester of college, which is not acknowledged by the university’s P/F policy.

If I had been able to take my introductory computer science class pass/fail, not only would my GPA be higher, but I would have learned considerably more. Instead of focusing on grasping concepts and ideas, I was paralyzed by the pressure to complete my problem sets correctly and on-time, no matter the cost. In my grade-grubbing mindset, I could care less whether or not I understood the logic behind the code; as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I was happy.

One assignment called for a program that would draw the American flag; in theory, it was supposed to apply mathematical concepts of recursion to produce the stars and stripes. Intimidated by having to think, and motivated solely by grades, I used copy and paste to tediously write each and every star and stripe on that flag. What could have been written in a few lines, I wrote in over 200. But it did the job, and I received full credit. Comically enough, I became adept at creating “knock-off” programs that imitated the correct answer, but would fall apart if given different variables.

Fear is both a powerful motivator and a discouraging inhibitor. In terms of trying an elective course that genuinely interests you, however, I think it functions more as the latter. Grades, like capitalism, are necessary because they drive people to produce great things. I would not have memorized the 20 amino acids if I were not being tested on them, and Apple would not have come up with the iPhone if they couldn’t sell it for money.

But in special cases, these systems ought to be suspended to encourage the development of goods that would otherwise be discouraged under natural conditions such as public education, welfare programs, scientific research, and in the case of grades, guileless, uncorrupted learning for the sake of learning. If freshmen were allowed to take a course pass/fail, perhaps I would have become a more efficient programmer instead of mastering the art of tricking my TA’s into thinking my programs were legit.

Image via Gavel Media.