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Changes to Pass/Fail Under Consideration

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The Curriculum Committee is considering changes to pass/fail policies in an attempt to reform the credit/no credit system. On Feb. 17th, Provost Tom Stephenson sent out descriptions of the proposals and a survey on students’ policy preferences to the student body via email. The changes to the policy include making a D- a passing grade for first-year students, making the threshold for passing a course taken as CR/NC consistent among all class years, and making a C- or better appear as credit.  A D+, D or D- in a class taken as CR/NC would have the letter grade appear on the transcript but still earn credit. Another proposal is to change the deadline for electing to take a course CR/NC no later than the 13th week of the semester rather than the 9th, and reduce the number of classes a student can opt for CR/NC after the first semester from four to three. These changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and beyond.

Students generally supported the proposals with the exception of the measure decreasing the number of CR/NC selections. Of the 420 students who responded to the survey, 53.5 percent of students supported allowing first year students to earn credit for a D-, with 19.6 percent opposing and 27 percent selecting the neutral option. For the potential change in the appearance of CR/NC grades below a C-, 63.8 percent were in favor, 22.7 percent opposed, and 14.6 percent were neutral. 88.5 percent of students agreed with changing the deadline to elect CR/NC to the 13th week, 6.9 percent opposed, and 4.5 percent of students answered “neutral.” Only 24.6 percent of students who took the survey indicated that they supported the reduction of CR/NC selections to three, 50.8 percent indicated that they opposed, and 24.6 percent were neutral to the idea.

SGO’s discussion of the proposal during its Feb. 26 meeting focused on the impact of the potential implementation of the changes for current students, but the provost stressed that it would not be feasible to apply changes in CR/NC policies to current students. Additionally, SGO was interested in helping advocate for the proposals students supported, but they were informed that the decision is in the hands of the Curriculum Committee.

The wide support for changing the deadline to elect to take a class CR/NC is indicative of the current issues with the pass/fail system. Students often feel that they do not have enough information by the ninth week of classes to make right decision. Because students inevitably gain more insight into how they are doing in a class as the semester progresses, extending the deadline would help students make more informed decisions.

Such a situation happened to Ana Curtis ’19, who experienced this situation when she took a class CR/NC but ended up doing better in the course than she expected.

“I was taking a class that I didn’t think I would do well in and got a C on the first test. It was pretty close to the pass/fail deadline, so I decided to take the class pass/fail. However, I ended up doing very well on the second midterm and presumably did well on the final, and so when I checked my grade over break, it turned out my shadow grade was an A. If I had the option to wait to declare pass/fail, I would have had that A on my GPA instead of ‘Credit’,” Curtis said.

However, there are concerns that students will use the extended deadline to hide grades. Students could presumably use the deadline to hide their worst grade in a particular semester, while the intent of pass fail is for students to take classes that they would not normally take. Stephenson expressed that there were faculty concerns with that aspect of the proposal.

To the degree that the proposal will result in conversion of grades that fall below the current college average to CR, then that will result in the inflation of the average graduation GPA […] There are faculty who worry as a matter of principle about the ability of students to pick-and-choose which grades appear on their transcripts. Some of that is a matter of principle, some is concern about ‘GPA protection.’ It is hard for me to predict how widely shared these views might be and how they are balanced against the other positive benefits of the proposals,” he said.

Economics Professor John Caskey also expressed his thoughts on the proposal and provided his perspective on the CR/NC deadline proposal.

“I don’t strongly favor or oppose the proposal. Clearly students would take more classes for a grade and use the credit/no credit option after getting their final grades to ‘hide’ grades that they think hurt their overall academic record. On net, I suspect the proposal would slightly contribute to grade inflation since many unexpected low grades could be removed from transcripts. But, offsetting this, some faculty members might be more inclined to give low grades, just assuming that students could convert them into [credits],” he said.

The potential changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and not any current students. Student opinion ultimately does not bind the faculty to make a particular decision, but student opinion is considered. Additionally, the individual proposals can be enacted independently of one another. Stephenson commented on how the decision will be made.

“Curricular decisions are, in the final analysis, made by the faculty. But I think that student input is welcome and sought whenever we are are making decisions that are motivated in whole or in part by what is perceived to be in the best interests of students. I think that student input can also sway undecided faculty […And] I believe that [the proposals] can be adopted independently of one another,” he said.
Credit/No Credit policies seem likely to change in the future as the results of the survey indicated clear results and the Curriculum Committee seems interested in improving the current CR/NC policies. It is yet to be seen whether the policy changes will effectively address the current challenges of the pass/fail policy and improve the academic experience for future Swatties.

Returning home from study abroad presents challenges for students

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As the new semester starts many Swarthmore students who studied abroad last semester are back and ready to share their experiences. Swarthmore students have a choice of many programs and countries, ranging from China to France. Mayra Tenorio ’15, a Sociology/Anthropology and Gender and Sexuality Studies major, even studied in four different countries in one program. “My program is called Women and Gender Studies in Europe and one of the best thing about it is that it allowed me to study in Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland,” she said.

Even in such diverse programs, it is possible for students to keep up with their major requirements. Yet actually studying abroad is more complicated than one might expect.

According to returning Swatties, many procedures are necessary to make the study abroad experience both enjoyable and eligible for Swarthmore credits.

“Before I left, I talked to the department and got a pre-approval of the courses I will be taking in Peking University,” said Briani George ’15, a Health and Societies special major who is also learning advanced Chinese.

The same goes for Hannah Kosman ’14, who said that a pre-estimation of credits was required before she studied in Paris. Pre-estimation involves showing the heads of academic departments specific contents of your program and proving that they are eligible for Swarthmore credits. According to Kosman, the process can be strict.

“To get the credits, you have to take classes that are compatible with the ones already existing at Swarthmore,” said Tenorio, who spent two weeks negotiating with the Sociology/Anthropology department regarding to the credits she will receive. “It took me a really long time to negotiate with the head of my departments to approve the courses.”

Also, it is worth noticing that some classes abroad can be estimated to be worth less than one credit at Swarthmore. Christine Pham ’14, a psychology major who studied abroad in Japan, had classes that were estimated to be worth 0.75 credits at Swarthmore.

Moreover, having a pre-estimation does not ensure getting those credits. “I saved everything — handouts, notes, essays, etc.,” said Kosman, who had trouble bringing the materials back, “so I could give it to the departments I was seeking credit from.”

Proving that one’s classes are legitimate appears to be essential to the departments, as Tenorio and George also said that they brought all of their papers, notes and assignments back.

Other factors also affect how many credits students receive for their program. Kosman, for example, realized that one of her pre-estimated classes turned out to have a much lighter workload than expected and thus she will receive 0.5 credits instead of one for this class. She said she thinks this is reasonable. George, however, discovered that one of her pre-estimated classes actually consist of two sub-classes and she had to take both of them to complete the course.

“Fingers crossed,” she said about her plans, “I will get 4.5 credits. I’ll try to persuade them to give me the extra credit because in fact I took one more class than planned.” Tenorio’s case was even more interesting: one of her classes included content from both Sociology and Gender and Sexuality studies, and after negotiations, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department is giving her 0.4 credits and Sociology/Anthropology is giving her 0.6 credits, leaving her with one full credit. This is different from her pre-estimation but she is content that she did get a full credit.

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