Passing Through Pass/Fail

Pass/fail is a lot of things.  Approaches to the semester are hardly uniform, as every Thursday night of the last semester you’d be just as likely to find a 2016er in McCabe as at Pub Night. At its most fun, pass/fail is the exclamation shouted from one partying freshman to another as their Pub Night experience rolls on despite the Friday morning quiz they haven’t prepared for.  It’s also something high-achieving high schoolers couldn’t quite get their minds around when they first took a campus tour and their guide started extolling the system’s virtues.  What would it mean to have a semester where you received no formal grades?  Would it be okay to slack off and enjoy a new environment?  Would it be actually possible to not stress about classes? Even by the time these high schoolers had become fully matriculated Swatties, answers to these questions still weren’t so obvious.

Each spring semester marks the end of this period where hedonistic freshman can be found out and about every night of the week, filling the campus with a refreshingly un-stressed attitude.  Then again, these are Swarthmore students.  As a whole, Swat’s student body is proudly academic and many of its students work throughout their pass/fail semester as if the A’s they strive for are actually going to appear on their transcripts and translate into glowing GPAs.

While many Swatties agree that pass/fail is an important part of their education and helps to make a smooth introduction to residential college life, is the grading policy fair to those first-year students who worked hard throughout their fall semester and ended up with the same transcript “grades” as students who settled for Cs? Should it be possible for these high-achieving students to opt out of pass/fail?

“Some people have fantastic first semesters, and if they do I think they should be able to show it and reap the reward,” said Nikkia Miller, ’16.  However, Miller doesn’t question the value of pass/fail. “Then again some people don’t do so well right off the bat, and so pass/fail is there for them and for those people it’s really valuable.”

“I don’t think students should be allowed to opt out of it,” said Uriel Medina, ’16.  “I think it would be unwise to not take advantage of something like this.”  For Medina, like many first-years, pass/fail offered an opportunity to work hard in classes, but also to just take it easy when things got too stressful.

“I told myself I didn’t want it to affect how I worked in my classes, but it was still a nice safety net.”  Medina said that not receiving grades for classes also allowed him to branch out from the subjects he knew he could do well in. He took economics, political science, and a music history course in opera, classes he’d never been exposed to in high school and wouldn’t have hesitated to take if he would be receiving grades.

Medina realized how valuable this new exposure was when watching a film over winter break.  While watching Eat, Pray, Love he was able to recognize an aria featured in the film from his opera class.

This branching-out effect is one of the virtues of pass/fail in line with Swarthmore’s broader educational goals as a liberal arts institution.  However, the system also allows students to adjust to the struggles of college life that can be found at any university.

“The pass/fail semester really helped me find the study habits that worked for me,” said Meiri Anto, ’16.  “It didn’t help make me stand out or do super well in all of my classes, but just get by.  It definitely reduced the stress and so I had more time to be social and make friends, and even sleep – if I wanted to.  Though I spent a lot of time playing midnight [Settlers of] Catan.”

“I’ve been able to establish myself in the social scene and I credit that to pass/fail,” said Medina.  Yet now that pass/fail is over, it’s time to look ahead to the spring semester.  “Now that I feel a little more established and know how to get around campus and get things done, I’m focusing on building relationships with professors and seeking internships.”

“I was really scared on the plane ride coming in,” said Anto.  “I didn’t know how I would transition back to having grades.”  Yet Anto isn’t too concerned about this semester and will still be exploring different kinds of classes even without pass/fail.

Yet for some, the end of pass/fail means the beginning of serious work.

“I definitely was one of the people who took advantage of pass/fail,” said Miller.  “I had a lot of fun.”  However, she’s adamant that this semester is different for her.  “Not having pass/fail has kind of scared me into the library.  And I’m not going out the night before a big test.”

And so there won’t be any more pub night shouts of “pass/fail!” At least not until next fall.

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