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Pass No Pass

I’ve turned grades in for this term, so now am beginning to think about my first experience teaching Pass/No Pass courses. As I mentioned back in August (a lifetime ago!), all of the courses in the program I work in now are Pass/No Pass, a concept consistent with the program’s emphasis on open pedagogy and student-centered learning. Before the term began, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how P/NP courses differ from standard graded courses. I’ve spent years trying to de-emphasize grading in my courses, so I just thought I’d entered nirvana, especially since I wasn’t creating anything from scratch but was instead mostly using syllabi for the courses as they’ve been taught in the past.

I’m not sure I could have imagined what differences and challenges the P/NP system offers over the typical letter-based one, but by not recognizing some of these differences and challenges ahead of time, I hit a few real obstacles and did not provide the best guidance to students. None of it was catastrophic, but now I’m thinking about how to really turn the P/NP system into more of a benefit to the course next term, rather than let it remain an oddity or even, perhaps, a detriment.

I’ve been thinking, too, about Jennifer Hurley’s excellent post on Medium from October in answer to the question “Is Throwing Out Grades Too Idealistic?” The questions and challenges she discusses are ones I have often thought about over the years, and my answers have sometimes been similar to hers, sometimes less optimistic. She writes:

I, too, have heard students say that they spend more time on other classes because they fear getting a bad grade in those classes, a fear they do not feel in my class. I, too, struggle with the “slacker” student who takes my class with the mindset of doing the bare minimum to earn the desired grade, and who regards my system of no grading as a way to skate through a required course.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle we face as teachers throwing out grades is the damage already done to student motivation by grades.

This was not a problem I faced when, required to issue letter grades for courses, I used a portfolio system that de-emphasized grades. Students would still get letter grades in the end, and the syllabus explained the route to those letter grades. Even though the route was different from those of most other classes, and offered a lot of choice and freedom, it still obviously required quite a bit of work — enough work to fill a portfolio.

What I didn’t anticipate when starting to teaching a P/NP course was that many students would consider the very designation of the course as P/NP to indicate that it wasn’t an important class, it wasn’t one where the assignments much mattered, it wasn’t one where anything was particularly on the line for them. They assumed it was a kind of blow-off course that they needed to take to become an IDS major, but it wouldn’t require much of them. I had a few students who really resented the amount of work they ultimately had to do because they were working from the assumption that P/NP means you don’t have to work hard for a course, since it’s not adding to your letter grade GPA. (I should note that I’m really talking about the two sections of Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies that I taught rather than the Senior Seminar. The seniors had already been through Intro and so had some familiarity with how we do things. They and I had plenty of challenges, but those challenges didn’t seem to be related to the grading system.) Some students also hated the fact that our greenlight system of grading required that they complete all assignments at an acceptable level to receive a passing grade. As one said in exasperation at the end of the term, “So if we miss one assignment, we’re screwed?!” I don’t know why it only occurred to him at the end of the term, when we’d been following the system for months and multiple check-ins reiterated that all assignments needed to be greenlit for students to pass, but the sentiment was hardly his alone.

In a letter-graded course, students can get away with skipping some assignments if those assignments don’t count heavily toward the term grade. In a P/NP course with a greenlighting system, a single small assignment that does not get greenlit would (by the letter of the law at least) cause a student not to pass. By the end of the term, I realized I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this system, and I further realized that there’s an important question I ask myself when thinking about whether a student should pass or not pass, and it’s a criterion not well accounted for in the grading system I used: Should a student have to re-take this course if they want to get credit for it?

There were a couple students who had not turned in a few assignments by the deadline, and I had to ask myself if I really thought they shouldn’t pass the course, and that they should, in fact, have to re-take the course if they remained IDS majors. That was pretty easy to answer. The students who were just missing a couple small assignments, no, I didn’t want them to retake the course. The students who did not turn in major assignments, including their application materials for being an IDS major, yes, definitely, they should have to retake it if they wanted credit. Thankfully, the students who hadn’t turned in the smaller assignments by the deadline got them in eventually and I felt no qualms about passing them, and the students who hadn’t turned in the big assignments never did (despite numerous pleas from me, our TA, and our Program Assistant), so I feel no guilt whatsoever about my grades this term — but I do feel that I need to adjust the grading system next term to better reflect the reality I now understand. If students miss a few small assignments, yes, I’m still going to pass them. If they miss any one or more of our handful of big assignments, no, I’m not going to pass them and they’ll need to retake the course if they want the credit.

This is wonderfully clarifying. I will admit, though, that when the deadline passed and I didn’t know who would ultimately turn in their missing assignments, I was ready to give up on P/NP. This was panic, but it was deep panic. I wanted to go back to my beloved contract/portfolio system. But the reason I wanted to go back in that moment was the same reason students want to stick with familiar grading systems: I know how it works, I know how to communicate about it, I know how to get the best results from it, and it sticks within the letter-grading system I’ve used for 20 years as a teacher and longer as a student. I can recite all the dangers and disadvantages of letter grading, but because it’s the system I’ve known for pretty much my entire life, there’s still a certain comfort to it, and whenever things get weird or challenging or unpredictable, I get an atavistic desire to go back to what is familiar.

But I also know that feedback needs to be absolutely separate from evaluation, that opportunities for revision need to be built into any task if we want meaningful learning, and that if we want students to learn to strive for quality (and hold themselves to high expectations) then we need to separate ideas of quality from ideas of grading. This last point is one of the most difficult for me to internalize, and certainly the most difficult for students to accept, because it pushes against the raison d’etre of the letter grading system as well as against the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary culture. If we let students tie their entire sense of achievement to the grade they get in a course, then it’s entirely rational for them to buck against the idea that is fundamental to the P/NP system: You can do barely adequate work and your grade will be the same as someone who does astounding work. The key to being successful with this is to be explicit, to talk about it openly and honestly. As Jennifer Hurley writes,

If we take the time to talk to students about motivation, and ask questions that make them think, more students will make the leap from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. It’s true that some students will not make this leap. That’s an unfortunate reality. However, many, many students will discover their intrinsic desire to learn, and this is invaluable.

It’s true that not every student will make the leap. We need to admit this to ourselves as openly as we admit anything else. No system works for everybody, and the seductions of the familiar are deeply powerful. This is especially true for students who have done well in the familiar system — any change to that system is a threat, and we know that students raised in an educational environment full of high-stakes testing will find the threat of change sometimes so anxiety-provoking as to be debilitating.

This fact is another virtue of P/NP, though. Who among us always does our best work all the time? Sometimes, because of life or mood or whatever, we need to just get some work done at an adequate level. With P/NP, the student is free to decide when to do their best and when to just get by. The grade will be the same. For most people, doing just enough work to get by doesn’t feel particularly good. It’s not inspiring, it’s not fulfilling. That opens an opportunity for the teacher to help students reflect on such feelings. Working hard requires opportunity and encouragement in addition to intrinsic desire — indeed, opportunity and encouragement can often spark that intrinsic desire. I didn’t do this well this term because I was struggling just to keep my own head above water, but now that I’m more familiar with the job, I’ve got some ideas of how to be better at creating opportunities and offering encouragement.

Many of my students did wonderful work this term, especially toward the end, once they got comfortable with some of the technological requirements and had accepted that the course was really about how they might take control of their education. One student wrote in a final reflection, “For me, this experience was about taking control of my education, rather than simply going along for the ride.” Quite a few other students wrote something similar. Or, as another student wrote, “I think the key point of what I’ve learned this semester in Intro to IDS is that the people who achieve great success in life are the people who can see their passion. They reach towards it in everything that they do.”

I’m thinking about all this as I work on revising my syllabi for next term. I need to build on whatever successes I stumbled across — mostly thanks to what I inherited from my predecessors’ syllabi — and try to fix some of the bumpiest parts. (These are my classes now — I don’t need to worry about ruining everything for somebody who is going to come back and take over for me, so I feel free to redesign as I will.) What can I do to acknowledge that no, I’m not going to fail somebody for missing one or two small assignments, but yes, the big assignments will determine whether you pass or not? (I think it’s an easy fix: create two categories of assignments and say students have to complete a minimum of X number of assignments in the “small” category. Similar to a contract.) How can I make more opportunities for students to give feedback to each other, and also opportunities for me to give more variety of feedback? How can I better deal with attendance issues, of which there were a lot this term? (The P/NP seemed to make students assume they didn’t need to come to class except occasionally. It was ruinous to the group dynamics, and students acknowledged that it was ruinous, but that didn’t stop them from thinking that attending class was basically optional.) How can I increase students’ excitement for the work and decrease their feeling that they’re just doing this so they can become IDS majors and then go off and do the things that actually interest them?

All good questions, some of which I have nascent answers for, some of which continue to stump me. But that’s why we keep teaching, isn’t it? Because one day, if we work hard enough, we might actually get this stuff right…

Image: “crossing the finish line” by ShapeThings is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

2 thoughts on “Pass No Pass

  1. If you are going to have minimum requirements for number of major and minor assignments, it seems fair and consistent to have a maximum number of cuts – three? More means NP.

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