Taking a pass/fail course could backfire for University of Minnesota students.
Depending upon their chosen grade option, only some students can get credit with a D grade, leaving faculty members arguing if it’s a fair policy.
Students who receive a D-level grade on an A–F scale pass the course. Taken pass/fail — or satisfactory/not satisfactory — they would fail and not receive credit.
For one student in Jane Phillips’ biology course last semester, that decision made in the first two weeks of class determined whether he or she had to retake the class or not.
“Even if it’s only one student a semester that this happens to, it’s still an inequality, and I don’t like inequalities,” Phillips said.
Suzanne Bardouche, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, said via email that A-F and S/N grade options are available for most courses. The advantage of taking a class pass/fail is that it doesn’t affect GPA.
Students have complained about receiving an N for a D-level grade when they would have passed on an A-F scale. They have also asked to change the grading scale because they received an A or B grade in the class or vice versa.
“If a course is offered A-F or S/N, the student is responsible for making that choice and accepting the consequences of it,” Bardouche wrote.
Psychology professor Thomas Brothen said no changes are necessary because this problem doesn’t happen “very much at all.”
“It’s not something that people are worried about.”
He said it’s not a “terrible burden” to ask students to achieve at least a C- in a course.
“Not too many people are going to be terribly sympathetic to the fact that the student probably should have worked harder to get a C-,” he said.
But Phillips said students struggling to get above a D- weren’t slacking in her class last semester. She said she met with them several times throughout the course of the semester.
At the end, only one student was affected by the discrepancy and needed to retake the class to get credit.
Exploring other courses
Many students take a class pass/fail because they want to explore other courses without hurting their GPA, Brothen said.
He said the S/N policy was mandated at a C- “to get some consistency across the campus,” because professors had required students to get even higher marks to achieve satisfactory grades.
Phillips said it’s understandable that many students take her biology course as pass/fail because it’s out of their major.
University policy states that D grades are not permitted in major courses, although the credits still count toward graduation.
Other courses, like those required to fulfill liberal education cores, count if a student earns a D or better.
“All of these students are taking the course for liberal education biology requirements,” Phillips said of her class.
She said of the 120 students, about a quarter took the pass/fail option.
How to fix it
The simple option might be to declare a D-level grade for S/N students valid for credits, but that doesn’t match with peer institutions.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a policy similar to the University’s in place but has had few problems with it, said Christopher Lee, assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science.
“It really is not an issue with students,” he said.
Still, every once in a while, a student won’t graduate as planned because of a D grade in a pass/fail course, he said.
Another solution might be to give students more than the two weeks allotted to change their grading option.
“We don’t really start cranking in our course ‘til week three or four or five,” Phillips said.
After assignments were handed back and tests were graded, it would be easier to decide which grade option to choose, she said.
This semester, Phillips highlights this inequality at the beginning of her class because students have to choose their grade option before they know the academic rigor of the course.
“Now they know it, but it still might not help them.”