Assessing the Gaudino option

March 17, 2010 by The Williams Record Editorial Board

As Professor of Mathematics Ed Burger prepares to end his tenure as Gaudino Scholar at the close of the semester, he will do so having recently passed his most large-scale initiative, as the faculty voted last week to institute the Gaudino grading option. Burger crafted the Gaudino option with the noble goal of helping to foster an environment on campus that would allow for expanded academic horizons, more intellectual engagement and exploration of many fields of study without fear of bad grades – intents that exemplify the Williams academic mission.

Eighty-one percent of the 369 students who responded to the Gaudino committee’s survey reported having avoided a class due to fear of failure. This is both unfortunate and understandable. In a success-oriented world in which many post-graduation options require a high GPA, it is not surprising that students prefer to play it safe when picking courses. Nonetheless, the value of a liberal arts education lies in part in the opportunity to explore a broad selection of what the academic world has to offer. It is commendable that the Gaudino option tries to reconcile these two goals – an impressive transcript and risk-taking in the classroom – that unfortunately can stand in opposition to one another.

Still, the Gaudino option is no exception to the inherent difficulty of creating policies that effectively implement idealistic goals. In an academic utopia, students would seize an opportunity like the Gaudino option to better themselves and take full advantage of the Williams education. In reality, such an option existing without guidelines would likely lead to at least a little bit of slacking. The Gaudino committee had to straddle the line between giving students room to experiment without excessive anxiety while also ensuring that students couldn’t use the option as a way to shirk their course load. We believe that the committee designed the option in a manner that takes both these facts into account. The proposal recognizes that learning takes place on a spectrum and also caters to students who want to push themselves just a little bit further than they already do.

The Gaudino option has a number of wise requirements. The “intellectual presence” criterion accommodates people who struggle in an area of learning but nevertheless find it fascinating. The existence of a grade floor separates the option from mere pass/fail, assuring that students still have to achieve a certain academic level. Preventing students from invoking the option during the first semester of freshman year and the second semester of senior year guards against first-year squeamishness and senioritis, respectively. Keeping divisional and other curricular requirements intact demonstrates that this option is not meant to make life “easier,” but to encourage students to extend their comfort zones.

Notwithstanding these ideals and safeguards, there is room to improve the proposal. The minute calibrations of the “grade floor,” set at “.67 lower than the student’s GPA,” may well reinforce students’ preoccupation with grades. Moreover, the grade floor in its present incarnation does not permit very much wandering into the “uncomfortable learning” that the Gaudino option aims to foster – this sort of leeway would be most impactful for classes that involve a greater risk than a two-thirds of a letter grade. In addition, while “intellectual presence” is a comfortingly broad measure, it may also prove worryingly arbitrary for classes in which professors and students do not engage in direct discussion.

It is likely that the Gaudino committee wrestled with these and other problems, and we believe that, at least in the case of the grade floor, they came to one of the only workable solutions. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the committee remain open to regular re-evaluations of the program. One of the strongest arguments for the existence of this option is the high proportion of students avoiding classes because of the risk, perceived or real. Surveying students regularly to determine whether such avoidance has decreased will serve as one of the best ways to measure the success or failure of the program.

In conclusion, we thank the Gaudino committee for recognizing that our culture of perfectionism can lead to narrowed opportunities. We also thank the faculty for providing us with an opportunity for a little bit of wiggle room to venture beyond our academic routines. We implore all faculty members to embrace the spirit of the initiative by assessing students’ academic engagement fairly and not opting out of the initiative – faculty buy-in will be vital for the success of the program. All of us on the current Record editorial board can think of times when we would have invoked (or will invoke in the future) this option to learn for learning’s sake. Now that we have a buffer against the nagging insecurities that assail us in every difficult class, we hope that all students will dare to take full advantage of the Gaudino option during these next five years of its trial. We may not have the ability to eradicate the credentialism that blights our national and academic setting, but we now have the agency to challenge some of our individual intellectual preconceptions.

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