Faculty approve Gaudino option for five-year trial

After months of discussion and proposal revisions by the Gaudino Ad Hoc Advisory Committee, the Gaudino grading option was approved at last week’s faculty meeting with a majority vote of over 60 percent. Students will be able to invoke the Gaudino option beginning next fall for at least a five-year trial period.

Born of concern that students were reluctant to take courses they weren’t comfortable with due to fear of receiving a bad grade, the Gaudino option was crafted to allow students to designate up to two “uncomfortable” courses over the course of their college careers and opt to remove the final grade for those courses if they achieved a certain “floor” grade in the class.

“Out of the top 15 liberal arts colleges in the country, we were the only one that doesn’t have some type of pass-fail possibility that counts toward graduation,” said Ed Burger, professor of mathematics. “[This is] an invitation to explore worlds that are out of their own comfort zones.” Burger is also the current Gaudino scholar and chair of the Gaudino Committee.

Gaudino courses, marked with a “G” on one’s transcript, count as one of the 32 requisite courses for graduation, but the student’s performance in the course will not affect GPA. A student who has signed up for a course with the Gaudino option can choose not to invoke the option if the final grade proves satisfactory.

Students who choose to take courses using the Gaudino option must fulfill two criteria in order to drop a grade they are not happy with: First, they must be deemed “intellectually present” by the professor and, second, must earn a grade in the course at least a B- or .67 below their overall GPA, whichever is lower. For example, a student who averages a B+ GPA would have to earn at least a B- in a course in order to invoke the Gaudino option. A student who averages an A+, A or A- GPA would also be able to invoke the Gaudino option for a course grade of B- or higher.

Burger said he thinks of the Gaudino option as a “smart pass-fail,” because of the requirements that students must fulfill. “There’s a level of quality and a level of engagement that are both expected,” Burger said.

Courses taken using the Gaudino option cannot be used to fulfill major, concentration, quantitative, writing, exploring diversity initiative or divisional requirements. However, if a student takes a course using the Gaudino option and later decides to pursue the field as a major, then the course may count toward the student’s major. In addition, students cannot use their two Gaudino options during the same semester. The option can be invoked at any time, except for first-years’ first semester and seniors’ last semester.

Need for the Gaudino

The idea of the Gaudino option was imagined by Burger over a year ago when a first-generation student expressed frustration with the pressure to take courses he would perform well in, instead of courses he was interested in, in order to maintain his GPA. Burger then surveyed 700 students, and of the 369 who responded, 81 percent responded that they have avoided a class of interest because of concern with grades. The Gaudino Committee met with David Zimmerman, professor of economics and chair of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), last summer regarding the Gaudino option. The CEP has since reviewed multiple drafts of the proposal.
Meria Bernstein ’12, who served on the Gaudino Committee, emphasized the value of taking classes outside of one’s comfort zone. “At Williams, it’s easy to become bogged down in majors and double majors and requirements,” Bernstein admitted. She said she is excited about the newly-passed Gaudino option. “It was really nice to see the faculty recognize problems that students see on campus in terms of intellectual risks.”
As a member of the Gaudino Committee, Bernstein said that the intellectual engagement component of the Gaudino option “can’t be underscored enough. You have to take those classes like you mean it,” Bernstein said.
Emanuel Yekutiel ’11 did not serve on the Gaudino Committee but gave feedback to Burger regarding the Gaudino proposal. “I think that there is a problem at Williams of students not taking intellectual risks, and I saw this [project] as something that would work to fix that,” Yekutiel said.

Burger views the Gaudino option as a way to foster students’ curiosity instead of their obsession with GPA. “The goal of education is to change lives,” he said. “It would be wonderful if this [initiative] provided some students with an intellectual experience they otherwise would not have had – a chance to challenge themselves, feel uncomfortable and, through that journey, discover aspects of the world and themselves that they never saw before.”

Faculty discussion

William Dudley, professor of philosophy, also stressed the importance of students’ intellectual curiosity and said he hopes the Gaudino option will encourage students to de-emphasize grades and focus on learning itself. Dudley was recently named to be the next Gaudino scholar beginning this fall.

“I hope this will be a first step in a good direction, but I think that if we really want to attack this issue then we probably need to address the fundamental ways in which students approach their schoolwork,” Dudley said. “I’d like to think that we can encourage students to realize that GPA is not everything.” Dudley suggested other ways of changing the intellectual environment, including improved advising and mentoring and possibly reassessing distribution requirements and multiple majors.

Other faculty members have expressed concerns regarding whether the Gaudino option will be able to solve the problem it seeks to address. George Marcus, professor of political science, said that while he sees value in the academic exploration encouraged by the Gaudino option, the logistics of the initiative go against the kind of “uncomfortable learning” advocated by Robert Gaudino, who was professor of political science at the College from 1955 to 1974. Marcus said that because professors won’t know which students have taken a course with the Gaudino option until after grades have been submitted, they will be unable to reach out to students who are feeling uncomfortable in class.

“Removing the grade doesn’t do anything about the source of that symptom,” Marcus said of students’ academic discomfort. “To encourage students to stretch their intellectual wings by taking courses outside their zone is highly laudable, but to do that without the faculty becoming involved and aiding students in that endeavor strikes me as directly contrary to the concept of a liberal arts college.” Instead, Marcus recommended open communication between faculty and unsure students.

Burger also noted some concerns on the part of faculty members regarding students potentially abusing the Gaudino option by taking intellectually comfortable classes with the option. He added that if such abuse occurs, the initiative will not last beyond its trial period. Yekutiel affirmed this stipulation, saying that students “can’t just go to a class and slack the whole time.” He noted that with the Gaudino option, students are required to put work in to get the required grade and demonstrate intellectual effort. “I think students will use the option, and I think they’ll use it for the reasons intended,” he said.

Trial period

The Gaudino option includes a “sunset clause,” which stipulates that the initiative is a five-year experiment and if the faculty do not re-approve it after that time, the program will not continue.

“We don’t know for sure whether [the Gaudino option] is going to cause people to step outside their comfort zones, or whether it’s going to change the College culture that places a lot of emphasis on grades,” Zimmerman said. He said that recommendations will be made regarding how the success of the Gaudino option should be evaluated over its five-year trial period.