What is a pass? Professors have different answers

Jeongyoon Han and Kevin Yang

Passing Abstract Algebra, a 300-level mathematics class which is a prerequisite for several other courses, has remained demanding for many during this semester of remote learning. 

In a shift from his normal pass/fail policy where an average grade of D- constitutes a pass, Professor of Mathematics Tom Garrity is requiring that his students pass each content unit of the course. Concerned about cumulative course material, Garrity said that he is looking for his students to make “a good faith effort” on the remaining two exams and final. 

Meanwhile, Professor of German Gail Newman is prepared to pass all of the students in her language classes and independent studies. “I have no intention to, nor do I expect to give, any fails,” she said. Newman has also reduced assignments and decided to give non-graded feedback to her students. 

Garrity and Newman’s different approaches are just two examples of new grading policies that professors have adopted in light of the College’s move to a universal pass/fail policy. In syllabi submitted to the Record, grading policies varied widely, ranging from requirements to pass every assignment, to the implementation of an effective ‘universal pass.’

Per normal pass/fail policy, students receiving a minimum of a D- in their classes receive a passing mark (P), and those who do not reach a D- receive a failing grade (E). But this semester, in a departure from this policy, professors will not enter letter grades to be converted into a pass/fail designation and will instead directly input either a Pass or Fail for students. With courses now facing the changing dynamics that remote learning brings, professors have taken individual measures to create more flexible – or, on the flipside, more rigid – definitions of what work constitutes a pass. 

For some professors, standards for a pass reflect the type of content retention and comprehension required for their classes. Professor of Mathematics Stewart Johnson highlighted the influence of the learning model used in many Division III disciplines on his pass/fail policy. “The thing about several science courses, particularly math, physics, statistics and even econ, is that they’re extremely cumulative,” Johnson said. “In other words, you have to have a base of the first few classes before you can go on to the next class.”

Johnson is requiring students in “STAT 201: Statistics & Data Analysis” to pass each exam in order to pass the class as a whole. This is not a change from the pass/fail policy that he adopted when he previously taught “MATH 150: Multivariable Calculus” during a normal semester. 

“For me, teaching a math class, a statistics class, where these students are going to go on to higher level stats courses — they need to know all of the tools that we’re covering,” Johnson said. 

Garrity referenced similar concerns about courses that serve as prerequisites for other courses. “In the past, I can imagine someone who got like an A- or B+ on the first task, which would have normally been due right before spring break, would probably pass the course, then go and just blow off the rest of the semester,” Garrity said.  “And that would really screw them over in the future semesters.” 

However, Garrity said that he recognizes the importance of accounting for extenuating circumstances. “With students in the class — there’s many different stories,” Garrity said. “I’m going to try to be a human being.” 

Other professors retained a pass standard which only requires an overall D- average, allowing their students to pass the course as a whole even if they did not complete every assignment. Stephanie Steele, a visiting assistant professor of psychology, adopted such a policy. Both of her courses are prerequisites for other psych courses.

“I am optimistic that despite the remote learning format and P/F system, students are still getting the majority of content for both of these courses and will still be well-prepared to engage in upper-level material based on what they’ve learned this semester,” Steele said.

Casey Bohlen, an assistant professor of history who also adopted an overall D- average model, focused on equity in deciding on his grading policy. “Students facing unusual circumstances can now make strategic decisions, skipping certain assignments altogether if need be, while still maintaining a passing grade,” Bohlen said. “And because my syllabi are flexible, allowing students to turn in papers at a variety of different optional due dates, no students will be penalized for having either front- or back-loaded their work.” 

Contrasting approaches to grading during remote learning coexist with the same department. Unlike Bohlen, Professor of History Chris Waters is requiring that his students complete each assignment. “I do expect individuals, in order to get a pass, to do all of the work,” Waters said. 

There is also no uniformity in grading policy amongst classes that are part of a multi- course progression.  Newman, who is teaching a year’s worth of beginner German in her one-semester class, “GERM 120: Turbodeutsch: Accelerated Elementary German,” said that despite having to prepare students for the next stage of their language studies, grading is not her priority.

“The most important thing right now is for people to be under as little stress as possible,” Newman said. 

Professor of Philosophy Bojana Mladenović similarly emphasized her flexibility with what students can commit to her courses given the pandemic. “Usually, I have high expectations of my students because I know Williams students are brilliant,” she said. “[But] because of this huge disparity, I have no shared expectations for the class as a whole. … I think everybody did a lot of work in the first five weeks. And as long as they’re minimally in touch, and they keep me posted about where they are, they’re all passing the course.” 

Waters voiced similar sentiments. “I think that I expect students to continue to do the work as best they can, to the best ability that they can” Waters said. “but I recognize that everyone’s home situation, and the issues they’re facing is different.” 

Still, Waters said, he expects students to reach a minimum level of participation through GLOW posts and class discussions, even if it means that the quality of work may not be at the same level students would produce while on campus.

In some ways, Newman and Mladenović both said they are glad that they do not need to assess students on a letter-grade scale, questioning the merits of such grading more broadly.

“I’m so liberated,” Mladenović said. “Because I think the whole purpose of grades is to rank people. And I hate ranking people.”

Johnson expressed a similar view in explaining his decision to grade exams on a purely pass/fail basis. “I’m actually thinking that [pass/fail is] going to be a really cool thing,” Johnson said. “Because a lot of the stress for a professor is making these judgments on how good someone’s work is such a fine degree that you can cut the line between a B- and B+.” 

As students and professors alike move forward without conventional grading practices, Newman and Mladenović both said they hope that teaching classes on a pass/fail basis will alleviate the issues of self-optimization and hyper-competition tied with achieving high marks in academia.

“Everybody has become addicted to an external evaluation of themselves,” Newman said. “It would be great if we could have a serious discussion about what we think our students should be getting from us in the way of feedback and how we could maybe work against that you know, cult of, of comparison and self-optimization above other people … that would be really great.”