Waitz acknowledged that there have been unintended consequences. For example, MIT requires all students to take certain rigorous physics and chemistry courses, and some students schedule those classes in their first semester “to get them out of the way” and not risk a poor letter grade, Waitz said.
In part to combat that, MIT last year implemented a policy that lets students take any four classes on a pass/no record basis at any point after their first semester. Students don’t need to designate the class as pass/no record until after they’ve seen their potential letter grade. MIT officials hope that will encourage students to try as hard as possible in those classes to achieve a high letter grade.
Waitz recently met with leaders of UC Irvine’s Academic Senate to discuss MIT’s strategies as Irvine weighs its options on first-year grading. A spokesperson for Irvine said in an email that the senate “is still deliberating policies and there is nothing to share at this time.”
Relying more on pass/no pass grading could be a natural transition for UC campuses after almost all of them relaxed their pass/no pass regulations during the pandemic.
At the state’s other four-year university system, the 23-campus California State University, there is currently no plan to rely less on letter grades, said Toni Molle, a spokesperson for the system-wide chancellor’s office. “While it’s possible that an individual campus could explore this tactic, we are not currently aware of any that are planning to do so,” she added.
Among the UC students who have benefited from pass/no pass classes is Timothy Tam Nguyen, a second-year math major at UC Irvine. Nguyen took a political science class and designated it as pass/no pass because he wasn’t confident he would get an A and wanted to focus more on classes in his major. The class was heavily essay-based, and Nguyen didn’t think the professor clearly explained the expectations for the essays.
“As I predicted, I ended up with a B+ in the class, mainly due to flaws in my essays that weren’t clearly articulated,” he said. Nguyen added that taking the class pass/no pass also was a stress reliever since it allowed him to “obsess less and live a more balanced life with friends and fitness.”
Nguyen isn’t the only student who had lower stress levels while taking pass/no pass classes. Seeing how the increased availability of pass/no pass classes helped relieve student stress is among the main factors that motivated UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry to consider permanent changes to pass/no pass grading for first-year students. College leaders also believe it’s an equity issue and have noticed that students who enter college less prepared than their peers often finish their first year with lower GPAs as a result, according to the regents memo.
Some critics argue that designating too many classes as pass/no pass could have negative implications for students hoping to attend graduate school, though Greene disputes that notion. She pointed out that, until 2001, UC Santa Cruz did not assign grades at all and still sent many students to graduate school.
The UC campuses looking at grade changes are focusing on the first year and not a student’s entire undergraduate career.
At UC Davis, meanwhile, the Department of Mathematics has considered using “contract grading,” which allows a student to choose how to be graded. One calculus instructor at that college gives students three options, each with a different distribution of weight across different assessments to determine the student’s grade. For example, one option could give more weight to exams, and another option could give more weight to homework and class engagement.
Elsewhere at Davis, an introductory biology class uses two-stage exams. After taking a traditional test, students work together in groups to solve questions that are the same or similar to the exam questions. “Students who preferred that approach said it provided an opportunity to debate and arrive at a better answer. Students also received immediate feedback on individual exam responses from peers,” states the regents memo.
Kennison said rethinking exams is key to considerations around grading changes because not all students demonstrate their knowledge the same way. Other options for assessing students include allowing them to use their notes on tests or assigning projects instead of exams. Oftentimes, Kennison said, classes that rely too heavily on final exams are measuring students’ ability to memorize things and “spit it back out” under pressure, something she said doesn’t necessarily measure a student’s mastery of the material.
“If you think about students as individuals, they don’t learn in any one way. They need multiple modes of learning and multiple modes of being assessed,” Kennison said. “Ideally you are giving them lots of different types of assessments, making lots of different opportunities for them to assess their own learning right in low-stakes ways. You still can have a final exam, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have that high stakes, high pressure.”