EDITOR'S NOTE: A page one summary box for this story erroneously indicated that the Recording Committee helped design this proposal. As indicated in the story, the proposal was created entirely by students. We regret the error.
Members of Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) and the Recording Committee sought student and faculty input about Bowdoin's Credit/D/Fail policy in a campus forum this week. Recording Committee member Sam Dinning '09 and Vice President for Academic Affairs Burgess LePage '07 consulted other colleges' guidelines and drafted a revised policy, which is designed to give students more flexibility in the system.
"The main intention of the Credit/D/Fail option is to give students the opportunity to explore new areas of study where they are not necessarily comfortable. It also has very legitimate value as a way to relieve pressure from a hectic semester," said Dinning.
"The main concern is that instead of promoting deep exploration into new areas, the current system encourages students to do the minimum amount of work possible to receive credit," he said.
In order to make the policy more appealing, Dinning and LePage created a proposal for Bowdoin, tentatively called Grade/Credit/Fail. Based primarily after Dartmouth's Non-Recording Option (NRO), it also combines some of the College's current restrictions. The primary change is that students would declare a course Grade/Credit/Fail three weeks into the semester and then set a lowest acceptable grade by the sixth week.
If a student's grade matches or exceeds this set acceptable grade, the earned grade is recorded. If a student's grade is lower than the acceptable grade but above failing, then he or she simply receives credit, and if the grade is failing, the student does not earn credit.
Students can change the lowest acceptable grade for a course at any point before the last full week of classes and are permitted to take up to four courses Grade/Credit/Fail total during their college career. While students would not be able to use Grade/Credit/Fail toward a major or minor, they would be able to for distribution requirements. Finally, professors will not know which students are taking a course Grade/Credit/Fail, but will know how many students are per course.
Dinning and LePage stressed that this suggested policy is only a starting point and that they hope student and faculty input can help mold a proposition worthy of further consideration. The forum was attended by Bowdoin faculty and administrators including Chair of the Recording Committee James McCalla, Director of Institutional Research and Registrar Christine Cote, and deans Margaret Hazlett and Tim Foster. The faculty members were not there to argue for or against the policy, but to hear reactions.
McCalla said the original Pass/Fail credit option was revised a few years ago to the current Credit/D/Fail policy after the faculty expressed concerns that some students were not working hard enough, lacked interest, and were dragging down classes. The "D" grade also serves to alert the deans of potential problems with a student, beyond a simple misunderstanding of material.
Nonetheless, students at the meeting said that although they may choose to take a course Credit/D/Fail to freely explore an unfamiliar subject, they are discouraged by the prospect of receiving a "D" and end up still worrying about grades.
Cote said that roughly 6,000 grades are recorded per semester; of those, roughly 75 are "F" grades and about 125 to 150 are "D" grades. Despite the low percentage of failing grades, LePage is concerned about the message behind the current policy.
"The philosophy behind it seems contradictory to Bowdoin's academic environment. In the Credit/D/Fail system, students work in order to not receive a bad grade," she said.
"Although true that students rarely receive these low grades, it is very true that they always worry about it. There are other ways to allow flexibility for students while also leaving room for rewards rather than looming punishments," she noted.
Dinning said that a major concern about the current system is the lack of motivation to do well, and that a revision would change how the pass/fail concept is treated.
"Students often feel as if getting anything above a 'C' would be a waste of the Credit/D/Fail option," Dinning said. "Naturally, they then try less and are not as engaged as they should be in the material. Perhaps the largest part of the potential changes from the current system would be providing this incentive for students to continue putting in the effort while still having a safety net to fall back on."
Foster commented that this current perspective toward a passing grade in courses worries professors.
"One thing that's been concerning faculty members is that there are a number of courses where a large percentage of students take it on a Credit/D/Fail basis. There's concern that it changes the nature of the course, dealing with different levels of engagement," he said.
Associate Professor of Biology Barry Logan said he sees high percentages of students enrolled in intro-level inquiry in natural science courses taking the courses Credit/D/Fail. He said that while most of the students are engaged in class throughout the year, some lose motivation for exams after the first test or quiz, settling for barely passing.
McCalla cited statistics from the 2005-2006 academic year, stating that most of the Credit/D/Fail courses are in math or science. In the fall 2005 semester, 70.6 percent of students in a physics course, 64.3 percent in a biology course, and 51.7 percent in a chemistry course took the classes Credit/D/Fail.
Logan suggested that there is a certain attitude about approaching a new area of study, such as the sciences, that encourages them to take a course Credit/D/Fail.
"It's starting to feel like students see their four Credit/D/Fail courses not as a possibility, but as a requirement. I just wonder, I feel like that might be growing among advice that students offer each other," he said.
The forum led to some debate about the role of such a Grade/Credit/Fail policy, as some students may use the option as an insurance policy for their GPA in a difficult course. While some students agreed with this prospect, others insisted that Grade/Credit/Fail should be used to explore new subject areas with higher confidence. One student said that this policy would provide Bowdoin students with an incentive for intellectual exploration and motivation to work toward a better grade.
LePage said that the forum made it clear that there is room for evaluation and change in the policy, based on faculty desire to have an engaging academic environment and various student concerns about the system. Both Dinning and LePage said they welcome any comments about the proposed policy to help in the revision process, but that so far, people have been receptive.
Following the campus forum and initial student reactions, McCalla said that the Recording Committee will discuss the proposal and may make further improvements. From there, the tentative policy may be brought to either the Curriculum and Education Committee or the Committee on Governance to be considered further. Eventually, the policy could be proposed to the faculty and voted on following discussion.
Dinning said he considers the proposal a "viable option" that would work well at Bowdoin and wants to see it through.
"Clearly this is an issue that many people feel needs to be addressed, and all the work we have done this year has indicated just that. So far the Recording Committee has been very receptive," Dinning said. "There has been no closed-mindedness as to what we can achieve. We are yet to hear much from the administration, but as we go forward with the process they will undoubtedly become increasingly involved."