Reinventing the wheel: new ideas for traditional pass/fail


Let me first preface this article by saying this is not in direct response to the Mar. 29 email to students announcing the College of William and Mary’s final decision to not implement an expansion of the pass/fail policy in spring 2021, as advocated by the Student Assembly due to the challenges of remote learning and COVID-19 conditions. Rather, I am suggesting a slight modification of the current, traditional policy to improve the pass/fail system in the long run — perhaps students should have the option to revert a pass/fail class back to standard letter after seeing their final grade. I am not advocating for students to be able to declare a course on a pass/fail basis after seeing their final grade but rather to revert a class taken pass/fail to standard letter, an important distinction. I believe this change could be relatively noncontroversial in that it has the potential to help both students and professors alike and help mitigate concerns that the administration voiced in the Mar. 29 letter — taking a class pass/fail, in some cases, can negatively impact potential applications to graduate and professional schools.

As I was browsing the College’s Academic Regulations section of the Undergraduate Catalog, I discovered that, traditionally, academic juniors and seniors (or any student with more than 54 credits) may take an Arts and Sciences or Education course pass/fail during each semester of the school year (excluding summer sessions). Not surprisingly, limitations apply — the course taken on the pass/fail basis must be an elective course. It cannot satisfy COLL requirements, proficiencies (language, math, arts, etc.), or count toward major or minor requirements.

Students must make the decision whether or not to elect pass/fail grading for a course by the end of the Add/Drop period, which is about a week and a half after classes first begin. Based on current official policy, students are unable to change grading options after Add/Drop ends. However, by the end of the Add/Drop period, students have only a very basic understanding of the course and have almost no insight as to their performance (or ability to perform) in the class, as in almost all cases, by the end of the Add/Drop period, there have been no graded assignments, due to the possibility of students still joining the course.

Pass/fail grading in higher education is very controversial, but the College, evidenced by current policy, sees the merit in allowing a limited number of elective courses to be taken on a pass/fail basis. Traditionally, the main purpose of pass/fail grading is that courses can be taken without fear of negatively impacting one’s GPA. Pass/fail grading thus serves as a protection for students wanting to go out of their comfort zones and explore different academic departments (e.g., physics majors taking classics classes, or classics majors taking physics classes, etc.) and for those taking non-required classes just for fun. In many cases, students may not have the bandwidth to take these extra, exploratory classes standard letter due to a rigorous course load and/or work schedule.

It is important to note that the system is intentionally designed so that students cannot wait until the end of the semester, see a low final grade and then change the grading option. Perhaps an unintentional result of trying to prevent this from happening is that students who elected to pass/fail a course by the end of Add/Drop, upon seeing a high final grade, also cannot elect to change the grading option. Reforming this would be beneficial for all involved.

To begin with, it must be noted that students who elect to take a class pass/fail are most likely only going to do the bare minimum — this is one of the strongest arguments against pass/fail, generally speaking. Students will work hard enough to pass the class, but there is no incentive to do A-work because at the end of the day, there is no difference on the transcript between an A and barely passing. Ideally, students in a perfect world would work just as hard regardless of the grading modality. However, busy students do not have unlimited time, and devoting more time than required to one course poses a risk. A fundamental principle of economics (and life) is scarcity — resources are limited and must be allocated as efficiently as possible. For students, time is one of the most valuable resources. There is simply not enough time to study as much as we need as well as participate in activities as much as we desire, all while working, socializing and getting involved in community events. Sacrifices must be made — at some point, studying for one class takes time away from studying for another or takes time away from working, socializing, or volunteering. For those students taking a class pass/fail, it is not rational to devote any more study time to that course than what is required to ensure a passing grade. After all, sacrificing the study of another subject or taking time away from work has a high opportunity cost. The cost is greater than the benefit because there is no tangible benefit — in the end, even if students work hard and obtain grades they like, even if they end up with As, they will only see “P” on their transcript. Thus, if students eventually decide that they do, after all, have the ability to do well in the elective course they chose to pass/fail, there is simply no incentive to put in the time required, other than just personal satisfaction which, often times, is not practical enough to justify sacrificing precious time that could be devoted to other classes, organizations and professional development.

This situation could be remedied easily by allowing students to revert back to standard letter at the end of the semester. The College’s pass/fail policy is set up almost like an insurance policy for those students who want to get out of their comfort zone and learn material without worrying about getting grades that could negatively impact their GPA. This way, students could have another safety net — one which encourages hard work. This amendment, additionally, could even reduce the number of courses taken pass/fail since students can revert back, thus helping mitigate concerns of negatively impacting future applications.

By recognizing that students likely will not work as hard if they know they can pass/fail a class at any time (most particularly, after seeing the final grade), the College has partially considered incentives. I believe the time has come to expand upon this. The slight, proposed adjustment would likely result in professors seeing increased work ethic and engagement from those students who elected to pass/fail the course by those who still hope to excel and achieve a high grade (without the pressure and the anxiety). I believe that we should promote hard work as much as we can, even (and especially) in pass/fail situations.

JR Herman ‘24 is planning on double majoring in classics and marketing. JR serves as managing editor of Flat Hat Magazine and as an associate variety Editor at The Flat Hat. Outside of The Flat Hat, JR is involved with the Miller Entrepreneurship Center, Colonial Echo, Classics Club, Women in Business and The Gallery literary magazine. Email JR at

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JR Herman ’24 is a Monroe Scholar double majoring in Classics and Ancient Near East & Africa Studies. JR has held a variety of positions at The Flat Hat, including Flat Hat Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Chief of Staff, and Managing Editor, as well as Associate Variety Editor at the newspaper. Outside of Flat Hat, JR works at the William & Mary Entrepreneurship Hub and is involved in several other campus organizations, including The Egyptological Society of William & Mary and the Colonial Echo. In her free time, she enjoys photography, curling up with a book, baking sweet treats, and listening to French music on Spotify.


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