In these blog posts, I have written about standards from a variety of perspectives. When I first shifted from student to instructor, I remember being struck by how challenging the concept of standards really was. A core challenge I see over and over results from the fact that we are really good at defining sufficient conditions for standards but not so good at defining necessary conditions. We tend to internalize the sufficient conditions as necessary and then run into problems of application! We also have strong emotional responses to standards that often interfere with our ability to critique our standards. One practical outcome of this is the fact that I have always felt that we have a pretty good idea of what an “A grade” is, but our standards get fuzzier as we go down the chain from A to B to C to D and even to F (though I think the bottom end of F grades is also well understood!).

One place this “fuzziness” around standards is surprisingly clear is in the UC pass/no pass (P/NP) policies. Now, many of you reading this already know my views on what these policies should be, and if you do not, you will probably have a good sense after reading this! However, this is not meant to be a reflection on what the policy should be, but instead a reflection on how we discuss and frame P/NP grades as a way to provide insight into the challenge of defining necessary standards! I am going to look at two aspects of the P/NP policy.

The first points directly to the challenge of defining minimum standards. If a student in the UC system takes a course for a letter grade, a D is defined as passing. While we actually use the language “barely passing” in the Regulations, it is still considered a passing grade. However, if a student takes a course P/NP, suddenly a D is not passing! If we actually believe we have objective standards of grading, how can the choice of a grade modality (letter vs. P/NP) change a student’s performance from passing to not passing?

I do not have a definitive answer to that question, but given people’s response to the discussion of P/NP, I have a guess. My guess has to do with what I mentioned earlier—standards seem to have a strong emotional component. The general claim is that P/NP exists so students will be able to explore a certain number of courses outside their field with no penalty. However, I think there is an unconscious (and sometimes conscious) sense that, if we are going to let students explore without a risk to their GPA, we need to hold them to slightly higher standards. Of course, there may be other good reasons for two different standards for passing, but I cannot think of them.

The second issue is a bit more nuanced but does seem to get to the emotional element of standards as well. There has been some discussion on the timing of when a student can select whether to take a course for a letter grade or as P/NP. If you put the two potential policies side by side, they have the same two main rules:

  1. Students have a maximum number of P/NP courses they can take
  2. Students cannot elect P/NP grades for courses required for their major, with additional limitations on the courses they can take P/NP

The difference between the policies is the amount of information students have when selecting between the two modes. In Version A, students must make the choice before they know their final grade (so sometime during the quarter; the actual date varies for different campuses). In Version B, students can make the choice after they know their final grade (not currently allowed at any campus, but being discussed by some people).

If you had the visceral response that Version B just should not be allowed and makes no sense, you are not alone! Most people have that initial response, and a number of common statements are often made to follow this up:

  1. “Students would never have an F on their transcript again!”
  2. “We would see grade point inflation as the number of bad grades would decrease.”
  3. “Students should know their grade well enough before finals that they should be able to make a decision at that point.”
  4. “Students might make mistakes that impact their financial aid or application to professional/grad school or other future decisions.”
  5. “Students would game the system!”

Let’s look at each of these reactions briefly. Reactions 1 and 2 really only depend on the two main rules of the P/NP policy, the maximum number of courses and the restrictions. They do not really depend on the information students have when making the change, which is the only real difference between Version A and B. I would argue that the fact that this reaction is so common is similar to the reason a passing grade is different for P/NP versus letter grades—we have a sense that part of the justification of the P/NP system itself is the level of risk students should experience!

Reactions 3 and 4 are less related to my main point, but I shared them because they bring up other interesting elements to consider. For response 3, if students (and presumably instructors) really know final grades with such certainty before finals—why have I spent so much time stressing over writing and grading finals? For response 4, I wonder why having more information is going to increase the chance of poor decisions? That being said, I am well aware that other policies may make this a challenge, so this is a philosophical comment. I understand that actual policy decisions are more complicated and nuanced!

Reaction 5 is one of the most common responses and the one that is most closely tied to this idea of standards and their emotional components. On the one hand, Version A is a system that is the closest to a “game”—we ask students to basically guess which courses they want to explore with a “safety net” that they must deploy with limited information. And for some reason, changing to Version B, which offers a system that allows students to explore courses with full knowledge of the outcomes, creates a nervousness that students will “get away with stuff.” 

The example that I find hardest to understand is when a student explores a new area of study using P/NP and discovers that they enjoy it and excel in these courses. Version B allows them to recognize their excellence with the agreed-upon standard of excellence—an A in the course. Treating Version B as “gaming the system” and requiring Version A, suggests that a student that risked a letter grade from the beginning of the course actually achieves a different set of standards than a student who elected for the P/NP option. In other words, the waiving of risks means the standards that were sufficient for an A are no longer sufficient. This is often coupled with a sense that P/NP allows students to “be less serious.” Ironically, when MIT faculty allowed changes to P/NP after grades were determined, they reported students were more serious and tried to learn as much as they could! As we are well aware, grades do motivate, and the ability to improve your grade right up to the last minute seems to keep students motivated, even if they know that in the end that can switch to P/NP. 

As I said earlier, these comments are not necessarily an attempt to argue one way or the other about what a D in a course should translate to or whether students should be able to choose P/NP based on full knowledge of their grade (though people probably can guess my opinion at this point!). What I really hoped to point out is that our understanding of standards is not straightforward or always well-defined. When it comes to our existing policies, it is worth exploring what we are really trying to achieve. The rules for P/NP are a great place to ask these questions as they were established in the past with a particular set of goals that may or may not align with our current goals! 

If it really is about exploration and asking students to take risks, and if we expect the same standards of success to apply independent of risks, then perhaps our current policies do not make sense. If on the other hand, we truly believe standards are dependent on the level of risk involved, we need to be honest and more transparent with students about what P/NP is for and how we expect them to use it. Ultimately, the goal of this post is to move us towards a place of discussion and objective examination of our accepted institutional structures—a level of analysis and reflection that really needs to occur with many of our standards associated with grades!