Change pass/fail to satisfactory/no credit to better serve student learning

Anna Marlatt

“With Brown’s Open Curriculum and educational policies, I can be the architect of my own education.”

These lines are still ingrained in my mind from my tour at Brown University. Finally, someone managed to sum up my ideal approach to education in one metaphor. 

Now at UT,  I question if our students can say the same. 

The heavy focus on grades at UT discourages students from taking difficult classes out of their comfort zone. As a result, UT students are receiving only half the education they could be. While the current pass/fail policy is a shot at improving this, UT’s curriculum could be less restrictive by modeling Brown University’s satisfatory/no credit policy instead.

At Brown, students can opt to be graded under the conventional letter grading system, or they can opt to take a class as satisfactory/no credit. This option is then reflected on the external transcripts of the student as S/NC. 

The rationale behind this system is that students are not encouraged to use their transcript and GPA as the only proof of their academic achievements and progress. Instead, they are encouraged to establish a portfolio of work and experience that is only supplemented by their grades. This practice also allows students to personalize their transcripts and customize them according to their needs and strengths.

UT’s pass/fail policy is glaringly different from Brown’s satisfactory/no credit policy. To be eligible to change a course to pass/fail, UT requires students to first complete at least 30 hours. In addition, only electives may be taken on a pass/fail basis. No course required for the degree may be taken pass/fail. If a class is taken pass/fail and a grade of F is assigned, the F will be averaged into the GPA. 

Brown does not have these restrictions, so a student can freely explore whatever courses may seem interesting. Best of all, because you cannot fail the course, your GPA will never be hurt by this policy. 

“I’m undeclared right now, and I feel (the pressure) so much because in order to internally transfer to a major, you have to keep your GPA at a certain minimum, and having a high GPA is important for being competitive in the transfer process,” undeclared freshman Makenna Chamberlain wrote in a direct message.  

“It’s been so stressful, and I’ve been picking classes based more on grade distributions than things I’m actually interested in. It’s really been affecting the capacity I feel I have to explore majors, which is the whole point of being in the School of Undergraduate Studies,” Chamberlain said.

To get the University’s perspective on these policies, I spoke to Mia Carter, the associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts.

“Some excellent, renowned small liberal arts colleges and universities have a class size and campuswide scale of enrollment that can support students’ uncharted discovery,” Carter wrote in an email. “The ability to inspire students to take risks, without worrying about GPAs is … an enviable pedagogical ideal.”

However, Carter recognizes that there are fundamental differences between Brown and UT that allow them to achieve this unlimited approach to education. 

“The private Brown University has about 7,000 undergraduates. The University of Texas at Austin has close to 41,000 undergraduates and is a shared, public trust, one that has to encourage timely graduation in order to provide access for a breadth of the state’s students and citizens,” Carter wrote. 

While UT may be larger, this isn’t a substantial reason to steer students away from academic exploration. With so many kids coming in with Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual credit hours, students have room to explore while graduating on time. In fact, a 2013 study showed that more UT students who double major graduate on time than those with a single major. The ability to graduate on time isn’t an issue for students. Rather, they need better policy that supports academic discovery.  

As long as UT steers away from innovative approaches to education, its students will do the same. In other words, our restrictive approach to education causes students to be afraid of pushing educational boundaries and exploring what they love. 

Marlatt is an international relations and global studies freshman from Missouri City, Texas.