Stocker: Northwestern students should not take classes Pass/Fail


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

Last quarter I tried to take a course Pass/Fail or “P/N.” I was done with my major requirements for both history and economics, done with distribution requirements, done even with elective requirements for graduation. Undergraduates are allowed to take up to one course P/N per quarter, so I figured I ought to give it a try. What could be better than taking a course without worrying about the grade I received? I enrolled in three courses: two history seminars for a grade and an economics course P/N. I dropped the economics course after the fourth week of classes.

I understand there are times when taking a course P/N is necessary — whether for mental health reasons or other extreme personal circumstances. But absent necessity, NU students should not take courses P/N. Taking courses P/N is counterproductive and misguided, a misuse and outright waste of time and money.

The option itself is heavily restricted, considering students in all undergraduate schools are only able to take general education and unrestricted electives P/N. Weinberg students are further restricted: language requirements, WCAS Distribution Requirements and all major and minor requirements cannot be fulfilled with P/N courses. Students can use it to fulfill elective requirements, courses needed for graduation but not for any specific requirements. Herein lies the primary problem with taking courses P/N: Doing so encourages minimal effort, thereby preventing students from actually learning in elective courses. When used in this manner, the P/N option is counterproductive. Despite the popular notion that the P/N option allows us to enjoy and learn from classes by assuaging fears of poor grades, it actually prevents learning by presenting a disincentive to do readings and attend class.

Even those of us with the best intentions cannot avoid the realities of college life. When pressed for time and forced to choose between coursework, student organizations, socializing and sleep, the most obvious sacrifice is a P/N class. By taking interesting courses P/N, we set ourselves up for minimal effort, preventing us from enjoying or learning the material.

Furthermore, taking a course P/N is an actual cost — both a waste of time and money. Although the commitments of a P/N course are minimal, there is still a time cost — some readings must be done, some lectures must be attended and assignments must be completed to a sufficient level to actually pass the course. Time spent half-heartedly completing coursework without actually learning is time wasted. Additionally, each quarter at NU also brings a tuition bill. Not only do we waste time by taking courses P/N, we also waste money.

Taking a course P/N is deeply misguided. Taking a course P/N is a symbolic surrender to the grade-focused culture so many of us profess to hate. Choosing to take a course P/N is admitting that we believe our GPAs reflect our worth as individuals. Rather than fight for the highest grade we can earn in a difficult course, or dive into a new discipline and struggle to learn as much as possible, the P/N option allows us to give into fears of failure or inadequacy. The P/N option is a subtle submission to NU’s hyper-competitive environment, a retreat away from adversity and into our comfort zones. Rather than challenge ourselves to think in new ways, push our limits and truly learn, we choose intellectual laziness when we choose P/N.

NU is a top-tier institution. We have hundreds of superb courses to choose from each quarter and thousands of outstanding faculty members, graduate students and fellow undergraduates to work with and learn from. The P/N option is a waste of the wonderful opportunity for learning that NU courses represent. Except for extreme circumstances, we should not choose to take courses P/N.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.