Vakil: Northwestern should require freshman Fall Quarter classes to be Pass/Fail


Caroline Vakil, Columnist

The idea of college — a place where you can study a variety of subjects ranging from philosophy to physics in a span of four years — has always appealed to me. Call me a nerd, but I’ve always been one of those students who genuinely loves to learn and was excited by the thought that I would be leaving high school, a place where most of your classes were already picked out for you.

A lot of students typically come to college feeling this way, excited to learn and to have the kind of thought-provoking conversations the admissions office always tries to sell to you in their brochures. But slowly, after a quarter at college, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the new academic load professors dole out in assignments, projects and midterms while trying to juggle your social life and the extra curriculars you’re involved with on campus. The fear of flunking a class is ever looming and it’s hard to actually enjoy the classes you’re in.

This problem is not unique to Northwestern but is present at most colleges. However, we don’t have to be content with this stressful, academic culture. One solution to continue facilitating this excitement to learn is by requiring the first quarter of freshman year classes to be graded only on a Pass/Fail system. This would allow freshmen to explore different subjects and topics without having to worry about how they fare in class. It would also help students remain engaged in the subjects they’re studying.

A Pass/Fail system also works because it continues to hold students accountable for their progress in the classroom in a reasonable way. It doesn’t let students off the hook in class because students are required to maintain a certain grade in each of their classes to pass their class. However, this system removes pressure from students to maintain a certain GPA, which is beneficial to students because some of their first college classes may also be the first time they receive a B or C.

More importantly, this system has been proven to work. Colleges such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Swarthmore College both implement this Pass/Fail system for fall semester of freshman year as a way to help freshmen get acclimated to college courses. This policy helps students explore difficult classes by placing more focus on learning rather than solely on grades.

If more emphasis is placed on learning, it can help students figure out what they’re truly passionate about. At the same time, it could relieve students of any guilt they might have over changing majors, since there can oftentimes be a stigma around that decision. Rather than seeing their first quarter wasted learning about subjects they don’t care about, students could reevaluate their first quarter as a way to help weed out majors.

And the best part is, this is a win-win situation both for the University and for students. Besides the fact that students will be more actively engaged in the courses they take their first quarter, it will also create an active audience for professors who are surrounded by students excited to learn.

The University would not lose anything from such a policy. NU will only gain more engaged students and a more academically active campus. Admissions-sponsored brochures and university tours boast about the amazing conversations professors and students have in class. Let’s help make that a reality.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She 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.