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We have now entered the pass/D/fail selection period. If students take a class based on PDF grading and receive a C-minus or above, they receive a P for “pass.” If they fail, they receive an F. If they receive a D, they pass but do not receive a P. In an Undergraduate Announcement article, the University explained the purpose of the PDF grading option: “The intent of the pass/D/fail option is to encourage exploration and experimentation in curricular areas in which the student may have had little or no previous experience. The pass/D/fail option also may be used by the student in completing distribution courses.” 

These two goals — letting students PDF courses taken to satisfy a distribution requirement and encouraging students to broaden their horizons by taking classes outside of their comfort zone — cannot coexist when we are only allowed to PDF four classes, and each of those classes must be in a different semester. 

Our current system creates two main burdens for students when selecting which classes to PDF. One is that by restricting us to using one PDF per semester, it can prevent a student who wishes to take multiple difficult classes from taking them all during his or her time at the University, because they may be only offered during the same semester.

For example, if a student wanted to take two difficult classes that were not guaranteed to be offered again, he or she would only be able to take one of them, even if he or she had two PDFs available. To fix this dilemma, the University should stop the restriction on when students may use their PDFs. If the point of the option is to let students experiment with courses they may not be comfortable with, let them have as much freedom to do that as possible. 

Another flaw in our current system is that students who are not as skilled at STEM or humanities courses may have to use up so many of their PDFs for general education requirements that they do not have any left to try new types of courses — ones that do not fulfill general education requirements — without risking damage to their GPAs.

For example, a student who does not perform as well at STEM-related courses needs to satisfy the Quantitative Reasoning, Science and Technology, and Science and Technology with Lab requirements. A student who is not strong in the humanities still has to take two Literature and the Arts courses, a Historical Analysis course, and an Ethical Thought and Moral Values course. If they choose to PDF these courses, they may not have additional PDFs left to take challenging classes that do not satisfy any of the general education requirements.

A solution is to increase the total number of PDFs to eight, ensuring that students will have enough leeway to take courses they may not be as prepared for, while also being able to fulfill the general education requirements. Eight PDFs would let students use one per semester if they wished, while also not being so many that students can PDF classes to remove challenge from coursework. Even if a student used all eight PDFs, that would mean that nearly 75 percent of the courses would be taken for a letter grade. Students would also be receiving a grade for thesis and junior papers.

The two solutions proposed in this article do not fix all problems with the PDF system, like the D within PDF, which prevents us from having a true “pass/fail” system where any passing grade is a P. Another issue is the fact that some classes’ midterms count for so little of the grade that they may not be the best indicators of whether a student should PDF the class.

However, the changes would be a start in bringing the University’s PDF system up to par with those at our fellow Ivy League institutions. Under our current system, students do not have enough PDFs to branch out and take new types of classes when they may already need to use the four PDFs they have on their general education requirements, especially considering how someone may want to PDF multiple classes offered during the same semester.

Hunter Campbell is a junior politics concentrator from East Arlington, Vt. He can be reached at hunterc@princeton.edu.

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