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Post-final pass/D/fail option would minimize semester-long complacency

Seventeen. After figuring out how poorly I would have to score on my final exam to get a D for the semester, I looked up from my calculator, glanced at my closed notebooks and promptly decided to take the night off. With a hard reading period behind me and a week of intersession with my thesis ahead, sweating over a practically meaningless exam that was two days away was not very attractive.

I felt a little guilty about abandoning knowledge for its own sake, but only for a minute. If anything, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake put me in this position. Finishing off my final distribution requirement in a liberal artsy lab course, I took the class pass/D/fail because I wanted to focus on my thesis, applications and getting the most out of a last year at Princeton.

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Rather than entirely blowing off the class, however, I found the material interesting and, out of some Type-A sense of guilt, could not let myself do a slipshod job on the lab reports. Since much of the marking, including the midterm examination, came after the time I could change to a regular grading option, by the time I could gauge my grade it was too late.

Consequently, I left my books on my desk and went out for the night. Knowledge for its own sake is even better when it comes with rewards on the transcript, and I am not the only one in the p/D/f bakery who must settle for half a loaf after earning a whole one. Whether it is the student who takes a risk on a difficult math class and belatedly discovers a knack for multivariable calculus or another who takes an art class on a lark and discovers a new passion — come final exams, plenty of Princetonians find themselves with high grades fated never to see the light of day. Be it a mark of 97 or 72, in the night of the academic record, all Ps are black.

The way to fix this would be to allow students to rescind their p/D/f status after they receive their final grades. This sounds suspiciously like the proposal of a lazy student hoping to attach another car to the grade inflation gravy train, but that is not so. Students would still not be able to switch over to p/D/f after receiving their grades, but allowing them to drop p/D/f status retroactively is fully in the spirit of the current system.

The merit of the p/D/f option is its encouragement of students to branch out: to roll the dice on a course that might be a little over your head or to test the waters in an academic field foreign to your speciality or experience. Giving the option to change Ps into hard-earned As does not damage this benefit. If anything, it expands it. Students will know choosing the p/D/f option for risky classes will not just protect their transcript, but possibly strengthen it.

Accordingly, reforming the p/D/f system increases incentives to work hard. With other academic, extracurricular and social commitments tugging at our collective sleeves, p/D/f classes often plummet down the list of priorities. When a C is the standard, C work is often the product. Creating the possibility for students to see reward for hard work in electives could change that, encouraging students to get more out of their classes. Reform will reward good students, not protect lazy ones.

This proposal could result in a rise in GPAs, but viewing this in the context of the grade inflation war confuses the issue. If grade inflation is a problem, changing departmental grading policies is the appropriate tactic, not preventing students from receiving acknowledgment for a job well done. Extending the period to rescind my p/D/f status may or may not have kept me in studying that night, but I would have thought twice. Princeton should give students the option to think twice and receive recognition for good work. Jeff Pojanowski is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Ramsey, N.J. He can be reached at jeffreyp@princeton.edu.

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