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The pass/D/fail game: One tough crapshoot

Most Princeton students cannot gamble in Atlantic City because of the over-21 age restriction (in theory, at least). But the University's pass/D/fail system forces all undergraduates to play a game that's riskier and more potentially damaging than any at Caesar's Palace.

Here's how the p/D/f system currently works. For each of four classes during your undergraduate career (except for some classes that do not allow it), you can ask to receive only one of three grades: pass, D or fail. But the deadline to decide whether to exercise this option is very early in the semester. This semester's deadline for deciding to take a class p/D/f was Oct. 20, before midterms had even occurred. Students could rescind a p/D/f by Nov. 27 — long before final exams — but it would still count as one of the four.


Therefore, students have about one month to determine how well they are going to do in their classes, and weigh that decision against how well they have done in past classes and how well they think they will do in future classes. Many classes, especially in the humanities, have no graded assignments before midterms. Though students can determine whether they have a good grasp of the material after a month, such information doesn't necessarily indicate which grade they'll eventually receive.

The standard line from administrators and academic advisers is that students should use their p/D/f's on experimental classes. These are classes that a student is interested in taking — that have topics that a student would like to explore — but in which the student might be fearful that he or she will not receive a good grade, because he or she has little experience or ability in that topic. A student should be able to take such a class without the anxiety of having to get a good grade.

But what about the very noble, optimistic and ambitious literature neophyte who wants to at least try to do well in ENG 201? This student is penalized by the current system. He is forced to either use his p/D/f early on and thus decide not to get rewarded for his potentially good work in the class, or not use his p/D/f and risk getting a bad grade (which, for him, is a definite possibility). In effect, he is forced to gamble.

To solve this problem, I have come up with a proposal: Each student gets four p/D/f's that he or she can use at any time during his or her college career for any class that he or she has taken (assuming the particular class can be taken p/D/f). Under this system, seniors could look back on their transcript, choose the classes in which they got their worst four grades and use the p/D/f's for those four classes.

Students would still feel free to take experimental classes. In any class, if they realized early on that they would not get a good grade, they could simply do what the administration says: Use their p/D/f. Or they could wait to see what they have received in the class, and when they find out it was a C-minus, they could then use one of their p/D/f's.

And if students did end up receiving a good grade, they would not be penalized for their hard work or their outstanding newfound ability, as they are now with the current system. Thus, my proposal would give students an incentive to work hard in experimental classes in which they later realize they had a latent ability.


Some might wonder: What if students need to use their transcripts before they graduate, for jobs, graduate school or summer programs? Well, under my proposal, students could use their p/D/f's at any time.

So they could use their p/D/f's before they sent out their transcripts. It would still give them enough time to find out what grades they received in the classes for which they used the p/D/f's.

I might even be in favor of allowing students to switch p/D/f's from one class to another. Let's say a sophomore uses her four p/D/f's on his four B-minuses before sending her transcript to a summer program. Then she gets a C-plus as a junior. Why shouldn't she then be able to take a p/D/f from one of the B-minus classes, make it a B-minus again, and use the p/D/f on the C-plus class? Just because she once used a p/D/f on a B-minus class doesn't erase the B-minus work that she did.

Right now, the p/D/f system makes me constantly nervous. Nervous about whether I should have used my p/D/f's earlier, or whether I should use them on my current classes. I fear I might reach second semester senior year with three p/D/f's left but happen to be taking easy classes, or classes with topics in which I am experienced. Under my proposal, I would have no such anxiety.

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I have no problem gambling five dollars at blackjack. But gambling on my GPA is unnecessarily nerve-wracking and potentially damaging to my future job and graduate school prospects. Zach Pincus-Roth is a philosophy major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at