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When life gives you COVID-19, start learning for learning’s sake

<p>McCosh Hall houses the Department of English at the University.</p>

McCosh Hall houses the Department of English at the University.

The coronavirus has escalated to the point where it affects every single aspect of life. That’s not news, by now. For Princeton students, virus prevention measures have booted most of us from campus and forced all of us to attend class virtually. Consequently, the grading system for many classes has changed.

Although the University has not mandated such updates, despite the persuasive voice of the Editorial Board, their recommendations have led to noticeable shifts in grading for many classes. Students now have the option to take some classes on a pass/D/fail (PDF) scale, rather than an A-F scale. Of my four classes, for example, one has changed to mandatory-PDF, while two more have become PDF-optional.


While these changes reflect the unfortunate upheaval caused by the transition to online classes, students should take advantage of the increased availability of the PDF-option to enjoy learning for the sake of learning.

For many students, the change in grading provides a crucial relief from the pressures of Princeton academics at a time when they need to focus on more pressing responsibilities. That, however, does not mean we have to abandon the semester altogether. Ideally, we should strike a balance between reducing our coursework to focus on unavoidable concerns, while still challenging ourselves to learn as much as we can in our classes.

Amid the most unprecedented crisis of our generation, we have been afforded the opportunity to discover a motivation to learn fueled by inner passion, rather than external pressure to perform well. Striving for academic success, even in classes that we are taking as PDFs, can help us rediscover learning as an intrinsically valuable pursuit.

A letter-grading system offers a clear picture for the standards of academic performance, and the University has established meanings for each letter grade in a class: an A indicates that a student “meets the highest standards for the assignment or course,” while a B- represents “some reasonable command of the material.” Although these guidelines provide benchmarks for students to aim for, evaluating performance in this way can often feel restrictive and stressful. PDF grading, however, allows students to both create and enforce our own standards for success and learning, without the pressure associated with A-F grading. 

Indeed, with the reduced stresses associated with the tantalizing prospect of an A, students will be able to appreciate the material we learn as opposed to valuing it simply based on its applicability to an examination. We can take more risks in education, attempting methods of learning or ideas that may or may not work. 

Writing Seminar professor Dr. Sean Fraga, too, hopes that the recent decision to make all writing seminars mandatory-PDF “will encourage students to further experiment.” In my writing seminar, I also hope to take time to reflect on better writing practices, rather than mechanically absorbing and implementing feedback without fully comprehending its significance.


Of course, the individual circumstances of each student will determine to what extent they can exert themselves academically in these challenging times. However, if we each continue to devote the maximum effort possible to our academic pursuits, the relaxed grading scales of many Princeton courses afford us the rare educational opportunity to learn solely for the purpose of learning.

With examinations, the pressures of job applications or graduate schools, and our own internal wills to maintain high GPAs looming over each semester, we often forget that learning can be fun. The coronavirus, while wreaking havoc in almost all aspects of our lives, can — if we make the most of the opportunity it has provided us — bring back the joys associated with being curious. In these troubling times, we certainly need all the joys we can find!

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