Grades are by far one of the most stressful parts of college life — all of the quizzes, papers, exams, and projects consuming and occupying students’ time and energy. The cycle of taking classes and taking in course material just to complete requirements, get good grades, and get one step closer to graduating is exhausting, which is why the concept of Princeton’s freshman seminars sounds so intriguing. According to the University, these freshman seminars are meant to allow first-year students the opportunity to explore concepts they hadn’t learned about before and expand upon their knowledge. However, without automatically making freshman seminars pass/D/fail (PDF) classes, the intended purpose of freshman seminars is negated.
Automatically PDF-ing freshman seminars would lower stress levels for first-years as they transition into the notoriously rigorous academic environment that Princeton boasts. PDF-only freshman seminars would not be an extra burden on top of that overwhelming stress, but rather, a way to understand and appreciate the beauty of learning.
First-year students in college all start off at different starting points, partly because of the varying quality and diversity of academic experiences that their high schools offered. Some students may have more solid foundational knowledge in a variety of subjects, while others may lack experience in certain subject areas. Thus, students may sometimes avoid class topics they are not used to seeing, even if they are interesting. PDF-only freshman seminars would allow students the opportunity to engage with unfamiliar subjects without having to worry about negatively impacting their GPA, should it take time to fully grasp this new material.
No matter what the starting point is for first-years, the University should not put the pressure of academics and letters on a piece of paper (or computer screen) on the students’ path to finding or continuing to dive deeper into their passions. A question I have heard these past two months from my fellow first-years is, “What is an easy course I can take?” I have heard this question a few too many times, and it reveals a damaging mentality that we should aim to fix.
First-years especially are very fearful of not excelling academically. Thus, when it comes time for course selection, the thought at the forefront of their minds is not necessarily choosing classes that may intrigue them, but rather, classes they believe may be an “easy A.” At the very least, most of the other classes students take in their first year can be PDF’d. However, students cannot PDF freshman seminars even if they wanted to, which further disincentivizes students from choosing to expand their field of knowledge. In my experience, many first-years choose not to take a freshman seminar in their schedule out of a fear of not being able to do well, which literally reverses the purpose of these seminars — it stunts the opportunity for expanded learning possibilities rather than encouraging them.
These seminars are optional and assigned based on each first-year’s top choices according to their interests. Yet once placed in the seminars, even initially passionate students may spend more time thinking about ways to get higher grades rather than soaking in the material. This shows a massive flaw in the way freshman seminars are currently structured.
PDF-only freshman seminars would change the dynamics of the classes, putting more emphasis on the role of professors’ feedback. While the grading system is standardized and helpful in terms of applications and CVs, PDF-only freshman seminars would give first-years the opportunity to focus on growth. Constructive criticism and feedback are what people must deal with on a daily basis once they are out of a school environment. However, because of how ingrained the grading system is in students, they put the importance of feedback on the back burner and are thus less experienced with using the feedback to their advantage. A PDF-only freshman seminar would allow students to focus their attention on the criticism given to them in a more low-stakes environment, letting students learn to respond in productive ways and to use the desire to improve as an intrinsic source of academic motivation.
Throughout high school, many academically-driven students develop the unhealthy habit of checking letter grades and putting aside the qualitative feedback teachers give. However, in order to truly grow and learn, students must be able to take in suggestions and reflect on how they can improve. Given that freshman seminar topics are often brand new to students, the chances of students making mistakes and not being fully comfortable with the material is much higher than in a regular core class. In addition to the potentially new topics, every first-year is acclimating to the academic environment at Princeton. By having the space to learn without the burden of grades, students can rid themselves of harmful habits developed in high school. Breaking bad learning habits is particularly important as students are still exploring their passions at the start of college. Having a class that does not punish, but rather guides students in the right direction, is crucial in that process.
PDF-only freshman seminars would teach students to be receptive to feedback and potentially help students identify their passions. This lower-stress environment allows first-years to more deeply explore their professors’ fields of study, using the class as an opportunity to think more about their future. Other well-established and successful institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Rutgers have used the pass/fail grading system for their first-year seminars. If a change in the method of grading can only benefit students and their experiences with learning, while also not affecting the mission of these seminars — why can’t Princeton follow suit?
Eric Xie is a first-year from New Jersey looking to study computer science. He is a Contributing Columnist for Opinion and can be reached at email@example.com.