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Rice P/F working group sends out pass/fail survey to students

By Talha Arif     10/29/19 10:05pm

The Faculty Senate working group that is investigating the use of pass/fail at Rice sent out a survey two weeks ago to all students to gather their perspective on the policy and the various ways in which students are using it. 

According to Scott Solomon, the chair of the Pass/Fail working group, the goal of the working group is not to eliminate the pass/fail option but to gather relevant information from students and faculty to recommend alterations of the existing policy, to better suit the purpose it was created for. 

While students received the survey two weeks ago, Rice faculty members received a similar survey at the end of August. Solomon said that the reason that the student survey was sent out later than the faculty survey was to get the maximum number of student responses. 

Along with the survey, the working group is gathering student opinions through focus groups to better understand the use of the pass/fail option. The focus group discussions were divided into Natural Sciences and Engineering majors and minors, and all other majors and minors.

According to Sanat Mehta, the Student Association representative of the Pass/Fail working group, the focus groups were divided as such because the working group believes the two categories of students use pass/fail differently.

“One of the intended uses of pass/fail was for students to take courses outside their comfort zone without having to sacrifice their GPA,” Mehta, a McMurtry College junior, said. “Obviously, what your comfort zone is varies depending on whether you’re STEM or not. For STEM students, D1 and D2 courses are generally outside their comfort zone, whereas if a student is majoring in humanities or social sciences, something like COMP 140 would likely be outside their comfort zone.”

Misuse of Pass/Fail

Part of the reason the pass/fail system at Rice was created, according to Solomon, was to encourage students to take courses outside their major or that might be a bit of a stretch for them without as much concern for the grade they get. 

However, Solomon said that a potential area of concern is the use of pass/fail on major requirements during critical times such as applications to medical or graduate schools. 

According to Office of Academic Advising policy, students cannot pass/fail courses used to meet major requirements, but if a major requirement is pass/failed the OAA will automatically replace the “Pass” with the letter grade during the final degree audit. Because of this, students can “temporarily” pass/fail major requirements. 

Wills Rutherford, a Will Rice College sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering, said that the whole purpose of pass/fail is commonly misused among Engineering students.

“Most engineers pass/fail the same difficult classes,” Rutherford said. “Because certain companies and jobs have specific cutoffs (you have to have at least a 3.5 GPA to apply, for example), if I’m applying for a company like that my goal will be to apply with whatever it takes.”

Ohifeme Longe, a Jones College junior majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering, said that he believes allowing major requirements to be pass/failed is more beneficial than harmful.

“Certain major courses that are required aren't necessarily entirely well-organized courses,” Longe said. “Some students may generally not do well in that class as a result — in that case, pass/fail really comes into play. It’s not because students want to do less work in the class, but just because they know that even with the amount of work they’re doing they may not get a good grade in that class.”

Shami Mosley, a PAA and senior at Jones College, said he thinks that student’s majors have an effect on the way that they use the pass/fail option.

“As a humanities major, I believe that yes humanities majors tend to have more time in their schedules to take classes that don’t relate to their major or even the humanities,” Mosley said. “While for other schools, especially engineering, you have less courses you can take that are outside your major, outside engineering, and also count as distribution. This means that it is more likely for an engineering student to use a pass/fail on a distribution than students in other schools, especially in the humanities.”

In the survey to all students, multiple questions ask about this use of pass/fail for major requirements. Solomon said that a potential change of this aspect of the policy would be to allow the “P” to remain on the transcript rather than having it taken off in the final degree audit.

Impacts on University Reputation

According to Solomon, there is some concern from faculty, students and the administration that if the issue of using pass/fail on major requirements during application periods is prevalent for a long enough period of time, it could have negative consequences for students and for Rice's overall reputation.

According to Stephen Zeff, a faculty member of the Pass/Fail working group from the Jones School of Business, certain policies that may contribute to grade inflation can adversely affect Rice students in the long term.

“Certain graduate schools, when they look at undergraduate transcripts, have an image of how much grade inflation there really is at certain universities,” Zeff said. “I've seen [systems] where universities are either bumped up or knocked down depending on their reputation as easy or tough graders. We don't want to do anything that causes Rice GPAs to not be taken at full face value.”

Another related question, given on both the faculty and student survey, asked whether the pass/fail option should be given back to students if the “P” is uncovered and is converted to a letter grade. 

Solomon said that this feature of pass/fail as a whole, when compared to several other universities, is an unusual feature, and that getting the pass back after uncovering it is also very uncommon and possibly unique to Rice’s system.

“If a course is designated pass/fail, and there are only four [pass/fail’s] that you can use, the idea that uncovering the grade then returns one of those pass-fail’s back into your bank of pass-fails seems to be an aspect of our system that is unusual, and might not be ideal for accomplishing the goals of what the pass/fail system seems to be intended to do,” Solomon said.

Peer Institution Approaches

Bloom believes that using peer institutions as a model for pass/fail will help the working group suggest appropriate recommendations to the Faculty Senate.

The change last year from the 4.33 to 4.0 GPA, while not everyone’s favorite decision, puts us more on par with other universities,” Bloom said. “Since GPA is a way of standardizing everything, having potential grade inflation at one university doesn't really help students here.”

Other universities across the United States have varied systems. Duke University operates under a Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory system, with the standard being a C- for satisfactory. However, the deadline for changing the S / U to a grade is four weeks before the end of the same semester, whereas at Rice, students have until the second week of the following semester.

Princeton University, on the other hand, operates under a Pass / D / Fail system, in which a D appears on the transcript rather than “Pass.”

According to Zeff, a Rice University self-study in 1984 recommended that the pass/fail system change to Pass / D / Fail, with the argument centered around the idea that if a student gets a D in the course, they haven’t learned that much in the course so it doesn't make much sense to call it a pass.

Solomon said this system is something Rice could potentially turn to. 

“There's a big difference between an A+ and a D-,” Solomon said. “Essentially, our current system doesn't differentiate between these grades. Rather than just saying pass/fail, if we move the bar up a little, we can say there is a difference between a pass, a D, and a fail.”

“In that type of system, with a D, you still get credit, but you get a grade for it on your GPA whereas pass is still just a “P.” That's just one of the possible ways we could tweak our system that might be an improvement. The idea there is trying to create more incentive for students who are taking a class pass/fail to achieve a little bit of a higher bar that might be beneficial for the overall learning outcomes.”

Bloom, however, believed that raising the standard would take away from the goal of pass/fail. 

“Passing is passing,” Bloom said. “If the whole point of pass/fail is to encourage students to take classes in other areas and take away that stress, and if the standard is raised, that gives a student even less of a reason to take the class.”

Madhani also believed that raising the standard may be unnecessary because there may not be many students who even get D’s on pass/fail classes in the first place.

According to Solomon, the working group has begun to collect data from the registrar to understand what the grades under pass/fails really are. 

“From what we’ve seen so far, most students putting a “P” on the course are actually still doing reasonably well in that course, but we haven't come to any conclusions yet,” Solomon said.

Solomon said the working group has no previous agenda — their job is simply to collect information and make a recommendation. Ultimately, it is the Faculty Senate that decides whether there will be any change to the policy.

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