Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of student death.
This Friday, Nov. 4, is the deadline to invoke or revoke Credit/No Credit (CR/NCR) as a grading option. The CR/NCR system has taken the place of the previous Pass/D/Fail option; students can opt to invoke this nonstandard grade twice during their four years at the college, for a single course during a semester at Middlebury. Though this choice bears the same name as the alternate grade mode extended to students during 2020 and 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it maintains the same restrictions — and shortcomings — as Pass/D/Fail.
The main discrepancy between the current CR/NCR option and Pass/D/Fail is that a student must receive a C- or above to receive credit, and a grade of “No Credit” will not affect a student’s GPA. While this change represents some additional leniency, it is ultimately too trivial to make a significant difference for students that are struggling.
The CR/NCR option as it currently stands is incredibly limited in scope in that it cannot be used for major, minor, academic distribution, college writing or cultures and civilizations requirements. (The only exception is that “in the case of a first course taken in a department or program in which a student subsequently declares a major or minor may, with the approval of the department chair or program director, count toward major or minor requirements.”)
This means that this option is often completely meaningless, as our editors noted that almost every class taken at Middlebury counts in one of these categories. While the model of our liberal arts education continuously touts the importance of trying new things, students often avoid taking courses they might be interested in if they know their grades might suffer. In practice, this looks like students opting to register for “easy” classes that they might not have any interest in to fulfill distribution requirements, instead of courses they genuinely want to take.
One of our editors with a background in dance noted how she took an introductory dance course to fulfill her ART requirement, even though she was more interested in a studio art course. However, studio art courses are known to be difficult, especially for those who are more artistically challenged, and the editor was worried that enrolling in one might tank her grade point average. Another editor noted taking several courses with the same professor because they knew exactly how the professor would grade.
Additionally, as Middlebury becomes more and more overenrolled and students cannot get into their first or second choice courses for a given requirement or elective, they are ending up in courses where they may need extra leniency. For one of our editors, limited seats in upper-level language classes and the limitations of the current CR/NCR policy could present roadblocks to meeting pre-abroad requirements.
These sorts of issues demonstrate how the current system is, in many scenarios, essentially useless. We as a board do not believe that having an expanded and more liberal CR/NCR — like in previous semesters — would jeopardize students’ learning or retention. In fact, we think it will allow students to feel more comfortable branching out and exploring all that Middlebury’s course catalog has to offer.
These are not novel ideas — in fact, many professors have already instituted effort-based grading or “ungrading” in their own classrooms. In a story published in 2021, Biology Professor Greg Pask said of his labor-based grading structure that “the biggest benefit is that students are learning for themselves, they’re exploring this topic of our class for their own interests.” Computer Science Professor Shelby Kimmel said that “my goal is to give the students a bit more structure to help guide their learning, while also encouraging students to view learning as a process that requires time and effort and where mistakes are part of that process.”
While it is refreshing to see more and more professors embrace nontraditional grading systems, the onus cannot solely be on individual faculty members to change the culture of letter-based grades. Additionally, some nontraditional grading systems revolve around students selecting their own grade — a process which is proven to disproportionately penalize female students who often critique their work more harshly than their male counterparts.
Many faculty, on the other hand, strongly oppose the idea of an expanded CR/NCR option. The most common rationale for this is that it would lead students to work less hard and skimp on assignments. However, it is evident that some faculty members experimenting with new systems believe that decentering grades actually heightens learning.
Another concern posed about alternate grades is that traditional letter grades can serve as an equalizer, with the idea being that no matter what background a student is coming from, they have the chance to achieve the same grades as their more privileged peers. However, this perspective overlooks the very different circumstances students experience while at Middlebury. Someone who works twenty hours a week through federal work study is not going to be able to study the same amount as someone who doesn’t need a job to pay tuition or make ends meet. In addition, students who came from prep schools explicitly designed to funnel students into elite colleges do not exist on an even playing field with students who did not have access to these resources before Middlebury.
Other professors worry that alternate grading will foster the idea that the only acceptable grade is an A, leading students to invoke CR/NCR for any class they cannot receive the top mark in. While we agree that a 4.0 transcript comprising a myriad of “Credit” grades probably doesn’t set the best precedent, the reality is that many Middlebury students already perceive grades below an A or A- as having a negative connotation. The sort of “morally superior” rhetoric expressing that students “need to be OK with Bs” and “learn that grades don’t determine your worth” ignores the reality that our transcripts have very real ramifications post-Middlebury.
Grad school applications aside, some employers maintain a GPA cutoff — and we haven’t heard of any student who hasn’t had to disclose their grades when receiving pre-med advising from Health Professions and Science Advising staff. Ultimately, imploring students to look beyond their grades ignores the role grades play in students’ ability to make a living, pay off their loans or support family members financially. Many outside scholarships also require that students maintain a certain GPA minimum, putting students’ abilities to attend college at all at the mercy of professors’ grading. While we too wish that grades didn’t matter, that is not the world we live in right now.
Therefore, we believe it is critical to rethink the current CR/NCR system in order to provide students with a safety net when they need it the most. In addition to how students’ course selection is limited by grade anxiety, students need a valid option in the case of an emergency. Taking an incomplete in a course can be difficult to get approved but also often requires students to draw out their semester by weeks or months — sometimes overlapping with the start of a new term. In addition, dropping a course either at week eight or via late drop leaves students with an additional credit to make up, meaning they will likely need to take five classes in a future semester.
However, because the ability for students to invoke CR/NCR is so limited, many are finding themselves preparing to drop a course this term. Because both the drop and the CR/NCR deadline are this Friday, many students are making this decision based on one or two assignments they have received back. This timeline is especially illogical considering some professors are notorious for intentionally giving poor grades on midterms in a misguided attempt to have students work harder in the back half of the semester.
Last fall, after the death of a Middlebury student, faculty voted to reinstate the Covid-19 version of CR/NCR. While we greatly appreciate this gesture, we do not believe that support for students should be reactive — as in it should not take a horrible tragedy to extend grace and flexibility to the student body. Rather, options like CR/NCR must be proactively expanded so that students have this option in their back pocket should they end up needing it.
Middlebury can also look to other higher education institutions for inspiration. For instance, Wellesley College has a mandatory “shadow grading” system in which nonstandard grades are listed for all courses taken within students’ first semester in order to “refocus attention from grades to intellectual engagement and inspiration and to learn how to grow as a learner in college.” In addition to the first semester, Wellesley students have the option of “taking an unlimited number of units on a Credit/Non-Credit grading basis.”
At Williams College, students can invoke their Pass/Fail option up until one week after grades for the semester are due, which provides students with more time and information to make this decision. At Amherst College, students can use Pass/Fail for any courses besides their first year seminar. At Brown University, well known for its nontraditional grading, students can choose to take any course for a grade of “A,B,C/No Credit or Satisfactory/No Credit.”
At the end of the day, we hope that faculty will consider moving towards a system that has more utility for students. We are not asking to do away with letter grades completely, rather, we are recognizing how the current system is ineffective and does little to mediate pre-existing inequities. An opt-in CR/NCR system that could be invoked closest to the end of the semester for courses that fulfill graduation requirements would go a long way in helping students to take intellectual risks and engage in new fields of study.