May

3

P/D/F Policy: Castellano Explains

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While the Bwog staff clearly has their opinions on the P/D/F policy, it helps to have factual information from the man in charge of the proposal, Steven Castellano, CC’13, CCSC academic affairs rep and Student Wellness Project policy chair.  Alexandra Svokos sat down and heard him out.

Why did you think to start this in the first place?

The idea came when people were complaining about the 8:40 am classes.  I found it seemed to be more an issue of stress.  People said, “this class is 30 minutes earlier, and that might be 30 of the 90 minutes [of sleep] I get all night.”  I increasingly became aware of stress as I got more involved in the Student Wellness Project, so I wanted to target academic policy towards it.

At the beginning of the year we looked into a variety of ideas – from a set midterm date, to not allowing double majors, lowering credits, having one extension per semester.  It became a matter of finding what would have the most pros and fewest cons.  The pass/fail policy definitely has a few cons, but it also seemed to cause the biggest difference without causing as much on the negative side.  With regards to lessening stress through student policy, I think that, through my research, this is not the Panacea to solving stress, but something that would make a difference in the most worthwhile way of the ideas we discussed.

What’s the idea of restricting the amount of credits a student can take?

That’s an active discussion going on and it will definitely be important in the next year.  There’s a movement that the Education Policy and Planning Committee has of standardizing all courses to 4 credits, with a few exceptions, effectively lowering the credit limit by raising the course points.  It will also decrease graduation requirements – which I have mixed feelings about.  But, when talking to students, they hate the idea of lowering the credit limit.

I feel that would be a great way to reduce stress, because we have a lost sense of what is a normal credit load on this campus.  People are taking five, six, even seven classes a semester because it fits within the credit limit, and we don’t realize that at most other schools it’s four to five classes at the most.  I think it would be a great initiative, but I don’t think it’s one that students support at the moment.  I hope in lowering the credit limit in the first semester students would realize the benefit of it.

Why would you support the pass/fail policy over lowering the credit limit?

They’re not mutually exclusive.  Pass/fail targets one’s educational framework in the first semester and how one views academics when they get here, how they take on academic stress in comparison to other stressors, whereas the lower credit limit is something that spans all 4 years and renormalizes what’s normal throughout the experience.  It also, in a way, is a larger infliction on their life, so to speak.  The research on both lowering the credit limit and pass/fail is still going on.  The Committee on Instruction (COI) is taking that on now, and both conversations will propel us on into the next year.

How are you navigating the major requirements (i.e. you can’t pass/fail a class for your major)?

I’ve reached out to all the directors of undergraduate study and have talked to most.  Most departments already have a policy where one class can be taken pass/d/fail.  For other departments, we’re looking at how that would be implemented.  The majority of the directors respond that students might be overly motivated by grades and will focus solely on achieving a certain grade rather than learning – not looking at education in a broader context.  Therefore they support the policy and like the idea of recalibration.

Obviously some have a conflicting philosophy – maybe this will delay adjustment or decrease motivation further.  But what it comes down to is how to make it work.  It’s complicated because some departments, like Econ, say, “we’re fine with you taking the intro course pass/d/fail because you some people already can skip it, but Intermediate Micro and Macro are pretty foundational, so if you took one or both pass/d/fail, that might not be as OK.”  I think the fact that you’re still getting grades [unofficially] is helpful, but there’s a lot to be discussed.

As an Econ major, my first thought was “well I wouldn’t be able to get my degree…”

Yeah, we don’t want nothing to count for the major or to make you block yourself out of it!

So Core classes are still getting grades?

Core classes and language classes.  The reason for that is Core and language classes tend to be discussion based.  According to studies at MIT and Hopkins, when students are going into first semester, they’re motivated by interest in the classes or fear about adjusting.  Because of those motivations, almost everyone does commit themselves to those classes.  But there are people that have decreased attention and put in less effort, and we don’t want those to bring down other people’s experiences, which would happen in a Core or language class where you’re talking to each other.

In a way, you’re putting a new priority on them.  I think that’s good because, in my personal experiences, the majority of my Lit Hum classes (I had 2 teachers) probably didn’t do the readings.  By shifting one’s focus on education – in particular, by having grades count – maybe some of [the saved time from other classes] will be put into the Core and language classes to enhance everyone’s experiences.

Is there anything being proposed to keep someone from taking a higher level course just because they can pass/fail it?

This is something that needs to have advising involved.  Part of the reason we’re lowering the credit limit is because we don’t want this to be an opportunity to load up on a ton of classes they’re not going to put effort into.  Packaging the [credit limit and pass/fail] for the first semester makes sense.  I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s easy to go over the credit limit – I’ve gone over it many times because I wanted to – but it would be beneficial to have more active conversation about why you would want to take on that course load.  If we’re gonna implement this policy, we want advisors to be talking about what courses will be right for the student and giving more directive advice.  Right now I don’t have any particular plans suggested to COI in regards to limiting the ability to take higher level classes if you qualify for them.  The main solution is to have advisors be more in contact about what’s normal and appropriate.

There are already ways to make first semester less stressful – you aren’t required to take many classes and pass/fail is an option for a class.  Is there a way to make students more aware of this without completely changing the policy?

It’s very hard to implement that sort of cultural change.  It’s something I wrote an op-ed about earlier this year.  I would love to see students sign up for fewer classes.  I mentor students in pre-orientation and coordinate CUE, and it’s something I say: start small.  But when they get here, they sign up for a full credit load, join 20 different clubs, they’re moving away from home, might have trouble finding friend groups, and are trying to figure out who they are as a person.  You’re going through all these transitions at the same time and people get overwhelmed.  This occurs on both sides: there are people who think they’re ready, hand in an amazing paper, get a C- and it’s overwhelming; and there are people who do very well their first semester but are overwhelmed with stress because they’re doing so much without a support group.

The best way to have a cultural change is to enact this policy where you’re forced to take two or three classes pass/fail so that you find out, for yourself: “do I want to take this many classes?  What sort of extracurricular activities do I want?  I have to find a support group to guide me through the rest of my time here.”  At the very least, people have a few Ps on their transcript that will cover up As, but they have 7 more semesters to stand out as awesome students.

But we are at an Ivy League institution.  I hate when people use comparisons to other schools to make an argument – but what makes our stress culture different than, say, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, who don’t have a pass/fail policy?

Two things: first, pass/fail policies are at top schools like MIT and Hopkins.  I don’t think the caliber of the school inhibits the need for it.  A tough educational environment necessitates the policy, in a way.  Especially when you’re diving into a diverse pool of overachieving students, giving them infinite opportunities – extracurriculars and academics – and allowing them to sign up for more credits than at these peer schools.

Second, a lot of my research was looking at peer schools.  There’s op-eds in every student paper about how this policy would be helpful.  There was recently an inter-Ivy summit where they discussed the movement at Columbia.  Other schools would benefit as much as we would with the policy.

I can’t claim to know what makes Columbia different, I just know there have been particularly growing discussions about higher stress.  It might be because of our higher credit limit – that’s one thing that’s tangibly different, we can sign up for more classes.  We had a Yale reporter come to see what we were doing with SWP, and I think other schools are using us as a role model, or leader, in the stress reduction movement.

Do you think it will change the way Columbia is perceived?

Well right now we’re perceived by The Daily Beast as the #1 stress school, so I hope it will change that perception.  I don’t know how it will affect admissions or how incoming students will view it, but I think the school having an adjustment period will make Columbia more attractive.  I have trouble seeing taking two or three classes pass/fail as being less rigorous.

Is there any worry that this places more emphasis on adjusting socially rather than academically?  Are we changing what we should be focusing on?

The two go hand in hand.  In dealing with stress, people turn to social support groups.  This is exacerbated at Columbia because, as you often hear, there’s no sense of community.  Whether that’s because we don’t have a sports culture or are in the city or any other reasons you posit, we need to provide students an opportunity to build community.

We’re also strengthening the Core, discussion classes, things Columbia defines itself by academically, and giving people an opportunity to explore academically.  I often hear from people “I thought I was a physics major, got a C, and realized I actually wanted to be an art major, something I’d never thought about.”  We’re encouraging people to branch out.  In surveys people say they’d definitely have taken different classes if the pass/fail policy were in place.  We’re creating a social culture of learning; developing communities where we talk about the Iliad.

What’s the next step from here for the policy?

The proposal is being reviewed by COI.  They’re having a faculty conversation regarding how to implement it for each department, what steps need to be taken, and if it’s worthwhile.  They’re looking at how stressful the first semester is in comparison to others.  My data suggests people are most stressed in first semester, but subsequent semesters are also stressful for different reasons.  If only 1% of students are most stressed during their first semester, this isn’t doing much.

They’re also looking at med schools and grad schools.  At peer schools like MIT and Hopkins, while they have this policy, they still have high matriculation rates to med school.  How it would work here is a conversation we need to have with career services.  The MCATs are changing in 2015, so how that’s affecting the current schools that have pass/fail is relevant.

The one other objection is internships.  If you look at other schools, again, people are still getting top internships with the pass/fail policy.  Unlike MIT, you’ll have an unofficial transcript that students can choose to send in applications.  That also motivates them to try hard in classes and not take advantage of the pass/fail policy.

Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

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40 Comments

  1. dirty mike

    never thought i'd see the day that alexandra the great humbles herself. so proud of you.

    • Anonymous  

      Wow. this cleared up a lot of my misconceptions on the matter. Thanks bwog for reaching out and doing this!

    • Anonymous  

      There are many other alternatives than P/D/F or lowering credit limits to solve student stress. Many other schools, including Stanford, let students drop their classes on the day of their final.

      • Anonymous  

        He literally said in the second paragraph that he looked into many ideas. Interested on what student and faculty thoughts on an extended drop deadline were.

  2. Anonymous

    Awesome. well-researched. great job

  3. Anonymous

    Great work Steven. I was initially a bit skeptical, but this is very well thought out, and addressed my concerns.

  4. anon

    Steve is my hero. Basically.

  5. Anonymous

    There seem to be many checks in place to ensure students ate still working while also providing for adjustment and freedom. While my instincts were against this, I see this as nothing but a positive change.

  6. Anonymous  

    Didn't realize so many alternatives were considered. Cool.

  7. lazy college senior

    While I still object to both parts of this proposal, I think the bigger concern is trying to enforce a lower credit limit. It restricts students who ARE capable of taking a larger course-load without really helping those who aren't. Unlike the P/D/F policy, which, ostensibly (although I still don't buy this) still lets focused students take the classes of their choosing and do well in them, a credit limit would have seriously negative implications for high-achieving students. For example, someone trying to double-major or graduate a semester early would have those prospects seriously hurt by this proposal. Making one minority of students suffer at the expense of "wellness" isn't really an ideal solution. If, instead, we extended drop deadlines, I think we could solve the same problem without penalizing high-performers.

    • anon  

      Yes I agree. I am trying to graduate 2 semesters early because paying 60k for another year is not worth it for me. If i couldn't have taken my 22 credits for my double major in the first semester (How will pass fail work with students who can place out of intro classes with APs?) i would have to spend an extra semester at columbia. Which amounts to 30k more i would be spending.Now extending the drop deadline to something like the seas one would on the other hand be a great idea because students will be able to drop at almost anytime if they feel overwhelmed and those who are not will not be affect by this. I know mental health is this big issue at columbia, but i think by making these changes it would negatively affect other's mental and financial health. The people deciding on this must look into the other possible side effects of this policy and ask themselves if it is worth it. It may sound great to reduce stress but other forms of stress will arise due to it. Also why not make the P/D/F for 1st semester optional, so students who want to can take advantage of it?

      • Anonymous

        I'm almost positive a petition for an exemption would be available if this was your circumstance..

      • bjw2119

        As someone mentioned, if they enact a separate policy of lowering the maximum credits per semester you can sign up for without petitioning, you would still be able to petition to go over the new credit cap, whether that's 18 or 19 or whatever. The purpose of having the credit cap lowered isn't to stop students like yourself who want to graduate early, but instead to force people who are stretching themselves by taking so many credits to go before their CSA adviser and have a serious conversation about why they need to take the credits and how they will handle the extra courseload. Think of it more as a speed bump than a stop sign. CSA advisers would obviously require more training about how to counsel students on taking high courseloads so that students who were doing it to triple-major while being in 500 extra-curricular activities and heading straight for a meltdown could be told to stop, slow down, and reevaluate how much they can handle and how they will prioritize.

        It also just makes it "normal" to take 4-5 classes per semester, as opposed to 5-7. Some people won't want to be bothered to petition to take more classes than the new cap, and others would wonder why they'd want to even try to exceed the cap. Those people will then reduce the peer pressure on others to "keep up" by adding that second major or extra stats class "to be marketable." The social implications, as well as the individual implications, would have a big impact.

      • Anonymous  

        yea, petition to go over credits...

        • A.  

          That makes sense -- my only issue is that when I've tried to go over credits in the past, my CSA advisor stepped in and kept me from doing so. I appreciate his concern, but I could have handled it, and his only justification was "that's a lot of classes". It didn't have very much of an impact, but if I had to go through CSA to take 6 classes, I probably wouldn't be able to double major.

          Is there a way to force students to have check-in conversations with their advisors if they chose to take 6 classes (say, one in the second week of class, and then one or two before the drop deadline), instead of the more strenuous petitioning process?

          (and yes, I do know that the petition to go over credits is approved or not by a committee -- but my impression is that if your advisor says no it more or less ends there.)

    • BSGS

      @lazy college senior:

      I wish I could afford to take more than 2 or 3 classes a semester!

  8. Anonymous  

    Never thought pass/fail would strengthen my educational experiences, but I really liked the point about core and language classes. Also, agree with his initial assessment: all pros but few cons...and definitely less controversial than other ideas on the table like a lower credit limit.

  9. anon  

    steve = god amongst us mere mortals

  10. cc'13  

    Also just noticed that in addition to getting PBK, Steve went over the credit limit many semesters himself from the interview...yet he is still doing his job and tackling the issues brought to him as the academic affairs rep, and he is working on this without sounding selfish or elitist like the bwog editors.

    • Anonymous  

      He also said that stress is faced by all types of students and that this isn't just about the high-achievers or low-achievers. You're indirectly still painting him as elitist when I guarantee you he's a humble guy and highly relatable.

  11. band-aid  

    I'm not sure that this will change anything...

    I transferred here from Johns Hopkins where the first semester was Pass/D/Fail as stated in the interview. For the most part, students were enrolled in intro classes in disciplines they came into college thinking they wanted to major in...students don't know enough/are too excited about their proposed majors (and too sheepish about the academic process as a whole) to actually take advantage of the wide assortment of other classes offered. It wasn't until the middle of my sophomore year that I decided I might want to explore other disciplines and by then I was bogged down with requirements. Thank goodness for the relatively high credit limit at Columbia, otherwise I would not have been able to change my major so late in the game.

    This Pass/Fail thing might help students who come from different academic backgrounds to adjust to the academic rigor of Columbia, but let's not dupe ourselves into thinking it will change the culture of the school. MIT and Hopkins are both quite high on the Daily Beast's absurd "Stressful College List" anyway. And, from personal experience, I can tell you that my time at Hopkins was just as stressful as my time at Columbia.

    Let's borrow from models that work/actually inspire academic curiosity. At Brown (an arguably unstressful college), you can electronically drop a class on the day of the final without it even showing on your record. We should do this or, at the very least move, the add/drop date to much later in the semester so students can fully immerse themselves in courses before they have to make a decision about making the course count. More often than not, professors schedule first midterms/papers before the official drop date. That means students base their decisions to remain in a course on one performance indicator. This system disincentives students to "stick it out" if they receive one bad grade and, more broadly, it prevents students from testing out subjects that may not initially be so intuitive to them. (One modification to this policy could be for seminars where participation and a predictable class-size are crucial to the organization of the class.)

  12. Anonymous  

    He also said that stress is faced by all types of students and that this isn't just about the high-achievers or low-achievers. You're indirectly still painting him as elitist when I guarantee you he's a humble guy and highly relatable.

  13. Anonymous  

    I like the juxtaposition between the two articles, though maybe the more factual one should have came first. Interested in following up with the editors now...

  14. Anonymous  

    Good op-ed! Worth the read!

  15. Anonymous  

    A disgrace. If students deleted their facebook accounts and turned off their phones they would realize how little work they actually have here.

  16. Anonymous  

    Good job Steven! I only met you pretty briefly last summer, but you seem like a great guy!

  17. Anonymous  

    Where are all the trolls? I'm partially glad, but everyone is happy to just like this now?

  18. Only taking 4.5 classes  

    I've reached the credit limit in the past, and this semester decided to take less credits. Let me tell you, one gets waaayyyy more out of 1 class where one does all of the reading than out of 2 classes where one only does only some or none of it. Plus, actually mastering the material has given me a boost of self-confidence and has taught me to enjoy reading and writing about the topic. I'm mainly in social science and humanities classes so that may have something to do with it, but I nevertheless believe there would be benefits in altering the maximum credits that can be taken. Also, just to note, it's still a lot of work taking 4 classes if you take them all very seriously, but, overall, I think it's definitely worth the extra effort.

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