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.