College Implements Flexible Grading Option

The college announced a new policy called the Flexible Grading Option (FGO) on Sept. 6 that would act similarly to the Pass/Fail Option already in place at the college; however, students who use an FGO for their class now wait to receive their grade at the end of the semester before deciding whether to invoke the Pass/Fail Option or keep the grade already given.

Students must choose a course as an FGO by the end of the add-drop period. First-year students are allowed to use four FGOs throughout their time at the college; new sophomores may take three; new juniors may take two. Second semester seniors may not take an FGO course. The FGO cannot be applied to courses within a student’s own major.

According to the college website, the objective of the FGO is “to encourage students to explore the breadth of Amherst’s open curriculum as they seek to meet the college’s stated learning goals.”

Amrita Basu, professor of political science and member of the Committee of Six, added that the FGO was implemented to alleviate two concerns shared by the student body and administration: that students were not taking courses outside of their major and that they were reporting high levels of stress. The FGO policy is an attempt to “encourage students to explore different areas of the curriculum and to be more risk taking to take courses where they thought they might not do well … but were still curious to learn about,” Basu said.

Basu formerly acted as a member of the Curriculum Committee, a standing committee for two years that is now dissolved. The Curriculum Committee first weighed the possibility of adding a new Pass/Fail Option and ultimately issued a positive recommendation to the college.

“We felt that trying to find ways of giving students more flexibility would really be helpful [by] just relieving some of the pressure on them,” Basu said.

The new policy will also reward students by giving them the option to keep their assigned letter grade at the end of the semester. Until this year, the Pass/Fail Option was final after the request was submitted, but students who take the Pass/Fail Option at the college “often … end up doing very well” and wanting to keep the letter grade, Basu said. The policy is “a rather small change,” Basu added. “It expands the Pass/Fail Option a bit. And I think on balance, the arguments in favor are stronger than the arguments against. But if it doesn’t work, we are going to be monitoring, and we can always go back and rethink the policy.”

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein said the FGO will “incentivize students to work” as opposed to the regular Pass/Fail Option. Students will be motivated to do well in their pass/fail classes without being punished for succeeding, she said.

Epstein said that “it was a general faculty concern that students were not exploring enough of the curriculum,” but “many people questioned whether the mechanism would work.”

The faculty in favor of the decision generally believed that the FGO would help “in the absence of a core curriculum … This seemed like an option that maybe would get kids a little bit more outside of what they believe to be their comfort zones,” Epstein added.

According to Epstein, those opposing the policy believed that the issue of students not taking courses outside of their comfort zones is more “complicated” than what the policy could fix.

Both Basu and Epstein anticipated the problems that could potentially arise by letting students have up to four pass/fail grades on their transcripts as opposed to the previous maximum of one.

The Pass/Fail Option, however, is common at other schools. At some, none of the courses in the first semester are graded at all.

Epstein noted that “there is an issue around employers with how they look at pass/fail, but it’s not a very major issue at the numbers that we are talking about. You can only in the end do four FGOs … so you would only have four pass/fails on your entire transcript and the likelihood is that students would have a grade” after doing well in a course.

Corey Jacobson ’22, a prospective psychology major, said that the college should have done a better job publicizing the FGO. He said that in the past, “many people decided to take a class pass/fail but then said they liked their grade but could not keep it.” Jacobson hopes to use the FGO for a higher-level economics class.