If I May: The Case for Pass/Fail

Throughout my academic career, I have always struggled with motivation. I often find that if I am not very interested in what I’m learning, I have a hard time becoming invested in the work. This was especially tough in high school when I was not able to choose my classes and was stuck taking courses (such as any math class) in which I was not interested. I was hoping things would improve in college. I was enamored by the open curriculum, thinking that I would be taking unique, intellectually-stimulating classes, and that they would assure my interest and, subsequently, my motivation. Sure enough, nearly all of the my classes have been unique, intellectually-stimulating and taught by fantastic professors. And yet, I still found I had a great deal of trouble motivating myself to do work.

This is not an uncommon situation for a college student — you rarely hear someone express excitement at the fact that they have to write a paper or study for an exam. That being said, I was still curious as to why it was so difficult to motivate myself to work when I was interested in the material. In high school, I wondered why I dreaded doing my reading assignments for English class, even though I loved the books we were reading.

This semester, still eager to discover academic motivation (as a senior, I am a big proponent of the “better late than never” narrative), I decided to take a class pass/fail. For any who don’t know, taking a class pass/fail means that you can only pass or fail the class. You don’t receive a letter grade, and the class doesn’t factor into your GPA. Many seniors exercise this option when they want to take it easy while working on a thesis, or, in my case, when they are attempting to do as little work as possible during their final year in college.

However, to my surprise, I found myself working just as hard in this class as I have in any of my other classes at Amherst. In fact, at times I find myself even more engaged, especially during class meetings. This was shocking — during the majority of my time at Amherst, when I have had the opportunity to take it easy during a portion of a class, I have taken it. However, here is an entire class where I could take it easy, and I am more engaged than ever.

I have begun to suspect it is precisely because the class is not graded as intensely that I am more engaged. It seems that when work is strictly obligatory, I cannot find any true pleasure in it because the act of doing it is not a choice. Granted, when taking a class pass/fail, completing the work is certainly not optional. However, because of the more relaxed grading structure, becoming engaged in an assignment does feel like an active choice.

I think that it would be in the interest of the college to expand the pass/fail program. Of course, there should still be a minimum amount of non-pass/fail credits students must earn. However, increasing the opportunities for pass/fail classes would allow even more opportunities for students to thrive. On the one hand, this would allow more students like me to discover what works for them in an academic setting. On the other hand, students would be better able to pursue what they are passionate about on campus. Perhaps this passion is academics, but it certainly shouldn’t have to be. Our campus is a place where students can participate in many non-academic activities that they will not have a chance to do elsewhere. Instead of stifling these varied interests by demanding that classes be of the utmost importance, it would be wonderful to see the college enhance its flexibility regarding academics to encourage students to pursue their interests both outside and inside the classroom.