In the Name of Academic Exploration: Why Princeton Needs a Pass/Fail Freshman Fall Semester

Why are there still so many complaints about the quality of students’ academic experiences at the top-ranked university in the country?

Students recently took to the pages of the Daily Princetonian to document the flaws in Princeton’s academic structure. Abigail Rabieh lamented the lack of support for humanities students in STEM courses, and Allen Liu argued that difficult introductory classes discouraged Princeton students from exploring enough other disciplines. Liu and Rabieh’s concerns should not be ignored, especially given the University’s insistence that it promote an academic program that “encourages exploration in all disciplines” and provides opportunities “for explore what excites you and discover new areas of interest”.

To encourage genuine academic exploration, the University should adopt a pass/fail fall semester for Princeton freshmen.

The standards for determining a student’s pass/fail in their first semester would be the same as Princeton’s existing pass/D/fail policy, in which a C- and above constitutes a pass and Ds and failing grades are reflected on the transcript. However, students would still receive more accurate grades on assignments and exams in their courses as a marker of their progress. Departmental classes would also be pass/fail for this first term as the majority of first years are still determining their concentrations.

There are many academic benefits to a pass/fail first semester. During their first few months in college, freshmen at Princeton shouldn’t avoid taking certain courses for fear of not doing well enough in terms of grades. Freely exploring different disciplines is the cornerstone of a liberal arts education, which Princeton is meant to provide. In addition, a pass/fail first semester would be beneficial to allow Princetonians to spread their four pass/fail classes more evenly over their later years. With the implementation of the pass/fail first semester that I describe, the early years at Princeton will have a much smoother academic transition.

In addition to academic benefits, a pass/fail first semester can contribute to freshman success in other aspects of college life. Without the pressure of grades, first-years can spend more time bonding with classmates and integrating into Princeton social life. Given that the majority of first-years are also living away from home for the first time, not having such a heavy academic burden can be crucial in preventing burnout and preserving the sanity of first-years in a huge transition period. .

The University may be concerned that a pass-or-fail first semester for early years may not produce the same motivation and drive as letter grades. On the contrary, I believe that the lack of pressure to achieve high marks would motivate the first years to learn for the sake of learning. Students benefit not only from their grades at the end of term, but also from the feedback they receive throughout.

During my first term of high school, most of my classes were graded on a pass/fail basis (excluding language and math), which made me feel academically liberated. Those first few months of pass/fail classes allowed me to adapt while transitioning from an underfunded public school to the rigors of my private high school and testing strategies for success.

How many students have been deprived of opportunities for academic exploration and potentially the chance to be exposed to a new focus that they might have come to enjoy? How many students have struggled tremendously in their first semesters due to the pressure to achieve high grades in addition to high workload? The University can commit to ensuring that this dilemma does not persist for future Princetonians. I want future Princeton classes to have more academic freedom in their freshman year than my peers and I.

If Princeton truly believes that all students should have the opportunity to explore their passions and interests, then this move to a pass/fail fall semester for junior years shouldn’t be hard to make. After all, there is precedent for this policy among our peer schools; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, and Swarthmore College all passed/failed the first term for their students. The reasoning behind these pass/fail semesters specifically for freshmen also applies to Princeton’s mission. According to Swarthmore’s website, not releasing grades for the first semester “presents the opportunity to push yourself and take risks — to focus on learning, not letter grades. The policy aligns with the Swarthmore’s broader spirit of close interactions with faculty and collaboration – not competition – with classmates.

A pass/fail first semester would allow for deeper relationships with a student’s professors and classmates. The latter is extremely important given that students at Princeton come from diverse backgrounds with varying degrees of comfort in navigating an elite academic environment.

Princeton will become stressful enough for a new student’s remaining seven semesters. So, at least during the first, can the University give incoming students some time and give them the opportunity to freely explore any course and discipline their heart desires without regrets?

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Ndeye Thioubou is a freshman from the Bronx, NY. She can be contacted at nthioubou@princeton.edu.

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