When my university offered students the option to take their spring 2020 classes as pass-no pass, I believed it was doing the right thing. Alleviating the pressure of grades during a wobbly second half of the semester seemed like it would free students to focus on actual learning and less on performance.
In my experience, however, the option largely did the opposite: many of my students agonised over whether to take advantage of this option, not out of concerns of whether they would learn more deeply, but how a P grade would look to everyone else.
“Everyone else” included graduate schools, future internships, HR reps, MBA programmes, even families. But whenever I’d ask students what they wanted out of this option – and how they thought it would affect their learning – their answers were less thorough.
Often they’d shift the conversation back to how they could be strategic in this scenario: whether to take an A- and sacrifice a 4.0 grade point average; whether taking a B in a tough class would show more perseverance; whether taking only some classes as P would hint that they were doing poorly in them and so on.
Basically, what was intended to be a stress-saving measure ended up, for many students, causing more stress. We were asking students to abandon the only measure of success they knew, the only way they knew they were succeeding at university.
And that is on us as educators. We have largely set up school as a risky investment where the desired outcome is to graduate with top grades, a packed resume, and an entryway into a high-paying career.
And the stakes of winning have become mind-blowingly high: private universities in the US (mine in particular) can cost upwards of $50,000 in tuition per year, which can conceivably land a student with almost a quarter of a million dollars in debt for that degree.
The coronavirus pandemic has done plenty to upend many assumptions about schooling we took for granted and, for many students, this disruption made them ask what the point of university was in the first place.
Especially amid higher price tags, a less than stable economy, and the uncertainty about whether virtual or hybrid class structures are worth the costs, many students are wondering if they want to keep at it.
It may seem counterintuitive for this to come from a higher education professional, but to students reading this, I encourage you to ask yourself whether university is worth it. I don’t mean dropping out of university; I mean refusing to buy into the premise that going to university is only about information retention, resume building, and job obtaining.
You may be asking what the alternative is, especially since the system has been set up for you this way. Deep learning experts claim that learning strategically, where you only do what you need for the grade, does not lead to transformative change. Instead, deep learning happens through a combination of self-motivation, curiosity and personal passion, and everything else – like grades, internships, and careers – flows from there.
If this sounds interesting to you, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- How much of what you do in university (courses, activities, jobs/internships) is based on others’ expectations? What about your expectations of yourself?
- If you were given an entire semester of electives, where you could take any courses you wanted and grades didn’t matter, what would you take and why?
- What courses would you sacrifice a perfect GPA for?
- How often do you stop and ask yourself what course content means for your life, for others’ lives, and the world at large?
- If you could teach a class on anything, what would it be and why?
These are not the only questions to ask yourself about learning more deeply in university but they can be a start. We in the profession have our work cut out for us to make this shift easier for you. In the meantime, it’s going to be on you to shape the remainder of your journey into something you really want it to be.