November 4, 2021

Power of P/NP

Reading through the questions/comments from people signing up for the Ungrading EdCamp this week, I wanted to say something about this item in thread about “Everyday advocacy" for ungraders: How to challenge the systems that are in place in HE institutions to make the process possible.

The single best change I think we could make in higher ed institutions is to switch to far wider use of P/NP. We saw a lot of schools adopt temporary P/NP policies in the pandemic, and I have to admit that I was bitterly disappointed to see those P/NP policies rolled back, sometimes after just one semester (that's what happened at my school). Still, the fact that so many schools publicly acknowledge the viability and usefulness of P/NP grading was a real watershed moment, and I tried to document that as it was happening, bookmarking hundreds of school policies as they were posted online. I also did a presentation about pandemic P/NP grading which you can read here, right in that pandemic moment -- April 2020: Ungrading in the Pandemic; Ungrading in the Classroom.

At heart, the U.S. university degree system is essentially a P/NP system: students GRADUATE; they get their degree. They don't get an "A-class" degree or a "B-class degree" etc., and their GPA is not printed on the diploma. Although the GPA exerts a horrifying influence on many university procedures and is used by gatekeeping in so many wrong ways, the graduation process is basically a P/NP process, and that's what makes me hopeful that we could ultimately move towards an all-P/NP approach.

If there has to be a GPA for gatekeeping purposes, I would advocate for an approach where there are A-B-C letter grades (no pluses, no minuses), and no D, no F. If a student has not passed a course satisfactorily, there is simply no record, NR. I learned about this from Kristin Wobbe at Twitter; it's the system they use at Worcester Polytechnic. You can read more about that here: WPI Grade System.

That's basically the approach I used in my classes: very broad swathes of A-B-C (based on the students' own personal "need" for a particular grade), with me working hard to make sure everybody passed. I didn't care about the As, Bs, Cs at all; the students handled that on their own — my goal was just for everybody to pass. I would have preferred just P/NP (like during the pandemic semester of alternate grading), but at least A-B-C was not too horrible; I'm very fortunate that my school did not have pluses and minuses, so all I had to do was carve out the A-B-C territory and let the students set their own goals inside that simple framework.

Anyway, the pandemic gave me a kind of hope that I had never had before that we might see real advances in the use of P/NP at the institutional level. Yes, those hopes were dashed as schools quickly rescinded their pandemic policies (even though we are STILL IN A PANDEMIC)... but if it happened once, it can happen again, and P/NP grading is still on my ungrading wishlist.

You can see the other items on my ungrading wishlist here:

What's on your ungrading wishlist? I'm looking forward to learning what is going on in other classrooms and at other schools in the EdCamp this week!