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University News

Off the mark: ditching grades for S/NC

By
City & State Editor
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

During finals season, throngs of bleary-eyed students flock to the libraries and do not emerge for what seems like eons. People stare angrily at textbooks, willing themselves to absorb the information — and praying to just get a good grade in that class.

Now imagine a world devoid of report cards, transcripts and the frantic checking of Banner during vacation to see if dawdling professors have updated the site. Imagine taking all classes Satisfactory/No Credit.

Jake Heimark ’11, a fifth-year student pursuing a joint bachelor of arts and bachelor of science in human biology and economics, did just that.

“In my senior year of high school, I was trying to decide which school to go to,” Heimark said. “When I visited Brown, I saw a unique opportunity to pursue an education that was self-designed and self-motivated.” Heimark asked his parents — who also attended Brown — if they would be okay with him taking all his classes S/NC. When they assented, he applied early decision.

“My parents … had always emphasized that high achievement and good grades can go together but don’t always,” Heimark said. “What removing grades from the equation does is it forces the student to focus more on learning and education.” He credited his fellow students with creating an environment where his learning style has flourished.

Heimark emphasized that not taking his classes for grades has not made his college experience less stressful despite many students’ assumptions. “I crammed for orgo tests, I stayed up late for presentations just as often as anyone else,” he said. “It’s one thing if a bad score means you get a B instead of an A. It’s another thing if you feel like you’re letting yourself down.”

Rafael Juliano ’12, who is taking all his classes S/NC for the first time this semester, said he discovered a similar trend.

“I don’t think the work changes at all — I’m still concerned about my homework,” he said. “I fell sick recently and stressed about getting a doctor’s note.”

Juliano said he was not confident he could earn an A in every class he is taking this semester, all of which fall outside his concentration. By taking them S/NC, he said he could “focus more on learning about them and really getting to know the subject than stressing over a grade.”

Heimark and Juliano’s choice is not a common one. In a random subset of 1,500 students enrolled in at least three classes this semester, only 22 students — less than 2 percent — are taking every class S/NC, according to University Registrar Robert Fitzgerald. “I would imagine that the percentage, if looking at the overall population both currently and over time, would not deviate from that relatively low figure,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

Lauren Kessler ‘11.5 said taking all her classes S/NC would be “very personally embarrassing.”

“I would never show up,” she said. “If I was on a pass/fail standard, I wouldn’t be able to hold myself to a higher standard of learning. … Maybe it’s just because I don’t trust myself,” she added. “I need to be validated by the system.”

Heimark said he has encountered surprise and encouragement from professors, and most have been very supportive. “My advisers were sometimes hesitant because they were worried about what would happen after college,” he said. But Heimark said his advisers accepted his choice because he “wasn’t doing it on a whim.”

Heimark did not ask for course performance reports from his professors, an option many students taking classes S/NC embrace. Instead, he said he makes an effort to develop personal relationships with professors.”That’s helped as I look for stuff to do after university,” he said.

Frank Altman ’75 made a similar choice during his time at Brown. Like Heimark, he was drawn to the New Curriculum and decided to take full advantage of its freedom. He concentrated in public policy, which at the time was a very small, interdisciplinary concentration.

Altman asked his professors for course performance reports, which he found “much more thorough and understandable” than grades.

“The worst thing I can imagine is going to Brown and treating it as if you’re not at Brown,” Altman said. “You should take advantage of as much of what that curriculum has to offer as possible.”

Job concerns often deter students from considering the S/NC option. Camille Duhamel ’13 said he feared the repercussions of such a choice. “It wouldn’t look good on my transcript with applying to jobs or to graduate school,” he said.

But Altman said his lack of grades did not affect his options after graduation — he was accepted to all but one of the graduate schools he applied to. Altman took his classes for grades in graduate school and is now the CEO, president and co-founder of Community Reinvestment Fund, a national nonprofit.

“I think that learning to be self-reliant, to look inside of what you can do, was a character-building experience for me,” he said. “I learned how to take risks, and that has followed me all through my career.”

He added that Brown alums have a “full institutional brand” behind them that they might not get from other universities. “That’s definitely a consideration that graduate schools gave me.”

Heimark said he has not had difficulty in his job search in the high-technology, biotechnology and consulting industries. “There are certain industries where being traditional is important, but there are others where it’s not,” he said. “It can be hard to get my foot in the door, but once I’m in, it can help that I don’t really fit the mold.”

Heimark said he fears students are not taking advantage of the New Curriculum. “It’s like you have a really high-powered car, but you’re not driving it,” he said. “I would’ve felt like I was wasting my time.”

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