For many college students, midterm season comes with a frightening moment of realization: A test is coming up for a class they’ve barely attended, let alone paid attention to. In many cases, students resolve to spend days cramming as a solution — stressing over every minute detail on tedious lecture slides. But it seems that as soon as the exam is over, all of the information that students spent so many late-night hours reviewing suddenly leaves their brains. So maybe they aced the test, but did they actually learn anything?
Today’s students are obsessed with getting the highest grades possible. This often compels us to labor over trivial material and then regurgitate it on tests rather than actually engage with core concepts. Fixating on tests comes at the cost of genuine learning. To learn on a meaningful level, students should take every class Satisfactory/No Credit.
One of the biggest obstacles to long-lasting learning is stress and anxiety, often brought about by students aiming for the perfect A in every class. According to a study of undergraduates in the United Kingdom, 20% of college students were found to have clinically significant levels of anxiety by their second year. This is a disturbing trend to say the least. High levels of stress can be detrimental to cognitive skills by causing students to become trapped in rigid ways of thinking and leading to low-quality memory retrieval in the long-term.
Stressed college students may be able to memorize vast amounts of material, but they have less time to prioritize creative and well-rounded learning. As a result, their understanding of classroom materials is short-lived and superficial. Taking classes S/NC is the best cure for this kind of meaningless knowledge consumption. When the threshold for a good grade decreases from a 90% to a 65%, grade-related stress will decrease in tandem. Without this stress, students can have the mental and academic space to creatively engage with bigger-picture knowledge and apply it to the real-world problems that are personally interesting to them. While specific pieces of knowledge risk becoming outdated, the ability to acquire and apply knowledge well will always have a place in an ever-changing professional market. Taking a class S/NC allows students to prioritize developing these skills.
Some people worry that a steady diet of S/NC courses will put off employers. But a transcript full of S’s with distinction in a diverse range of interesting and challenging classes at an Ivy League university is still quite meaningful. It demonstrates that students are curious and willing to learn, pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. In the eyes of many employers, these are valuable traits in and of themselves. Today, fewer and fewer employers are filtering job applicants based on grade point averages, instead placing more importance on a candidate’s demonstrable skills.
While a total switch to S/NC learning may prove to be more difficult for pre-professional students wishing to attend graduate schools, there are many factors beyond GPA that help develop a well-rounded graduate school application. These include letters of recommendation, scores on standardized tests like the GMAT and a personal statement. Moreover, by taking classes S/NC, students get the chance to study subjects they are truly passionate about and pursue resulting research, skill-building and project-based opportunities that are impressive in their own right.
Students can only fully prioritize intellectual stimulation when they are taking classes S/NC. For some Brown students, simply the fear of failure and poor grades can be a limiting factor when choosing classes. During registration, I have heard friends say "I'm not a STEM person," or "I'm not good at writing," and then steer clear of these subject areas. By taking classes S/NC, students can foster a mindset of growth and discovery, allowing them to face their weaknesses and foster new strengths.
For many students at Brown — who chose this school for its emphasis on intellectual curiosity — taking a significant number of classes S/NC shouldn’t feel so crazy. After all, it is only by taking classes S/NC that any of us can truly prioritize learning for its own sake. So, next time you find yourself stressed and cramming for a boring test in a class that you haven’t found time to engage with, ask yourself, “Would I be getting more out of this class if I took it S/NC?”