Student, professor duo work to amend pass-fail course grading policy


When finance student JJ O’Brien, ’16, decided to take CSE 002, a computer science and engineering class, he hoped to gain a fundamental understanding of programming. However, O’Brien struggled throughout the semester because of the rigorous coursework associated with the class.

His struggles in the class inspired him to partner with economics professor Frank Gunter to amend the current pass-fail system, which prevents classes below the 100 level from being declared as pass-fail courses. Students at the sophomore level or above can request to take a class pass-fail, meaning that instead of receiving a traditional grade for a class, the student would simply receive a passing or failing mark.

“I was determined to prevent students from hurting their GPA by taking a new and difficult course,” O’Brien said. “The grade I received in CSE 002 was dramatically lower than any grade I’d received in any of my other classes in the business school. I did not feel that my grade represented my academic capabilities. ”

O’Brien worked with Gunter, the faculty representative of the amendment, to propose the change to the educational policy committee. The proposed bill would allow students to petition to take courses numbered below the 100 level, as pass-fail courses.

“The pass-fail grading option is intended to encourage sophomore level (and above) undergraduate students to take challenging courses outside the major field,” according to the current bill. “Students are not permitted to take courses numbered below 100 and over 400 using the optional pass-fail grading system.”

Throughout CSE 002, O’Brien said he felt as though the current legislature failed to fully encourage students to take classes outside of their field of study.

Though the course is classified below the 100 level, it requires a fundamental understanding of Java programming. Since the class requires basic knowledge of programming, students without this background may not want to take the course, even though it is a basic-level course.

O’Brien said that by forbidding students to have the option to declare pass-fail in some of these rigorous computer science classes, the system is discouraging students from pursuing new endeavors for fear of hurting their GPA.

To pass the bill, O’Brien and Gunter met with the Lehigh Student Senate routinely on Thursdays. They also sought to rally support from other faculty members and have received help from students on the educational committee, as well.

Raven Atkins, ’15, agrees that the current policy regarding the pass-fail system needs to be revised.

“This policy in place now focuses too much on preventing students from taking pass-fail classes in order to put minimum effort into them and instead should be determined on either a class-by-class basis, or the basis of each student,” Atkins said.

Students who have benefited from the pass-fail system in the past also believe O’Brien’s proposed bill should be instituted.

Amanda Moll, ’15, an industrial engineer, said she has benefited from the pass-fail system and has taken advantage of the opportunities that it offers. Moll has taken difficult business courses in addition to the classes required for her engineering major.

“Engineering can be a grueling major,” Moll said. “I really benefited from being able to take business classes, while expanding my abilities to work with others, without the added stress of grades. It’s hard enough passing my engineering courses, let alone having to worry about business classes.”

Ultimately, O’Brien said he hopes the bill will encourage students to take difficult classes in order to make the most of their Lehigh experience.

“(I hope to) inspire students to envision changes and to take action to make it into a reality,” he said. “I also hope this will allow students to expand their interests by taking classes they normally wouldn’t, which is the intention of pass-fail policy. But I believe (the current policy) has fallen short of accomplishing this.”

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