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Re-evaluate pass/fail and registration quotas

| Friday, January 27, 2017

After two years of collecting faculty, student and alumni input, the Core Curriculum Review Committee announced an overhaul of the University’s core curriculum in November — the first such change to University requirements in more than 40 years.

With the implementation of this new core curriculum set to begin in fall 2018, we believe the timing is appropriate to re-evaluate other current academic policies in the same manner in order to possibly change them in ways that would benefit students even more.

Currently, students must receive letter grades for any and all classes they take within their major, even if they have already completed major requirements and are taking a class out purely out of academic interest. The option to take a class “pass/fail” is restricted to classes that don’t count toward specific degree or University requirements as well as ones outside of a student’s major in minor, presumably in order to facilitate students’ enrollment in classes they would not ordinarily take.

While this is an admirable goal, limiting what classes are able to qualify for a pass/fail designation fails to encourage students to take classes outside their comfort zone, and many students graduate from the University without ever having taken advantage of the pass/fail option. Ultimately, the goal of pass/fail classes should be to encourage students to engage with material that interests them without worrying about their academic performance — to explore a wider range and breadth of subjects, yes, but also sometimes to go into greater depth within their major or minor. Students who have finished their major or minor are still unable to take a class in their major pass/fail, and students are also unable to take a class cross-listed in different departments pass/fail if one of those departments contains their major.

When students finish the requirements for their major, they should be encouraged to take higher-level courses that interest them. Under the current system, many students may hesitate to take such a class if it must count for a letter grade. Even if a student is not receiving a letter grade for the course, the overall learning environment at the University is strengthened when its students take courses simply because they want to learn, not because they expect a high grade.

The practice of restricting certain courses to their departments’ majors is also a concern, and something that should be reconsidered when reviewing policies. Much in the way that the University should be behind students taking more classes within their major, Notre Dame should also actively promote students’ development outside of their major and University requirements. While we recognize that certain courses will have necessary prerequisites — higher-level physics courses will require an understanding of higher-level calculus, for example — and that departments need to keep seats open for their majors, the University could and should do more to make a higher volume of open seats accessible to more students. If an art history major is interested in taking a computer science course, why should he or she be unable to based solely on choice of major?

Similarly, the structure of how students register for philosophy and theology requirements could be altered to make it easier for students to take classes that interest them. While the requirements themselves are changing slightly with the implementation of the new core curriculum, this change to registration would also be beneficial.

Many students currently cannot get into their favored second theology or philosophy requirement due to the popularity of some classes. Therefore, they wait until they are seniors to enroll in order to have the best chance of getting into the class of their choice. Despite essentially waiting their turn, they oftentimes are still unable to enroll in the classes they desire and are forced to fulfill their requirements with classes that do not interest them.

This reinforces the idea of these classes as “University requirements” — classes that are, by their very nature, burdensome but nevertheless required in order to graduate with a Notre Dame degree. This conception is detrimental as Notre Dame’s goal of having a liberal arts-based curriculum is to give students a broad introduction to departments and courses that they ordinarily would not pursue. However, if students do not enjoy the classes that are meant to broaden their area of study, this goal is not achieved and the efforts are counterproductive to both faculty and student enjoyment of a course. Professors do not like teaching students who are not interested and engaged in a course, and students do not like learning about subjects that they do not find interesting or engaging.

Therefore, a better way to facilitate this goal would be to remove the quota on seats for freshman and sophomores in the theology and philosophy classes that fulfill the second University requirement. Underclassmen students do have to fulfill the same University requirements as the upperclassmen and therefore, do require the same classes as upperclassmen. However, underclassmen have more time than upperclassmen to fulfill their University requirements and should not have as many reserved spots in higher-level University requirements as upperclassmen. This would open up more spots to upperclassmen that wish to enroll in theology and philosophy courses to fulfill a requirement while also stimulating intellectual curiosity. By encouraging students to take classes in theology and philosophy that truly engage their interests, Notre Dame will be better serving its goal of providing a well-rounded education to its students.

Notre Dame students enjoy learning and want to explore areas of study in which they are passionate, both within their major and otherwise. The coming implementation of an improved University core curriculum provides a perfect time for the University to re-evaluate some of its academic policies in order to maximize student intellectual engagement and enjoyment. By reconsidering policies that may be hindering student curiosity, Notre Dame will be better positioned to educate the “mind, body and soul” of its student body.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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