Most students, at some point in their undergraduate education, experience both the intellectual joys and challenges of a Princeton language class. Introductory language classes are currently among the few classes that students cannot elect to take on a Pass/D/Fail (PDF) basis. The Board recommends that the University should allow students to PDF all language classes because it would incentivize students to explore new interests and make language classes more appealing to a wider array of students.
The primary purpose of PDF-able classes, as defined in Princeton’s Academic Regulations, is to allow students to explore a new interest or subject area that they might not otherwise try due to fear of hurting their GPA. Foreign language classes are an area that some students would like to explore but do not feel confident enough in their abilities to take the class for a grade. Because of these concerns and the inability to PDF introductory language courses, students are currently disincentivized from learning something new by taking introductory language classes. The disincentive is even stronger because when starting at an introductory level, students need to take two semesters of a language in order to obtain credit for it. For example, if a student received a poor grade in the fall semester and decided not to continue with it in fear of underperforming again, he would not be able to use the class to count towards the required 31 classes to graduate for AB majors. Furthermore, the grade he received for the class would still affect his GPA even if it does not fulfill the foreign language requirement. This is a challenging situation that has no comparison with any other course at Princeton and further underscores how the way introductory language courses work at Princeton disincentivizes students from trying a new language.
The University clearly values foreign languages: in the 2016 Report of the Task Force on General Education, it recommended requiring all A.B. students to take a foreign language class “regardless of any existing proficiency” because it exposes students to different cultures and broadens students’ international scope. While University believes students benefit greatly from the foreign language requirement, many students opt out of it, including engineering students and AB students whose prior language experience fulfills requirement. Yet these students could be incentivized to still take a language course even though they are not required to if they know their GPA would not be affected by the ability to PDF the course. Students needing to take a fifth class who would otherwise not think of taking a non-PDF-able class would now have more options in their class choice. Finally, students who wish to travel, study abroad, or do an international internship that requires some proficiency in a foreign language would be able to take language classes without the potential risk for the sole purpose of gaining an additional skillset. The conversational ability gained from taking one or two semesters of a language is sufficient enough for students to pick up some proficiency.
There is a perception that students who PDF a course are less inclined to actively participate, and that can be detrimental in language classes because they rely on each student to make an effort to contribute. Because classes are small and require the collaboration of all students, if even one person does not participate it can affect the other students’ performance in the class as well. However, in order to even pass in the first place, students must come to class and participate because participation accounts for a large percentage of their grade. This is likely one of the easiest ways to pass the course with minimal effort, which is incentive enough for students PDFing to actively contribute. Moreover, active participation could be made an explicit requirement for a passing grade, thereby ensuring that students taking the course on a PDF basis still contribute to class discussions.
Furthermore, there are currently other classes that can be PDF-ed that also rely heavily on the engagement and cooperation of all students. For example, STL courses with group labs and computer science courses with the option of partner assignments both necessitate collaboration, yet their value does not depreciate because of the students PDFing them. Due to these similar cases, the Board believes that language classes can still function and maintain a good learning environment for all students even if they become PDF-able.
The Board recognizes the value of learning a foreign language and encourages more students to take advantage of the skills gained from learning one. By providing the option to PDF all language classes, more students would be inclined to explore new interests and take language classes that accommodate their needs.