(Guest) Senior Send-off: How I ended up taking all my classes S/NC

Guest post written by Lilly Mirviss ’12 

1. Embrace Your Learning Style

I am a senior geology-biology concentrator, but I’ve never considered myself to be someone who does science. Don’t get me wrong, I love science. Geeking out about the ferrous wheel in limnology is one of my favorite pastimes. But I find details excruciating. I can never remember the carbon cycle. Or the nitrogen cycle. Or any cycle. I would much rather write a paper than take a test. Problem sets are not my friends. And to top it all off, I hate research.

This final realization led me away from science and instead towards the world of energy policy. While interning at the California Energy Commission last summer, I fell in love with the world of beautiful battery charger standards and sexy solar siting cases, and I saw a clear niche where I could apply my interest in science on a larger scale than a fume hood and soil samples. By understanding both the science and policy perspectives, I could function as a translator between policy makers and engineers, bridging the gap between two worlds that excited, motivated, and challenged me.

By taking all of my classes pass/fail, I have been able to apply my science-policy intersection brain to my hard science classes, embracing my learning strengths no matter how much they differ from the traditional science learning style. Pass/fail encourages me to learn how I learn best.

2. Discover What Motivates You

Though I wish I could take credit, the 100% Pass/Fail idea was actually my parents’.

When I first arrived at Brown, I joined the crowd of passionate students who continued intellectual debates even after class was over. Coming to Brown was about expanding my academic horizons as I endlessly explored new subjects like modern culture and media. My love of learning pushed me to do well, overcoming my focus on percentages. However, as exams and papers took over my semesters, I began learning material solely for the purpose of doing well on the test.

Of course I thought my parents were crazy. Sure, I go to Brown, but come on. My parents pointed out how I had lost track of my ideals since I first arrived here, how my love of learning had been replaced by stress and frustration, and how I had lost touch with my main reason for choosing Brown in the first place: to learn for the sake of learning.

It was my junior year at Brown, and with that, I decided to take the rest of my classes in college pass/fail.

3. Learn Creatively Instead of Competitively

You are given a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. How do you fix the lit candle on a wall in a way so the candle wax won’t drip on the table below? Empty the box of thumbtacks, put the candle into the box, use the thumbtacks to nail the box (with the candle in it) to the wall, and light the candle with the match.

When put under pressure to complete this problem quickly, participants rarely answer it correctly. But when given time, participants are not only more likely to answer it correctly, but they would also do so at a much faster rate.

Competitive versus creative learning, or grades versus pass/fail. With pass/fail comes stress-free, creative learning. Rather than writing a paper that is geared towards what the professor is looking for, I write about topics that I am more passionate about, even if they push the boundaries. Moving away from competing for a perfect A, I instead focus on what and how I want to learn.

4. Challenge Yourself

“Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare,” Voltaire once proclaimed. We see this phrase prominently written on shirts throughout campus. Be Bold, we are told; that’s the Brown way of being.

I took the pass/fail challenge head-on, ready to sacrifice my GPA for happiness and a new learning philosophy. With the proper motivation, I have gained more from the experience of pass/fail than I have from taking any other class for a grade. By figuring out why I want to learn, I have gained new knowledge about what motivates me, which I have then applied to areas outside of academia.

What’s the hardest step in the pass/fail process? Making the decision to break the mold.

5. Redefine Success

In college professors outline for us how to achieve that perfect score; we are always being told what is necessary to do well. After college there is no professor feeding us the criteria for success. It is up to you to determine what it means to be successful. Pass/fail is the perfect first step in redefining success. For me, I’ve discovered that success is a combination of effort, engagement, and — most importantly — happiness.

There are times that I’ve taken advantage of the more stereotypical idea of pass/fail. Don’t get me wrong: I always do the work, and I always turn it in on time. But being a senior, and not being as engaged with the course material, when having the miss the two required field trips for Geochemistry, I won’t do the 8-hour make-up assignment that’s only worth 2.5% of the final grade as long as I’ll still pass.

Although this more common senior spring pass/fail attitude has poked its head out on occasion, it has not completely overcome my S/NC mindset. When excited about the material of a course and able to apply it to my interests, staying motivated to work hard is easy. Even after my Geographic Information Systems course wrapped up, I continued working on my final project with to classify areas for Distributed Generation in California. It’s true that pass/fail may mean the occasional whatever, but on the whole it encourages me to work towards success as I define it.

I am proud to have taken advantage of Brown’s liberal educational philosophy. My biggest regret in college was not making the switch to pass/fail sooner.

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