CS50 Sees Uptick in Sat/Unsat Students After Policy Change


The number of students taking Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” on a “Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory” standard this fall increased more than three fold after the course changed its policy to make the non-letter grading scheme the default.

The new policy was one of many sweeping changes made to the class this year after more than 60 students appeared before the College’s Honor Council in 2016.

For the first time, students must opt-out of the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system and petition for a letter grade. According to CS50 head instructor David J. Malan ’99, the percentage of students taking the course sat/unsat increased from 7 percent last year to 28 percent this year.

The Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading system allows students to earn either a grade of “Satisfactory,” for letter grades from A to C-, or a grade of “Unsatisfactory,” which is considered a failing grade.


According to Malan, the change is intended to take grade pressure off of students and encourage them to push past their comfort zone.

Malan, who took the class pass/fail as an undergraduate in 1996, told The Crimson last month that, “Were it not for Pass/Fail… I myself probably wouldn’t have taken CS50 as a sophomore, let alone concentrated in CS ultimately.”

Students echoed Malan’s sentiment, saying that it had encouraged them to take risks with the class.

“They want you to get as much out of the course but not stress about your grade per se,” said

Julia L. Henry ’20 said she is currently taking the course for a letter grade due to concentration requirements.

Cameron E. Reaves ’21, another student in the course who is taking it Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, said it had made him “a lot more relaxed about CS50.”

“I’m just going to try and learn,” he added. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Sara M. Kvaska ’21 said the new system is “good for a lot of people because it takes the stress off them to feel like they need to only take it for a grade.”

Some students reported uncertainty about whether a “Satisfactory” grade in CS50 would count for Computer Science concentration credit.

Kvaska, who said she petitioned for a letter grade, said, “I had to because I want to major [in Computer Science].”

The Computer Science Department website recommends that prospective concentrators take CS50 for a letter grade, but notes that departmental credit is also available for “Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory” students.

Malan released statistics on “CS50’s changing demographics” in a Medium post Thursday.

According to that post, total enrollment in CS50 is 691 students this year.There was also a 4 percentage point increase—from 62 percent to 66 percent—of students considering themselves “less comfortable” with computer science.


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