Registering S/D/F

Special notice for spring 2020:

On 12 March 2020, the Registrar sent the following notice to students:
In the wake of Grinnell s decision to transition temporarily to a distance education model, the Grinnell College Executive Council has determined to provide students with expanded access to the S/D/F grading option for the spring 2020 semester. ... Expanded access to the S/D/F grade mode aims to reduce student stress during this already-stressful time, while still providing a pathway to fulfill program and degree requirements. While students may decide to continue to pursue a letter grade (A-F) in their spring 2020 classes, the S/D/F grade mode may be a sensible and healthy option, depending on individual circumstances. Students are encouraged to consult with their adviser(s) prior to electing S/D/F.
As your advisor and/or instructor, I fully support this policy move of the College. I invite you to discuss your concerns about grading choices with me well in advance of the April 10 deadline.

General Message (pre Spring 2020):

One of the most common reasons students wish to register for a class "S/D/F" is because they are concerned a course outside their primary interest (i.e., major) is too difficult or may detract from other courses they feel are more important.
Registering for a class on an S/D/F basis is usually not the right approach to this concern. Here's why.
In an open curriculum, taking challenging courses outside of your strengths or major is normal. In fact, a major advantage of the individually advised curriculum, and of a liberal education generally, is the opportunity to develop and exercise mental powers that are not tied to your major.
Long experience - indeed, longer experience than my own - suggests that registering S/D/F is counterproductive. Students often get a false sense of comfort and drop or put off work. After all, they think they "only" need to get a C. However, it is easy to lose track of things, and the difference between a C and a D or F may not be all that much. This casual disregard commonly leads to academic trouble.
Moreover, many folks reading transcripts will read an S as a C, even if you did outstanding work. Thus for many observers (e.g., employers, graduate schools), an S, does not add strength to a transcript.
If you are not going to put the effort into a class, you are unlikely to do enough work for a passing grade. In short, either you do enough work for the class, in which case you should aim for a real grade, or you don't do enough work for the course, in which case perhaps you shouldn't be there in the first place.