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In many ways, the new coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the lives of college students, faculty and staff members. Many institutions have moved classes online and encouraged students to leave campus, creating a flurry of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety.
More than a dozen four-year universities have decided to expand pass/fail options for students due to the crisis. Typically, the option to be graded on a pass/fail basis, rather than being given a letter or percentage grade, is only available to students for a limited number of classes. Often students have to make a commitment before a course begins or early in its run to use pass/fail. Other restrictions include not being able to take classes as pass/fail in a major or as general education requirements, and pass/fail classes rarely are counted toward grade point averages.
University provosts and administrations have said expanding pass/fail options gives students flexibility during the crisis and can mitigate their anxiety.
"We expect that this strategy will ease the necessary transitions into remote course delivery and promote strong engagement," Duke University said in an email announcing that all spring courses at the university will default to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade scheme.
In some cases students have advocated for the change. Online petitions asking for shifting university grading structures are plentiful.
Some students at Georgetown University said the inability to meet with professors and teaching assistants in person, the stress of traveling, and the challenges inherent in taking synchronous classes in different time zones make this semester more difficult than any other.
"Making the semester 'lower stakes' wouldn't discourage students from doing well in their classes, but rather allow some leeway for those put in tough academic situations," their petition said.
At the University of Pennsylvania, students said a pass/fail grading structure would relieve undue stress.
"Many of the professors in our school, while being unbelievable forces in their fields, have very little to no experience managing courses online," said the student petition.
Advocates for the switch, among them David Perry, a senior academic adviser at the University of Minnesota, have been posting on Twitter using #PassFailNation.
"When pass and fail are the only options, it allows the grader to focus on learning and growth, while students have more opportunities to try, mess up and improve without feeling that everything is lost or their GPA is ruined," Perry said in an opinion piece for CNN.
For institutions that have decided to expand pass/fail options (the list now includes Georgetown but not Penn), administrations have taken some different approaches. Some decision makers, like those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have chosen to make a pass/fail scheme mandatory for all classes. Others, like those at the University of Mary Washington, have simply decided to allow students to take more than one class pass/fail, or to extend the deadline for when students must decide on their grading scheme.
None of these choices have come without pushback. MIT was the subject of another petition, which accused the administration of being too prescriptive.
"The current decision to apply PE/NE/IE [the MIT version of pass/fail] grading to all classes, while relieving some stress of many students due to the current situation, is causing undue stress to a significant number of students who believe this semester’s grade may play a meaningful role in their future academic and career plan," the petition said. "We propose an optional PE/NE/IE policy in which students receive letter grades at the end of the semester and can then choose to put classes on pass, no-record or incomplete status that still counts towards graduation."
Some universities have opted for this more flexible policy of allowing students to choose for each class if they would like a letter grade.
Carnegie Mellon University, which the MIT students said their institution should emulate, has told faculty members to grade students normally, using letter grades. Students then have until seven days after grades are posted to decide if they would like to switch any classes to pass/fail grading. Passing grades will still count toward degree requirements.
Students who are concerned about applying to graduate school, or whose lives were not disrupted by the coronavirus crisis, may benefit from having letter grades displayed and calculated into GPA.
Institutions that have not chosen to expand pass/fail options have said the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.
"We decided that pass/fail is probably too blunt an instrument," said Brad Wuetherick, executive director of teaching and learning at Dalhousie University, located in Nova Scotia, Canada. "We had a conversation about do we allow it at the course-level decision, but all the same questions we would ask if everybody did it would have to be asked if only a handful did it."
Expanding pass/fail options raises concerns around GPA calculations for scholarships, grad school applications and the transferability of credits to other institutions, Wuetherick said.
"These are all spillover implications of moving to pass/fail that are complicated and would require significant effort to understand how they would be addressed," he said.
Dalhousie, which enrolls more than 20,000 students, has decided to opt for what Wuetherick calls a student-centered approach. The university secretariat recently passed a motion allowing some academic regulations to be waived. With permission from their dean, for example, a professor may be able to reweigh a final exam grade for a particular student who has struggled with technology. Allowing students to resubmit assessments or take incomplete grades also are possibilities.
"If we are not convinced that we can actually take that student-centered approach, moving to a pass/fail does remove a lot of that uncertainty to students," Wuetherick said.
Jeff Cason, provost at Middlebury College, which has a made a similar change to Carnegie Mellon, said giving the decision to students may mitigate some concerns.
"The Spring 2020 semester is going to go down as one of the most disruptive in decades. In effect, I think it will come to be thought of as the asterisk semester, and graduate schools will likely be looking at academic records from this semester as highly unusual, to say the least," Cason said via email.
"We are facing unprecedented academic circumstances, for both faculty and students."