Colleges debate the merits of pass/fail grading during COVID-19 pandemic

Colleges are weighing whether to adjust their pass/fail policies for this spring’s classes in order to reduce student stress and even the playing field for students experiencing major disruptions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Decisions to give students the option to switch to pass/fail grading, or mandate pass/fail grading across the board, this late in the semester have generated strong reactions from all sides, since pass/fail classes rarely count toward student GPAs.

Removing GPA stress for the sake of student health

Public health emergencies can be difficult to navigate for all college students, and especially for those with mental illness, according to Psychiatric Times. College students are increasingly at risk of stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Pre-existing health conditions, resource limitations, and suppressed executive functioning under stress can all affect students’ susceptibility to viruses and delay help-seeking behaviors.

Student health and success advocates say that a switch to pass/fail can relieve pressure and reduce anxiety during this period of global disruption. Duke University, which will adopt a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade system as the default for all spring 2020 classes, said in an email announcement that it “expect[s] that this strategy will ease the necessary transitions into remote course delivery and promote strong engagement.”

Some calling for blanket solutions

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Allison Stanger, a visiting professor of government at Harvard University and a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College, urged schools to take that sweeping approach, noting that students are experiencing varying degrees of disruption. With students spread across different time zones, with different degrees of internet access, “it is unjust that some students should be forced to choose [pass/fail] while other students continue to receive letter grades,” Stanger wrote.

A standardized pass/fail “asterisk” semester for all college students, Stanger said, would permit professors to focus on student engagement, alleviate student competition, and increase collaboration. “Changing all courses to pass/fail and adding an asterisk to everyone’s transcript would eliminate any problems with fairness while allowing students and faculty to focus on creating a meaningful learning experience in anxious times,” she wrote.

Others creating options for individual student circumstances

Critics, however, have decried blanket pass/fail mandates as too prescriptive. After MIT applied a pass/fail grading system across the board, MIT students petitioned for the right to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to receive grades for classes, saying the policy “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.” Inside Higher Ed notes that retaining letter grades could be beneficial for students who were not seriously impacted by the coronavirus disruptions or were counting on spring semester grades to raise their overall GPA for graduate school and job applications.

Pass/fail could also negatively affect students whose GPA contributes to financial aid calculations and transferability of academic credit to other schools, explains Brad Wuetherick, executive director of teaching and learning at Dalhousie University in Canada. Dalhousie says it is adopting a “student-centered approach,” which allows professors, with their dean’s permission, to adjust the weight of finals, consider assignment resubmissions, and give incomplete grades for students facing COVID-19-related disruptions.

Georgetown University students petitioned for a pass/fail option, reasoning that “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,” writes Inside Higher Ed. Georgetown is now offering a pass/fail option to undergraduate students.


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