Universal pass/fail is the best grading option for the spring semester

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Yesterday, President Maud S. Mandel announced that the College would follow peer institutions such as Bowdoin, Columbia, Dartmouth, Smith and Wellesley by instituting a system in which all classes will be graded on a pass/fail basis while continuing to fulfill distributional and major requirements. We commend the College’s decision to move to a universal pass/fail system, which we believe is the best way to account for the unevenly distributed challenges to students’ lives posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

As students at the College, we enjoy equal access to a wide array of academic resources, from our libraries to wireless internet to peer tutoring networks such as the writing workshop. Moreover, we can expect many more basic privileges, including stable housing in a relatively safe community and access to physical and mental health services. Though it is important to recognize that academic life at the College is not an even playing field, especially for students from underprivileged backgrounds, it is a fundamental assumption of our time here that life on campus offers students the opportunity to thrive. 

The transition to remote learning means that this assumption falls apart. Students will resume their coursework from starkly different circumstances, and though some will be able to continue engaging rigorously with their classes, many are already faced with situations that will make it difficult for them over the coming months to live comfortably, let alone focus on academics to the degree that they normally would on campus. Some will be occupied with vital family responsibilities such as helping care for loved ones or managing family finances, while others may be living alone and far from home, or without access to computers or the internet. 

Just under half of the respondents to a Record survey this week indicated that they now have to take on extra responsibilities in order to care for family and community members, while 81 percent indicated that their circumstances make it so that they would not be able to perform academically at the level that they normally would at the College. One in seven respondents, or 14 percent, said they lack access to reliable internet or a computer with a web camera. As Mandel notes in her email to the community, it would be senseless and inequitable to treat students’ academic work this semester as comparable to their past or future coursework by continuing to grade on an A–E scale. 

Some schools have moved to implement optional pass/fail systems, giving students the opportunity to designate some or all of their classes pass/fail while receiving letter grades for the rest. We recognize the diverse reasons that students may wish to receive letter grades this semester, but believe that it would be unfair to give some students the option to boost their GPAs while peers in disparate circumstances face barriers to their academic performance. Under an optional pass/fail system, graduate schools and employers would be able to reward students who chose to receive letter grades while penalizing those whose circumstances prevented them from doing so. The College has made the most equitable move in instituting a universal policy that neither harms students’ GPAs nor gives privileged students the unfair opportunity to get ahead. 

As we consider these issues, we want to highlight the importance of empathy and compassion, qualities that we value in our teachers and peers at the best of times and need from them now more than ever. As a small college, we pride ourselves on the close and dedicated relationships between our faculty and students. It is at times like this that the College’s culture of personal connection matters most. Students must recognize the immense challenges their professors are undertaking as they reorganize their syllabi midway through the semester to adapt to the virtual classroom. Faculty must work individually to accommodate students in challenging situations so that no one is forced to fail a class due to extenuating life circumstances. 

This unprecedented situation will change the standards by which faculty evaluate coursework. Given the wide range of circumstances students now find themselves under, we urge faculty to move away from strictly objective, quantitative grading criteria. Instead of evaluating a student’s performance based on traditional assessments or exams alone, we hope they will consider and account for the unique academic challenges this semester poses. If any student’s performance raises concerns in some form for faculty, we hope professors will communicate openly and give them the chance to make the necessary adjustments before the end of the semester, as they would during a normal academic term.

We recognize that many students were counting on the work they have already invested academically this semester to raise their GPAs, and will be disappointed to lose that opportunity. Though we sympathize with those students, we believe that a pass/fail system does not per se imply a low-quality learning experience. Students will still be able to connect with their professors in meaningful ways, and though coursework will not result in a letter grade, it can still prove rewarding. 

The emerging global health crisis has disrupted the lives of students everywhere. Every transcript, curriculum vitae, report card and resume will bear an asterisk over spring 2020; the system we have adopted at the College will need to be adequately addressed on each student’s transcript. For students applying to graduate programs, the opportunity to explain individual circumstances and vouch for academic performance before the virtual transition will be provided in the form of personal statements and letters of recommendation. 

Instituting a universal pass/fail system sends a clear message that students will not be penalized for prioritizing their own wellbeing, and that of their families and communities, over their GPAs. 

We would echo Mandel in encouraging students who are dismayed by the decision to keep in mind that valuable learning and teaching are possible even in the absence of traditional grade-based systems.

The editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record’s editorial board.