As students and faculty experience a transition to online courses and a change in routine, some schools, including Binghamton University, may be modifying their grading guidelines for the semester.
Amid closures and disruptions caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, universities across the nation are faced with a decision to either grade classes on a pass or fail scale or stick with a normal letter-grade system. In a B-Line email on March 15, Donald Nieman, BU provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, addressed some of the technical aspects of the situation and announced the University’s decision to extend its individual course withdrawal and pass or fail deadlines to April 29.
Just days later, colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced they would implement pass or fail grading for all students for the spring 2020 semester, and other schools, including Syracuse University, said students would be able to opt into pass or fail grading without putting their credits in jeopardy. Now, BU students are beginning to think about what the possibility of moving toward an entirely pass or fail grading option could look like, with a Change.org petition currently circulating to make classes at BU pass or fail while still counting toward graduation credits.
According to the petition creator, the move would further alleviate any stress associated with the transition to online classes and the general change in students’ learning environments. The petition explains, “by allowing [pass or fail classes], a tremendous amount of pressure is taken off the students (and professors) to allow them to take care of themselves and others during this crisis while still allotting an appropriate amount of time toward their studies.”
Still, some students have expressed concern that moving toward a pass or fail grading option would mean a lack of recognition of their academic work. Brooke Grossman, a junior majoring in psychology, said she feels a pass or fail option would devalue the effort she has put into the semester.
“I don’t like the idea because it’s not fair for people who actually got good grades and worked hard for them,” Grossman said.
Other students said they feel making all courses pass or fail would reduce some of the anxiety that has come with the transition in daily routines. Andrew Weiss, a junior majoring in business administration, said he feels the change could be beneficial for students.
“I would definitely rather a pass or fail option,” Weiss said. “I feel like the stress burden placed on the student would be drastically lower if that was the case.”
Some students who feel this way have already taken action by reaching out directly to University administrators, such as Devin Link, a sophomore double-majoring in psychology and Spanish. In an email to University officials, Link wrote that changing grading systems to pass or fail is the only fair option.
“Most students at [BU] did not sign up for online classes and do not have the learning style or resources that are compatible with the ability to do well in distance learning situations,” Link wrote in her email. “Even if students are able to thrive in online classes normally, a pandemic changes almost every aspect of an individual’s life.”
Link wrote that she decided to send the email after thinking about the various obstacles online learning may present for some students, especially because the University’s current pass or fail option does not apply to major requirements.
“Currently, most students can’t take their major-specific courses pass or fail, so just extending the pass or fail deadline wouldn’t help them,” Link wrote. “In order to truly accommodate all students and their unique situations, I believe there needs to be major changes to [BU]’s pass or fail policy. I think this is a really important time for people to show compassion and help those who need it.”
Devon Close, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, also pointed out the necessity of recognizing that not every student has the capability or resources at home to reach their full academic potential.
“We need to have the option for pass or fail because some people genuinely just don’t have the access to a place to study, get internet service or even have a computer, so for circumstances like that, it makes sense,” Close said. “But for me, my grades this semester are important for graduate school applications and I need schools to see I did well in subjects like biology, chemistry and physics.”
Rachel Ahdoot, a senior majoring in psychology, said she could see both sides of the issue.
“Personally, I do feel that the hard work I put into my classes won’t be recognized and that is a little bit upsetting,” Ahdoot said. “However, I do understand that with the circumstances and the stressful situations that students might be going through, pass or fail is understandable.”
While the University has yet to make an official statement on whether it will change pass or fail grading policies because of COVID-19, several students who have reached out to University administrators said they have received responses indicating officials are considering the possibility. Still, students said the emails they received suggested administrators are unlikely to implement a mandatory pass or fail grading policy for all students as some other universities have. Rachel DiSibio, a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, said she thinks they are on the right track, as a University-wide pass or fail mandate would not be a good option.
“I don’t know fully how I feel about this idea because extenuating circumstances need to be considered and acknowledged,” DiSibio said. “But I just personally feel that making class pass or fail University-wide has the potential to make some students’ achievements less exceptional.”