NEWS

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March 30, 2020

As Other Institutions Amend Pass/Fail Grading Policies, UChicago Students Divided Over Possible Impact of Same Change


Courtesy of Robert Kozloff

Along with moving classes online to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, many institutions of higher education have also modified their grading policies, anticipating that students may face obstacles while studying from home. At UChicago, which has not yet made the same decision, some students oppose such modifications, while others argue that these changes are the correct response to the unprecedented circumstances of spring quarter.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University have adopted a blanket pass/fail policy instead of giving quality grades. Columbia’s decision followed a student campaign which garnered support from faculty members. At Yale, students created an online group, “No Fail Yale,” which quickly gained traction among students pushing for universal pass/fail.

Other schools, including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania, will offer pass/fail grading as a choice. Under this system, students will be able to opt in to make any of their classes pass/fail. 

With the current grading policy at the College, students are not able to take general education requirements and most major requirements on a pass/fail basis. 

UChicago students are more sharply divided on changing the grading policy than at other institutions: Some say the University should follow other schools and adopt modified grading policies while others oppose the change as an unnecessarily broad accommodation that would deny students the chance to improve their GPAs.

“People, especially in spring quarter, decide which class they want to take in mind that they are taking these classes for credit. If you are a graduating senior, you don’t get another chance to boost your GPA,” fourth-year philosophy major Drew Harrington told The Maroon. Pass/fail, he said, “just forecloses the possibility of doing all that.”

Students like Harrington say they’d rather stick to the status quo or see pass/fail offered as an option—not a blanket policy.   

“Enforcing P/F for everyone would (regardless of any “considerations” taken by graduate programs) negatively impact graduate school apps, and honestly, probably our motivation to learn, as well,” Jane Kelleher, a fourth-year physics and classics double major, wrote in a public post. Kelleher will apply to medical school some time after she graduates.

Meanwhile, those advocating a more relaxed policy say GPA considerations shouldn’t be the decisive factor for changing the University’s policy, arguing that graduate school applications would not be affected, given that most colleges are taking similar measures. 

English professor Zachary Samalin thinks that with two of the most prestigious institutions in the country adopting these changes, graduate schools will use similar leniency in their admissions process.

“If [Columbia and MIT], two of these major institutions, have done Pass/Fail, graduate schools are going to reckon with that when they are evaluating applicants, and I doubt you're gonna see people from MIT not getting into PhD programs,” Samalin told The Maroon.

Proponents of a pass/fail system also believe concerns that students may have unequal access to housing, technology, and academic resources during distance learning outweigh the individual gain for students who want to fight for a GPA raise. 

At Columbia, Dean of the College James Valentini told students that it is unfair to evaluate student work using the same standard as before, given the varying personal circumstances of students and the need to adjust to online teaching for faculty.

“While some students and faculty may feel that the usual awarding of letter grades would be desirable for individual reasons, the imperative in this time of global crisis is to do what is best for the entire academic community so that the playing field is leveled for all,” he wrote.

However, Harrington said that equity concerns cannot be solved by making classes pass/fail in the spring quarter. “These equity concerns already existed,” he said, “and it is quite naive to assume being at home rather than being in campus housing, for example, is less equitable over a range of circumstances to students.” 

Yet others, like second-year Linh Nguyen, argue that for students whose circumstances make them less able to focus on coursework, a mandatory pass/fail system is the only truly equitable option. 

“One argument is that this destigmatizes taking a class P/F and allows for a lot less stress,” Nguyen commented on a post in the UChicago Mutual Aid Facebook group.

“As long as a class is counted for major requirements, I really cannot argue against taking off the burden that comes with striving for As,” Nguyen wrote. 

Italian literature professor Justin Steinberg told The Maroon that it is not realistic to expect students to choose pass/fail while their peers take quality grades.

“[It] seems to me very strange to have some people getting grades and some Pass/Fail. Students wouldn't feel comfortable choosing Pass/Fail if it's optional, and they would feel penalized in some way,”  he said.

As such, Steinberg feels there should be a blanket pass/fail option to avoid this pressure. 

However, Harrington pointed out that optional pass/fail is not new to the status quo. “People take Pass/Fail classes all the time at UChicago and that is totally fine. People withdraw from classes, and there are extenuating circumstances behind why they withdraw from classes. That should not be the break of whether or not people think that everyone at the university should be graded on Pass/Fail,” he said.

While some disagree with mandatory pass/fail on the basis of improving grades, faculty members say they are unsure of what fair grading looks like in these unprecedented circumstances.

“Grading is not possible right now,” said Samalin, who will be teaching two graduate-level classes during the spring quarter. One of them is a doctoral advanced research seminar, which is disrupted because some students will be unable to go to the library and take archives—a major part of the course.

“It is impossible to know whether or not your students are learning under these conditions, and I have no sense of how I am going to evaluate them,” Samalin said.

Across the country, many quarter-based schools have also made changes to their grading policies. Dartmouth College changed spring quarter grades to a mandatory “credit/no credit system” for undergraduates. Northwestern University did not announce plans for their spring quarter, but gave undergraduates “the option to change their Winter Quarter grades from a letter grade to Pass/Fail” after they received the letter grades from winter quarter. UCLA decided to implement an opt-in system in spring.

Samalin acknowledged that adopting a blanket pass/fail policy might make it hard to ensure standardization across different disciplines. He also noted that tenured faculty and non-tenured faculty might respond differently to administrative measures.

“There’s going to be some people who are trying to grade normally, some people who are grading leniently, some people who have given up on grading, and some people who might be encouraging students to try to take things Pass/Fail when it’s possible. So what you’re gonna wind up with is a kind of hodgepodge,” he said. “That throws the idea of grading out the window because the whole point grading [sic] is that it’s supposed to be standardized and uniform across the university.” 

Samalin criticized the administration for not providing more direction on this issue. “There’s been no message from the administration about how we’re supposed to deal with it.”

In a previous meeting he had with his colleagues in the humanities division, Samalin was told that “The College doesn’t want to do that because we want to maintain the appearance of rigor.” 

In response to an inquiry from The Maroon, University spokesman Gerald McSwiggan said that “the Office of the Provost is regularly convening deans and faculty to consider aspects of these questions, taking into account variations among degree programs, input from students, and other considerations. We expect to have more to share on these topics next week.”

Carl Sacklen contributed reporting.

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