Colleges shift to pass/fail to smooth students’ transition to distance learning

Smith, Duke, MIT and Vanderbilt making the shift to relieve pressure on students learning remotely
By: | March 19, 2020
Students who've shifted to distance learning at some highly selective college can choose to take pass/fail classes. (gettyimages.com: FG Trade)Students who've shifted to distance learning at some highly selective college can choose to take pass/fail classes. (gettyimages.com: FG Trade)

Add grading to the aspects of college upended by the coronavirus and campus closures, with a handful of institutions—including some highly-selective colleges and universities—shifting to pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory models for the disrupted spring semester.

At Smith College in Massachusetts, faculty will grade all spring 2020 classes on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) system, though letter grades will be recorded.

“We changed this semester’s grades to S/U to recognize the extraordinary character of current circumstances,” the college announced on its website. “As we move instruction into alternative modes, we are necessarily changing our agreements about expectations and assessments. In a new and unfamiliar environment, we cannot hold faculty and students to expectations constructed in and for a different instructional experience.”

S/U grades will not be counted in grade-point averages, but students can request letter grades for professional programs, employment or graduate studies, the college said.


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Duke University in North Carolina transitioned all spring 2020 courses to satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading, though undergraduates could apply to the campus registrar to receive letter grades.

Courses taken for S/U grades will count towards all graduation and major requirements, with an S (satisfactory) serving as the equivalent of a C- or higher. S/U grades, however, will not be factored into a student’s grade point average.

“We expect that this strategy will ease the necessary transitions into remote course delivery and promote strong engagement throughout this most extraordinary phase of Duke’s history,” campus leaders said on Duke’s website.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is shift to “alternate grades” for remote learning during the spring semester. The grading system includes:

  • PE: Reflects performance at an A, B or C level.
  • NE: Indicates a D or F, which will not appear on an external transcript.
  • IE: Incomplete due to disruption

Students will be able to retake courses in which they received “NE” and complete an “IE” grade.


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And students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee can choose pass/fail grading “in light of the extraordinary circumstances under which you will be completing your spring semester,” Susan R. Wente, the interim chancellor and provost, said in a message to the campus.

Coronavirus grading activists

Students at other colleges and universities are petitioning universities to switch to pass/fail or S/U grading.

Students at Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania have launched an online petition urging their campus leaders to make the change.

“Offering a pass/fail option for classes of a student’s choosing for the semester helps alleviate some of the stresses caused by measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Phoebe Woonprasert writes in the Georgetown petition. “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.


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In applauding the shifts, David Perry, a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota, wrote on CNN that academic leaders “quickly figured out that the only way through this was to abandon pretensions of rigor or normality.”

“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 wrote. “We’re all going to be messing up a lot in this unprecedented moment anyway.