How pass/fail grading may impact equity beyond coronavirus

Pass/fail grading allows faculty to focus on content and students to handle off-campus responsibilities
By: | March 25, 2020
Colleges and universities closed by the coronavirus are making many online learning courses pass/fail to accommodate students who may face challenging connecting with instructors and focusing on their studies. (Andrew Neel/Unsplash)Colleges and universities closed by the coronavirus are making many online learning courses pass/fail to accommodate students who may face challenging connecting with instructors and focusing on their studies. (Andrew Neel/Unsplash)

With a growing number of colleges and universities shifting to pass/fail grading during the coronavirus closures, some in higher education predict the approach may raise awareness about the inequities some students face.

“My hope is that people will be more open to students’ challenges that they face because of inequities not only in society but in the institutions where we work,” Erika Kitzmiller, an assistant professor in education at Barnard College and historian with a focus on educational equity, told the Columbia Spectator. “I have a strong hope they will because colleges are being really responsive to this and I’m really proud of that.”

Columbia College, at Columbia University in the City of New York, has moved to pass/fail grading because many faculty felt they couldn’t judge student work fairly in an untested online environment that may present significant challenges for some students, James J. Valentini, the dean of Columbia College and vice president for undergraduate education, wrote in a message to the campus.

“The faculty members who endorsed this decision stressed that our normal system of evaluating student work and assigning letter grades is predicated on the assumption that our students have equal access to the normal methods of instruction and the supporting structure of a residential college environment. Those shared conditions no longer exist,” James J. Valentini wrote.

At Rowan University in New Jersey, faculty will submit letter grades at the end of the spring semester grades. Students will then have the opportunity to choose a pass/fail grade instead.

Dartmouth University in New Hampshire is among the major institutions that moved to pass/fail this week, calling its approach “credit/no credit” for the spring semester.


More from UBColleges shift to pass/fail to smooth students’ transition to distance learning


For one, time zone differences might make it difficult for Dartmouth students in other parts of the world to join live, online classes, Provost Joseph Helble wrote in a message to the campus.

Helble detailed some of the other challenges students may face.

“Some will have limited access to bandwidth or to necessary hardware, particularly with the closing of libraries and other public high-bandwidth places across the country,” Helble wrote. “Still others will be living in homes where caregiving and other family demands will affect their ability to work effectively. Some may themselves fall ill. And all will need to rely on teleconferencing for meetings with faculty, peers, and advisers.”

Credit/no credit grading also will allow faculty to focus on course content and to “develop assessments that can be used if remote learning continues into summer term,” Helble added.

Williams Colleges in Massachusetts also made the pass/fail switch this week.

“During a standard semester, grades reflect a faculty member’s assessment of the quality of a student’s work produced under relatively consistent and controlled circumstances,” Williams President Maud Mandel said in a message. “The pandemic and ensuing campus closure make consistency and control impossible.”

Just under half of the respondents to a survey done by the university’s student newspaper, The Williams Record, said they have taken on extra responsibilities in order to care for family and community members since campus closed.

More than 80% of respondents feared they would not perform at their normal academic level while one in seven said they lack access to reliable internet or a computer with a web camera,The Williams Record said in an editorial.


More from UBCoronavirus sparks calls for “universal pass” grading


New York University has also allowed a pass/fail grading option “to relieve some of the pressure that students may be facing as a result of COVID-19 related disruptions,” administrators said in a message.

And in Florida, 75,000 students from six large public institutions—the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, Florida State University, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University—have signed petitions urging their administrators to offer pass/fail grading, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

“Online instruction is incomparable to the experience and learning that one may have in the class and during in-person lectures,” the University of Flordia petition reads, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Although many students may transition seamlessly to learning online, there will be an indisputable part of our student body that will face difficulties in focusing and/or truly understanding class material.”