As other universities move to Pass/Fail grading, students wonder if ‘U’ will do the same

Thursday, March 19, 2020 - 6:15pm

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Design by Erin Ruark

Multiple universities — including Middlebury College, Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — have announced plans to offer a passing or not passing grading system for all courses this semester. These decisions have made University of Michigan students and faculty question whether the University will follow suit. No official decision has been made yet.

Like these schools, the University moved all classes to a remote teaching format in order to allow students to practice social distancing and healthy habits amid an outbreak of COVID-19. The University has encouraged all students who are able to leave campus and return to their permanent residence.

In announcing the changes, leaders at these colleges have attributed the change in grading as a way to quell fears about the global health pandemic and ease concerns over how students’ grades will be impacted by the move to online learning.

In an email to Ford School of Public Policy students, Paula Lantz, associate dean for academic affairs, wrote deans from across the University are considering a grading system in which students will either receive a Pass or a No Record. A “No Record” is different from a “Fail” in that a traditionally non-passing grade will not show up on a student’s transcript instead of being listed as a failed course.

In addition to this, she noted there is also the potential to “unmask” grades, meaning that a letter grade for a course would show up on a student’s transcript in addition to the “Pass.” Lantz noted this policy, which has been adopted by other institutions, is being considered by the University.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said in an email while the suggestion to move to Pass/Fail classes has been brought up, no decision has been reached. 

“The Office of the Provost is carefully exploring this suggestion,” Fitzgerald wrote. “There has been no decision.”

As of Thursday afternoon, LSA and the College of Engineering have both announced extensions to their late add-drop deadlines.

In the current University policy, students may take up to 30 credits in the Pass/Fail grading system, with some exceptions for major or distribution requirements. A common example of a course that cannot be taken Pass/Fail is the fourth-semester foreign language requirement, which LSA students must take for a grade to graduate.

Students have raised questions whether certain courses requiring letter grades will be waived for this semester should a University-wide policy be put into place.

Currently, any grade of C- or above is listed on transcripts as a “Pass,” while any grade below is a “Fail.” Courses taken within the University’s current Pass/Fail grading system does not affect a student’s grade-point-average. The Pass/Fail deadline for Winter semester has passed.

Students have displayed mixed reactions to the possibility of moving away from a letter grading system.

A Change.org petition that has amassed more than 4,500 signatures in six days has called on the University to offer the option for students to elect to take courses under the Pass/Fail grading system. The petition listed the large-scale impact of the virus, difficulty of remote learning, disruption of current on-campus resources and the potential for cheating as reasons why the University should adopt this policy.

LSA freshman Steven Tuckel said he likes the idea of moving all classes to this grading system, but expressed concern for how it could impact students when applying to upper-level programs or graduate school.

“On the one hand, I would really appreciate getting a bit of a break because it has been stressful having to leave suddenly and in the middle of classes,” Tuckel said. “But I’m thinking about applying to Ford and grad school and I’m very worried … that if I come into that with a ‘P’ and I’m applying against someone that has an ‘A’ that I’m going to be looked down upon for that.”

LSA freshman Dominic Coletti was also concerned about the impact of Pass/Fail on his future plans. According to the LSA Newnan Advising Center, courses for majors and minors cannot be taken Pass/Fail. Currently, Coletti said he was taking a lot of major prerequisite classes and is concerned Pass/Fail would not be beneficial in his case. 

“If majors don’t change their policies on that, this semester is kind of a (loss) for me because I have to take all these classes again on a graded basis,” Coletti said. “If the University can negotiate a way for these courses to still count under a Pass/Fail system, I think Pass/Fail would be a really good option that would help me, as well as other people, to alleviate a lot of the stresses that come with this really uncertain time.”

Coletti noted the Pass/Fail option would be beneficial not only because students do not have access to the same resources they normally have, but also because the option would help level the disparities between the way professors are adjusting their classes.

“While some professors are making changes to their grading system, some really haven’t changed their classes all that much from when we were meeting in-person,” Coletti said. “They haven’t really accommodated students, and so for the University to change the grading basis would really help students who are feeling pressure from those classes to feel better and learn the best they can while not being punished for not having access to resources.”

Regarding students still on campus, Coletti believes making classes Pass/Fail could help alleviate the stress as a result of the developments of COVID-19. On Tuesday morning, an email to dining hall staff confirmed that a cook at East Quad tested positive for the virus.

“I still live in on-campus housing and one of the things with that is that it's a situation that changes every single day,” Coletti said. “I don't think I’ve gone a full day of just being able to focus on class because I (get) a new email from housing, or a new email from dining explaining really broad, sweeping changes to my living situation.”

LSA sophomore Alexandra Windle, who signed the petition to move classes to a Pass/Fail grading system, said she hoped the University would move to a Pass/Fail system in order to accommodate students who are still adapting to the rigor of University classes. Windle said that because this is her first semester at the University, she has had to adapt to both an unfamiliar campus and now a new teaching style.

“My perspective as a nontraditional student is something that the University doesn’t really take into account,” Windle said. “For me personally, it’s been spending so much time getting to the University through my community college and making sure that I’m a good applicant for transferring. And now I feel like the University has kind of abandoned us.”

Windle said as a nontraditional student who transferred from a smaller community college this semester, moving to Pass/Fail would allow her to better acclimate to University classes while taking them online. 

“It seemed like every week I was learning something new, I was switching something up in my schedule. I was never on a routine because I’m trying to catch up with everyone that’s been here since they’ve been a freshman,” Windle said. “I feel like I was kind of hit with a curveball trying to learn this material and trying to be a student just in general. So I was starting to get the hang of things and now I feel like I’ve been knocked down a peg and I’m being switched to this style of learning that I’ve never done before.”

Engineering senior Howard Zhang said he understood why a Pass/Fail system would be a good option for many students, but said that for others trying to raise their GPA, it could be harmful. Zhang said he needs a certain GPA to accept a job offer for next year and is very close to reaching it. However, he noted he may not be able to accept the offer if he is forced to make all of his classes Pass/Fail.

“If the University makes pass/fail not an option, but rather it forces this pass/fail onto everybody, then I’m not going to be able to take this job anymore because I wouldn’t be able to boost my GPA,” Zhang said. “I don’t think I’m the only one in this situation, in fact I’ve talked to other students who had rough times in the past couple of years … a lot of students try their best to work harder, try their best to turn their GPA around. … This just makes it so that students don’t have the option to do that this semester.”

Daily Staff Reporter Hannah Mackay contributed reporting.

Daily News Editor Alex Harring and Liat Weinstein can be reached at harring@umich.edu and weinsl@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu.