It’s Time for University-Wide Pass/Fail
Continuing to use the letter grade system during a global crisis only places an undue burden on students.
March 26, 2020
After University President Andy Hamilton announced that residence halls would be closed and students should move out, my sole focus was packing up my dorm room and finding safe transportation home in a 48-hour window.
I have not really allowed myself to think about how, exactly, I will finish the semester at home, where I will have unreliable WiFi connection and be in close quarters with four children between the ages of seven and 16. I haven’t thought about how my return home from the epicenter of the pandemic in New York State puts my family members — especially my grandparents and my father, all of whom are at higher risk of suffering complications if they contract COVID-19 — in more danger of coming down with the virus either. As I can’t afford to stay anywhere else in New York City, NYU’s last-minute eviction order left me with no choice but to get out of the city before things get worse.
I have two midterm exams and two papers due early next week in addition to readings and shorter homework assignments to complete. As much of the world grinds to a halt, my own school forces some students to face crowded transit systems during a global pandemic. To return to intolerant or abusive homes — leaving many students homeless and food insecure. Students should not have to also worry about their GPAs because professors continue to assess academic performance using a letter grade system.
Before NYU booted students from residence halls with little notice, the COVID-19 crisis was already anxiety-inducing. Reports estimate that without drastic action, the United States could lose 2.2 million people to the virus. They also note that the healthcare system is rapidly becoming crowded and overwhelmed. Faced with this pandemic, immunocompromised students have to worry about their own health and safety as well as those of the ones close to them.
The burden of trying to maintain a passable GPA should not fall on students during this time. Many already have to worry about basic needs such as having a stable living situation and enough food to eat, in addition to navigating the panic that accompanies a global pandemic. Worrying about performing well in school — something that is crucial for many students’ future plans — adds more anxiety to an already stressful situation.
Many students are returning to environments that are not conducive to remote learning. Completing difficult assignments thoughtfully and attending discussion-based classes online require a quiet environment. Something that is difficult for some students to find already, this is increasingly rare when other people are also staying in their homes in the name of quarantining or social distancing.
Classes also take place on campus for a reason. Attending classes on campus guarantees access to spaces conducive to learning and the chance to explore topics without risking judgment or anger from family members or friends outside of class. Zoom lectures are perfectly fine for the classes where I am only required to listen and take notes, but the subject matter in other classes tends to be far more personal or divisive.
Because I’m attending classes at home now, I’m now being graded on my willingness to share deeply personal experiences and political viewpoints while many of the people who were involved in those experiences or who strongly disagree with my opinion sit a few rooms away.
In relatively peaceful times, letter grades don’t show the full picture of students’ academic abilities. In the middle of a global crisis when students face a number of constraining factors, letter grades are even less reflective of students’ abilities. They serve only to penalize them for their inability to multitask and speak up in anxiety-inducing environments during a worldwide pandemic.
I understand that students need the credits from this semester in order to graduate on time, and that various programs have different requirements that make adopting a pass/fail model more difficult. I also understand that the University recently extended the deadline for students to declare courses pass/fail until May 12th, and different programs and schools — including Liberal Studies, Tisch and Stern — have given students the option of taking all classes pass/fail.
However, several other schools, including Smith College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University, have either offered students the option of taking classes pass/fail or adopted a college-wide pass/fail model. At Smith and MIT, students will be graded using a satisfactory/unsatisfactory or pass/fail model which will still be allowed to count towards their major/minor requirements. These grades will not appear on transcripts or be factored into GPAs. Georgetown has given students the option of opting in to pass/fail grading — an approach that still allows students looking to bolster their GPAs through letter grades to do so.
It’s true that many students might want letter grades in order to boost their GPAs this term, and that NYU has acknowledged students’ calls for pass/fail options. But adopting a university-wide pass/fail policy that allows for all classes to be taken pass/fail — rather than just making pass/fail an option in some schools — lets those who need it to continue learning without forcing them to choose between looking out for themselves and their families during a global crisis and maintaining their GPAs.
Extending the deadline to declare courses pass/fail and removing the limits on the number of courses that can be taken pass/fail this semester is helpful. But it is only the first step towards leveling the playing field right now. All courses at the University should be allowed to be taken pass/fail, with no restrictions or exceptions. The alternative is punishing students for things beyond their control — their current living arrangements and how safe they feel discussing and writing about personal or divisive topics in said arrangements, as well as their anxiety about the pandemic as a whole.
No matter how often NYU tries to assure students that classes will be conducted relatively normally through Zoom, it’s impossible to seriously expect classes to go on as usual. It is time for NYU to adjust the grading system in order to accommodate this by issuing universal guidelines for pass/fail courses, rather than leaving it up to individual schools to come up with their own restrictions. Doing otherwise only punishes students further during a pandemic.
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Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]