Columbia joins other colleges expanding pass/fail options amid coronavirus chaos

By Jonah Ocuto, Staff Reporter

Lucas Smith

As college students across the nation transition through the unexpected shift to online learning, colleges and universities are being pressured to offer more flexibility with grading standards due to issues impacting students including access to technology, time zone differences and communication barriers.

Columbia is one of these colleges, announcing that in light of the dramatic shift professors and students alike have made toward online learning, the college is offering an updated, voluntary pass/fail policy as a way to alleviate unnecessary stress for students coping with the repercussions of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.

Pass/fail allows students to circumvent the more conventional grading scale as they are assessed on whether they have met the learning objectives of a course, but are not given a letter grade.

Brian Marth, associate provost for Academic Services, said rather than making a broad, unilateral decision to mandate a pass/fail grade for the Spring 2020 semester, the decision was instead made from a student’s point-of-view.

“Some institutions decided 100% of their classes will be pass/fail only, and some of those institutions have also received a lot of students who are upset about that decision,” Marth said.

Instead, Columbia students can choose whether to be graded pass/fail, with passing grades representing a traditional D grade or higher, or to be graded on the usual A through F basis. In declaring pass/fail, students’ transcripts will note “P” for passing, or “F” for failing.

Additionally, as a special exception for the Spring 2020 semester, a “P” grade will fulfill prerequisites needed to enroll in higher-level classes and meet major and minor requirements, according to Registrar Keri Walters.

“For students who have elected the pass/fail option for Spring 2020, the requirement that they earn a C or better in all courses in their major or minor is waived,” Walters said in an email sent to faculty Wednesday, April 8.

In the past, Columbia’s pass/fail system required professors’ permission before the option was approved by the registrar’s office on an individual basis, said Marth, who recommended students consult their academic advisers before declaring. The college’s previous pass/fail system did not allow a grade of “P” to fulfill prerequisites or meet major and minor requirements, according to Walters.

Declaring a class as pass/fail is irreversible, and the application deadline is May 1. As of Tuesday, April 7, the college has received 276 individual applications for pass/fail. Walters said this number does not reflect individual students, but individual course requests from students. Walters expects more to enroll now that spring break has concluded and remote learning has begun.

For students who have a 3.0 GPA and hold A or B grades in a class, choosing not to opt-in can be beneficial if they would like to make the Dean’s List or earn Latin honors such as cum laude, summa cum laude or magna cum laude.

However, if a student who holds As and Bs were to opt-in to pass/fail for those classes, the GPA boosting effect of an A or B would be nullified, Walters said.

For students who are earning a C or D in a class, which may hurt their GPA depending on their past academic performance, opting-in to the pass/fail system would be a beneficial way to maintain their current GPA.

While a passing grade under the pass/fail standard could have a positive impact on GPA for a student struggling in a current course, it could be a disadvantage for students applying to graduate school, as a passing grade looks less impressive on a transcript than an A or B. To combat this, institutions such as Duke University are including designations on transcripts to remind admissions offices of the “extraordinary circumstances encountered in the present semester.”

Walters said the college may mark passing grades for the spring semester differently, though further discussion is necessary. She added that there has been no discussion so far on changing financial aid or scholarship requirements, or if there will be a Dean’s List this semester as is the norm.

Diana Vallera, an adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department and president of Columbia part-time faculty union, said while the decision was a good move by the administration, she would have liked for faculty input to be a bigger part of the college’s decision-making process.

“I’m a little disheartened and disappointed when I’m seeing certain decisions being made during this crisis time, because this is the time where we all need to be making sure that the voices of the faculty, who are stakeholders in the college, need to be at the table,” Vallera said.

Vallera said it is important to include faculty in the conversation when major policies like this are passed, as faculty have a direct relationship to students and know their individual needs best.

Vallera said a better way of approaching the pass/fail system would be to follow Marquette University’s approach, which allows students to opt-in to pass/fail only after final grades have been posted, as a way to keep students motivated to work hard for the remainder of the semester.

Camron Miller, a senior radio major, is enrolled in a radio documentary class, which is considered a capstone course. Miller said he can relate to the lack of motivation the switch to online learning has caused some students.

“Personally, I just want to get it over with,” Miller said. “I don’t feel as motivated because I’m not going into school.”

Because he is not able to access vital facilities, equipment or databases at home that he would normally be able to access on campus, Miller said he is looking to change his capstone course, “Radio and Audio Documentary,” to pass/fail.

Miller’s project, a documentary on prisoner voting rights, would require in-person collaboration, so he said producing it remotely is not an option. Although he is appreciative of the new system, he said more work can be done to assist students who are unable to produce work remotely.

Alexandria Stanton, a senior photography major, said much of the work in her studio-based classes cannot be graded the same way it was before the switch to online classes. Because every student has access to different equipment, she said it would be unfair to grade on a normal scale.

“I think giving the students an option to [declare pass/fail] is a good medium ground, or a good way to help if … you need it,” Stanton said. “I’m sure there are students who, before this all happened, weren’t doing so hot in a class, and if they weren’t, this would be a good way to help them not lose a scholarship or something.”

While the decision of whether to opt-in to pass/fail can seem daunting, Walters said students can take their time to come to a conclusion.

“The most important thing is to just talk with your instructor about your progress,” Walters said. “You have until May 1, so don’t jump the gun. Don’t decide right this minute.”