Pass/Fail: The Only Option for Leveling the Learning Disparities of a COVID-19 Semester

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Apr 01, 2020

As universities and colleges grapple with the fallout of COVID-19 forcing onground courses online, controversies are brewing over how to grade. Some institutions have already moved to a pass/fail option, believing that normal grading in these unforeseen circumstances is both challenging and unfair. I applaud that decision. In fact, I suggest taking it one step further. Most institutions who are offering the P/F option are leaving the choice between receiving a pass/fail grade or a letter grade to the student. I believe all higher ed institutions should move to grading pass/fail as the only allowable grading mechanism, whether an undergraduate, graduate or professional school. If there were ever a time when letter grading splits our college students into haves and have nots, it is now, during this crisis. For all the work we’ve done to help level the playing field and provide students access to an education that’s both fair and equitable, overnight, that playing field has been completely bulldozed by something no student expected or could plan for. Think of the student whose parents are both now unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, or are on the frontlines as healthcare workers, and caring for siblings is now the student’s responsibility as a result. Consider the single mom graduate student who’s been tasked with homeschooling her children, while also trying to adjust to online learning. There are any number of challenges that are creating major disruptions for our students, the chief of which is lack of experience with virtual courses for both students and professors. Plus, many students are facing daunting prospects studying online from home or quasi-home environments. Add to that technology disparities, lack of on-campus resources like libraries coupled with poor at-home learning environments, and you can see why these ‘less than ideal’ situations support pass/fail grading for the Spring 2020 semester. Many institutions have already moved with a pass/fail grading including Duke, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Barnard, Dartmouth, Smith and MIT. And while some Yale students are petitioning “universal pass” across the board (as featured in a #NOFAILYALE twitter campaign), giving a passing grade to all students regardless of whether any engagement was made with the coursework is also unfair. Pass/fail grading still requires students to give attention and time to a course and master the subject matter as much as possible. Of course, a pass/fail grading mechanism without the option to switch to a letter grade raises many questions regarding GPA requirements. GPAs, and letter grades are often critical for graduate program entry, for prospective jobs, for financial aid and for scholarships. Thankfully, in terms of financial aid, Congress just passed the CARES Act which allows higher ed institutions to exclude any incomplete credits due to the pandemic from minimum GPA calculations for Satisfactory Academic Progress. However, implementing a pass/fail grade as the only grading mechanism for this COVID semester will only work if whole tiers of HE schools agreed to adopt it. Here at ODL, we’ve always been proponents of designing learning to promote mastery over test scores, even exploring the emotional cost of poor test scores. At a time when online learning will be minimally designed at best, let’s not further stack the cards against our students’ success by saddling them with the defeat of low grades.

* Quote Source: As Universities Move Online, Some Call for Pass/Fail Grading

Joana Jebsen is the President of O’Donnell Learn, a leading learning experience (LX) design firm dedicated to helping learners achieve their goals and flourish in life. ODL is passionate about partnering with institutions and their faculty to deliver learner-centered design and innovation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Higher Ed Has the Toolset, But Do They Have the Mindset to Future-fit?

Published By Joana Jebsen
on Aug 12, 2021

Imagine a fresh-faced eighteen year old, naive to the great big world ahead, hoping for an acceptance into an accredited two or four year college. They’re navigating the long hall towards their college counselor’s office, reviewing the list of schools in their mind, while envisioning a future of friends, inspiring courses and eventually a career, a life. College, whether community or four year, will be their first steps towards adulthood, towards maturity, or so they think.  What they don't know, what they aren’t told, is that most higher education is unequipped to prepare them for life. The real responsibilities they’ll meet when they exit campus are not delineated, explored or taught in school.  To make matters more complicated, the notion of the “traditional student” no longer exists. Students are opting out of four year residential colleges for two year schools and online programs. They’re also delaying the start of college in pursuit of a career. Additionally, there’s been an enormous uptick in adult learners, with families, who start school later, or attend school in tandem with a job. It’s clear: there’s a broken talent pipeline. And an enormous question: is higher education fit for the future?

Looking Back/Learning Forward: Lessons For the Now Normal

Published By Brett Christie, PhD
on Jul 20, 2021

Looking Back, Learning Forward, a motto and mindset to utilize as we envision the future of distance education and fuse historic learning practices with modern lifestyles. I recently co-hosted a webinar with Dr. Jim Julius, Faculty Director of Online Learning at Mira Costa College, where we walked a group of educators through insights gathered over the last fourteen months of online learning. If one thing is clear, it is that it’s been a journey for everyone: faculty, students, education consultants, learning designers, institutional leadership, and families alike. 

Launching Faculty Learning Communities: Participation is All About Perceived Value

Published By Brett Christie, PhD
on Jul 14, 2021

In an earlier webinar, O’Donnell Learn CEO, Carrie O’Donnell and I shared practical ideas and examples for building learning communities among faculty. These communities provide a rich opportunity for faculty to gather around a common goal, learning together and from each other while accomplishing a desired outcome.   Faculty learning communities can provide the time, space and resources for mission-critical efforts related to teaching and learning. Teaching expertise is most often not part of the faculty background, nor is instructional design a common skill. Plus, faculty often develop courses in isolation. In contrast, gathering faculty around learning design can create vibrant exchanges of what’s working, what’s not, and problem-solving around how to make improvements.