• Joana Jebsen

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


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.