By TCR Editing Staff || Alex Pinsk, Gabby Goodwin, Ruby Van Dyk, Katherine Coble

Students and faculty are grappling with how to proceed academically as the College has made the decision to move to online-only instruction for the remainder of the spring semester. The move comes as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and many students have advocated for changes to the grading system in light of this unprecedented reality. The decision to go online has generated four different proposals for how the College should proceed, including one from Diplomatic Congress. The most widely circulated was an online petition on arguing in favor of a switch to Pass/No Pass. As of Monday morning, the petition had more than 1,300 signatures.

The petition specifically called for an elective Pass/No Pass option for students. This option differs from merely extending the College’s normal Pass/No Pass deadline by allowing Pass/No Pass to be elected even for courses within a student’s major or minor curriculum. Another petition started by William Zheng ‘21 which received 600 signatures called for the implementation of a “Double A” grading system. Under this system, all students would receive either an A or A- on their transcripts, with no other letter grades permitted. Faculty would be allowed to distribute these grades at their own discretion. 

The Diplomatic Congress also sent a proposal to the College Administration calling for a different policy, the implementation of a mandatory pass/no pass system instead of the optional system proposed by others. Below are a few of the key requests laid out in the proposal. 

The following is pulled directly from the proposal: 

  • That faculty assign a letter grade, but transcripts reflect the Pass/No Pass designation
  • That the change override college policies restricting the Pass/No pass basis for courses that satisfy major, minor, special studies area of concentration or Introduction & Exploration phase course. 
  • The students who are unable to complete a course, such as directed or independent research which requires lab use or campus resources otherwise unavailable to be awarded a Pass grade. 
  • That this policy change be noted on the key of transcripts for all students who take classes during Spring 2020

As for the reason behind proposing a mandatory Pass/No Pass system, Dip Con outlined the fact that standardizing P/NP would alleviate students fearing any scrutiny from the graduate school admissions committee for choosing not to pursue letter grades. They also included the fact that a mandatory system would compensate for drastic changes that might occur in the lives of students in the following weeks. 

Shubh Punj, President-Elect of the 13th/VP of the 12th Diplomatic Congress & the student body, outlined his support for the proposal. “To ensure that we allow for equitable opportunities to succeed, we proposed mandating the pass/no pass grading system. The alternative (optional pass/no pass) would better equip individuals with adequate resources to continue succeeding. In times when families are affected by unemployment in the household, limited access to necessities or worse, I am willing to sacrifice having a GPA to eliminate this anxiety-inducing phenomenon for those who are truly suffering” said Punj.

Griffin Sneath, President of the 12th Diplomatic Congress and the student body commented: “I vehemently agree with all the six points found in the summary of the petition calling for optional Pass/No Pass. The alternative proposal calls for mandatory Pass/No Pass for the exact same reasons, but I think will be more equitable for a greater number of students. Optional Pass/No Pass is not truly optional for those pursuing grad schools, as these programs might look unfavorably on students opting in to Pass/No Pass for some or all of their classes. Bearing that in mind, graduate programs should be less punitive under mandatory Pass/No Pass, since the decision was not made by the student.” Sneath continued: “Mandatory Pass/No Pass also has a limitation: anyone that was working to increase their GPA this semester would not get credit for it. As student body president, I want to do what will be least detrimental to the most students, and I think our plan does just that.”

Every proposal raised similar concerns about why an adaptive grading system is necessary for F&M. As a liberal arts college, the main academic draw of F&M is its small class sizes and a high level of professor-student interaction. Upper-level seminars, laboratory courses, and research seminars are particularly ill-suited for the online model. Many students selected F&M over other institutions out of a desire to avoid impersonal or distant lectures. The altered grading system would thus acknowledge a fundamental change to F&M’s academic protocol. 

These proposals also aim to reduce the inequity between students, acknowledging the differences in home environments between students. Not all students will have a reliable internet connection, a quiet space to study, or the ability to focus their energy solely on schoolwork during the next two months. As COVID-19 spreads across the country at alarming rates, the reality that some F&M students may serve as primary caretakers to loved ones becomes increasingly likely. There are additional concerns about the ability of the Office of Accessibility to adapt student accommodations to an online setting. 

The popular petition was put together by Caroline Ulrich ‘22, Amanda Leonard ‘22 and Kinsey Hogan ‘23, who had been discussing the potential impacts that going online would have on students’ learning and grades. Even before the College made it’s official decision, these students felt that a conversation about a change in grading policy was necessary. The group cited the fact that students would be losing in-person contact, a core tenant of a liberal arts education, making it more difficult to learn and harder to stay focused on their school work. “People have all sorts of different circumstances at home, there is lots of stress already. The option of pass no pass takes off some of that stress” said Leonard.

What also seemed central to the concerns of the three students was the fact that being away from campus has placed an emotional and mental burden on students. “People are already struggling with being away from their friends and their normal routines,” said Hogan. “A lot of us think of school as more of a home than our actual home.” But regardless of the decision made by the college on the details of the proposals, the group emphasized the fact that changes must be made. “The essential thing is that this situation has completely disrupted the way we learn. We need something” added Lenoard.

When F&M professors were asked to comment on the potential new grading policies, they highlighted a few major concerns. First, Dr. Rachel Anderson-Rabern, Assistant Professor of Theatre, highlighted the importance of agency in this decision. “Though I recognize it is an imperfect solution, I support a Pass/No Credit grading system for students this semester, with the option for individual students to petition to receive grades. My reasoning? I want students to have as much agency as possible, coupled with compassion and flexibility. I have been persuaded that, despite the possible pitfalls of such a policy, agency is an extremely high priority now more than ever,” said Professor Anderson-Rabern.

Dr. Stephen Medvic, Kunkel Professor of Government expanded on this point: “I think a default P/NP policy with an option to get a grade makes the most sense. I’m worried that a blanket default P/NP (without an option for a grade) takes agency from students who, after all, know their circumstances and are best positioned to make a choice based on their needs. The default P/NP is important to reduce some of the stigma of opting into a P/NP, while the option to get a regular grade gives students who feel they need a grade (for whatever reason) the ability to get one. I just think this policy balances the equity concerns many of us have with respect to differences in students’ circumstances at home with the idea that students should be able to control their educational experiences.”

Dr. Clara Moore, Professor of Biology, provided a different perspective. “I greatly respect the deeply thoughtful, pragmatic, selfless, sound opinions that many students, faculty, and everyone in the F&M community have shared on this topic. I see both sides of the basic decision: students deciding to keep a letter grade (though our traditional assessments and grading must now change) or choose P/NP vs. faculty assigning students a mandated P/NP. The loss of campus resources, the existing inequities that are now magnified, all the possible long-term implications for each student; these make selecting a “fair” grading policy very difficult,” said Professor Moore.   

Ethics seemed to be an important factor to many Professors including Dr. Carla Willard, Professor of American Studies, who is still contemplating the grading options. “Questions of equity are also paramount: for example, some students come from families that don’t have Wi-Fi. Those students cannot be penalized for the lack of resources that will make it extremely difficult if not impossible to participate online” said Professor Willard. 

F&M’s decision will come in the wake of several other peer institutions adjusting their own grading systems. Dickinson College and Middlebury College have both opted for an elective Pass/No Pass grading system, in which requirements about how many courses can be taken P/NP have been waived. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has decided on a mandatory P/NP scheme for all courses.

In contrast to the benefits a Mandatory P/NP system would offer for students with learning environments that might prove challenging in an online format, drawbacks of implementing a mandatory system include those who need classes with a GPA for graduate school as well as those seniors trying to graduate with honors this spring. Leah Williamson, a senior and member of the F&M women’s swim team, commented: “There are students on academic probation who need these classes to count for their GPA and one of my goals is to graduate with honors. I would like the chance to raise my GPA, so I hope this doesn’t take that chance away from me.” 

But even if the P/NP system is not mandatory, Williamson ‘20, voiced her concerns with implementing any sort of P/NP: “For those who worked really hard at the beginning of the semester, a Pass/No Pass system basically disregards all of that. Now anyone can do almost nothing at home and still pass their class. We came to F&M knowing it was going to be academically challenging and, while we didn’t sign up to take online classes, it’s our reality” said Williamson. In effect, some students feel any P/NP system would impact the academic rigor of F&M classes. 

Students at institutions like Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania have all argued in favor of the Double-A system. These students argue that an elective P/NP option would disproportionately benefit middle-upper class students using the online-only semester as a boost to their GPA, while first-generation students would be forced into P/NP for risk of impacting their GPA negatively. In a petition widely circulating Harvard University, students argued “being able to complete coursework during a global pandemic is a statement of academic excellence in itself” and thus worthy of at least an A- grade. 

In response to the Double-A grading policy, Professor Medvic said: “If we’re going to give regular grades at all, I think the full range of grade options should be utilized.  The double A (A/A-) grading system would help a small group of students who might have earned an A or an A- but for the difficulties of studying at home. At the same time, it would reward all those students who chose not to put much effort into their classes and it would diminish the accomplishments of those who earned an A or an A-.”

Faculty and Professional Staff are having numerous conversations which address various perspectives and the student population as a whole. Dr. Alexis Q. Castor, Associate Professor of Classics and Department Chair, highlighted some key takeaways. “I know that faculty, students, and administrators care deeply about setting up a fair assessment that takes into account new, significant, and unpredictable variables in our learning environment. Our grading mechanisms  were not created for such disruptive scenarios, so the process of adapting it is complex. While we’ve tried to think about many potential effects of these grading policies, I hope that the decision will allow flexibility for individual circumstances that students and faculty experience over the course of the next several weeks,” commented Professor Castor. 

President Altmann confirmed that she had received all four proposals, including the petition, which are all being included in the conversation surrounding possible changes to the grading system. She mentioned the fact that “Faculty have been discussing at length the best and options” and that, “The Provost will take into consideration the input of both faculty and students.”

Altmann emphasized the fact that the College is committed to flexibility in the grading system during this challenging time and is definitely planning on instituting changes. “We want to make sure [the grading system] doesn’t penalize students,” said the President. Rather, the goal is to implement flexible options and possibilities so that students are able to learn effectively in light of COVID-19 and its effects. President Altmann highlighted that the College’s decision will be made following a “thorough investigation of what will best serve [F&M’s] students.”

There are many elements and facets of these policies to consider when making a final decision. “No matter what grading policy is established…alleviating fear, showing empathy and compassion, providing for autonomy, retaining a connected community, keeping rich intellectual and creative engagement moving forward even under these circumstances” is of paramount importance, voiced Professor Moore, “and I know my F&M colleagues and students will be at their best to do those things.” Petition:
Proposal from Diplomatic Congress:

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