Wednesday, June 03, 2020

How to handle grades during the Pandemic

In March many Colleges sent students home and the rest of the semester was online. This was quite disruptive for the students. Schools, quite reasonably, wanted to make it less traumatic for students.

So what to do about grades? There are two issues. I state the options I have heard.

ISSUE ONE  If P/F How to Got About it?

1) Grade as usual.

2) Make all classes P/F.

PRO: Much less pressure on students.

CON: Might be demoralizing for the good students.

3) Make all classes P/F but allow students to opt for letter grades BUT they must decide before the last day of class. Hence teachers must post cutoffs before the final is graded

CON: Complicated and puts (a) teachers in an awkward position of having to post cutoffs before the final, and (b) puts students in an awkward position of having to predict how well they would do.

CON: A student can blow off a final knowing they will still get a D (passing) in the course.

PRO: Good students can still get their A's

CAVEAT: A transcript might look very strange. Say I was looking at a graduate school applicant and I see

Operating Systems: A

Theory of Computation: P

I would likely assume that the Theory course the student got a C. And that might be unfair.

3) Make all classes P/F but allow students to opt for letter grades AFTER seeing their letter grades. 

PRO: Less complicated an awkard

PRO: A students blah blah

CAVEAT above still applies.

ISSUE TWO If P/F what about a D in the major

At UMCP COMP SCI (and I expect other depts)

a D is a passing grade for the University


a D is not a passing grade for the Major.

So if a s CS Major gets a D in Discrete Math that does not count for the major--- they have to take it over again.

But if classes are P/F what do do about that.


1) Students have to take classes in their major for a letter grade.

CON: The whole point of the P/F is to relieve pressure on the students in these hard times.

PRO: None.

2) Students taking a course in their major who get a D will still get a P on the transcript but will be told that they have to take the class over again.

3) Do nothing, but tell the students

IF you got a D in a course in your major and you are taking a sequel, STUDY HARD OVER THE SUMMER!

4) Do nothing, but tell the teachers

Students in the Fall may have a weak background. Just teach the bare minimum of what they need for the major.

(Could do both 3 and 4)

SO- what is your school doing and how is it working?


  1. My school (St Michael's College, a SLAC in VT) took the approach that what happened last Spring was an emergency and tried to do as much for students as we could. After finals students could see their grades and elect to take a letter grade, a P, or a No Grade (they knew this perhaps a month before the end of the semester). I don't know what percentages took what option. I will say that in addition to thinking that people were under lots of stress -- such as fear of being sick or dying for themselves or their loved ones -- there were also lots of students in stretched circumstances, including working many hours in the anticipation that their parents would soon be without a job.

    I thought it worked reasonably, at least in the emergency no-one-asked-for-this environment. However, there was a significant number of students with weak skills in doing for themselves, such as in scheduling when to do assignments.

    We are still talking about the coming semester. For sure, we can't certify people as knowing things when we don't know how much they know but on the other hand plain compassion calls for flexibility. Personally, I could see some kind of modular approach, maybe where I break Discrete Math into five parts and someone could end the semester certified in a mastery-like way in three out of the five. But turning the entire curriculum around is no small task. And things that apply to Math or CS do not apply as well to Brit Lit. Tough one.

  2. At University of Washington our normal grading is on a 4.0 grade-point scale with every 0.1 possible except for the failing grades of 0.1-0.6. Anything 0.7 or above (D- equivalent) counts towards required graded credits.

    Some courses allow CR/NC grading which has to be decided on at the time of registration. I do this for undergraduate reading courses, for example. Any course can be taken CR/NC with permission.

    The other option that students can select during the term is Satisfactory/Not Satisfactory (S/NS). With this scheme, instructors give out regular grades on the 4.0 scale. Any grade of 2.0 converts to S, those below to NS. These count towards the total # of graded credits required for graduation, but don't impact GPA. The instructor has no idea that a student has done this. The student can choose this option up until the end of week 7 out of 10 of the quarter.

    The rub with the S/NS grades is that until now an S in such a course could not be used in the courses for the major requirements, even though a 2.0 in such a course would be enough.

    The faculty senate recently passed a change in the rule to allow the S/NS courses to count towards degree requirements in quarters where the university says it is OK for them to do so.

    A part that I like about the S/NS grades is this is at the student's discretion.

    I don't have an undergraduate class this quarter, but finished the last week of last quarter (plus exam week during which I had an extra comprehensive homework assignment instead of the exam) online. I assigned regular grades. I didn't think it was a big deal that the final exam got replaced by the final HW and was comfortable with handing out regular grades. Because it was a junior-level CS class, there wasn't the issue that some fields have about student access to technology.