Last spring, after weeks of contentious campuswide debate, Yale College implemented universal pass/fail, a sweeping grading policy that replaced letter grades with a “pass” or “fail” indication on students’ transcripts. Even though classes are still meeting virtually this year as the pandemic rages on, the College has reverted back to a standard grading system.
But debate over universal pass, or UP, as reading week and final exams approach have been far more muted than the discussions that ranged last March and April over specially convened discussion forums, student and faculty surveys and social media posts. Both students and faculty interviewed by the News expressed mixed reactions to this term’s grading system. All, however, noted that the standard grading system is only successful when professors are accommodating to the needs of students in a time of both political and pandemic-related stress.
“I have found students to be performing and participating at the very high level that I would expect of Yalies (the pace of my course and the rigor of the diagnostic exercises has not changed from a ‘normal’ term, for example), and their resilience is a real source of encouragement,” wrote Andrew Johnston, director of undergraduate studies for the Yale Department of Classics, in an email to the News.
Ordinarily, for up to four courses throughout their entire career at Yale College, students can convert their letter grade to a Credit/D/Fail option while still counting that course toward their bachelor’s degree. According to the standard policy, a student’s grade of C-minus or above will appear as “CR” on their transcript, while Grades of D-plus, D, D-minus or F will appear as reported by the instructor.
Usually, students have until the middle of the term to activate their Credit/D/Fail option for a course. This year, however, students can select the Credit/D/Fail option up until the final day of classes — which Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College, said “gives students tremendous flexibility and a lot of time to think about if classes are going the way they want.”
Chun observed that first years frequently choose not to use the Credit/D/Fail option in order to “hoard them for a rainy day.” In response, the College is giving first years two additional Credit/D/Fail opportunities that will expire if unused during their first two semesters of enrollment.
Johnston noted that, beyond the more flexible grading options that Chun described, faculty and students alike had months to prepare for remote learning and teaching this semester, which was not the case last spring.
In an email to the News, Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, pointed to various committees and task forces that helped prepare for the return to classes this fall involving students, faculty and staff. For example, the Yale Faculty of Arts and Science committee created a document of principles and expectations for both students and instructors for the upcoming academic year, such as practicing patience, compassion, equity and transparency.
Gendler added that the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning held workshops over the summer for hundreds of faculty on teaching remotely, group work, technological assistance and more.
Carlos Brown ’23, one of the students organizers for the #NoFailYale student coalition that advocated for universal pass grading last semester, acknowledged that UP was a “unique solution to that moment” — when professors and students were ill-prepared to online classes and students had few options to request for on-campus accommodations.
UP gained student and faculty support when it was first introduced last spring. In a Yale College Council poll released in April, 68 percent of student respondents expressed support for the policy. 55 percent of faculty members expressed support in a similar survey.
However, Brown noted that this semester differs from the previous one because students and faculty have had time to prepare for remote coursework.
Still, Brown added that performing well in school remains complicated by “political uncertainty and the conditions of the pandemic,” and that professors should be more “empathetic” and “flexible” as a result.
Carlos Eire, professor of history and of religious studies, told the News that all of the faculty members he knows are “willing to bend over backwards to cut everybody a break.” He added that, because of this, universal pass does not seem necessary this semester.
But not everyone agrees.
Timothy Kreiner, lecturer in English, told the News that the ongoing pandemic and racial turmoil affects students unevenly, deeming it “laughable” to expect students to worry about their GPA or for faculty members to assume a level educational playing field.
Nolan Arkansas ’23 added, “We’re doing our best to physically survive a pandemic and cope with ungodly amounts of racial injustice, but all anyone expects of us is that we continue to produce work.”
He also called on Yale College to “abolish grades entirely” if they wanted “what is best for students’ health.”
“Is Yale upholding the grading system now because they know their students are too unwell to fight it again?” Arkansas wrote.
While other colleges around the country have implemented flexible grading policies for the fall semester, the News was not able to identify any that have implemented universal pass/fail.
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