Pass/fail was wrong in the spring, and it would also be wrong now

Note: A similar version of this blog post appeared in March. You can read it here.

The argument that percolated in the spring semester is starting to gain traction again: Coronavirus has disrupted the semester to such a significant degree that final grades should be awarded as pass/fail.


I accept the fall term has resembled a high wire act at many U.S. colleges and universities. An untold number of students have been quarantined because they or their roommates have contracted coronavirus. Many faculty have had to abandon typical face-to-face meetings, including teaching and office hours, and shifted to video meetings with their students. We couldn’t be blamed for being distracted by the worries over health conditions in our cities and counties, a unsettled feeling that was compounded by the intensity and stress of our political season.

We’re in the ninth month of a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down. With Joe Biden soon to occupy the White House and vaccines merely days from being rolled out, there’s hope the new calendar year will allow us to live at least a little more like normal. However, that potential for good news reflects how our world might be, not how it is.

Millions of people remain unemployed. More businesses might be forced to close in the coming weeks. We all face the grim reality of losing a loved one, friend or co-worker to coronavirus. Let’s not forget the millions of people who continue to behave as if nothing is wrong and therefore put themselves and those around them at risk. Sadly, idiotic behavior is one of the reasons we’re still where we are in the fight against coronavirus.

But even with all of that surrounding us, adults can’t ignore their obligations to family, friends and work.

For those of us in higher education, our students are like family. We teach them, mentor them, encourage them, advise them, and believe in them. And, yes, we give them grades, some of which they like, others of which they don’t, but always grades they have earned.

Reducing the grading protocol to “yeah, whatever” is not what real teachers do. And pass/fail is exactly that: “How did I do in your class?”

“Yeah, whatever. You passed.”

Grades are not a perfect indicator of how well or how much students learned. But they remain the agreed upon standard to legitimately evaluate students’ work. They cannot be dismissed as “yeah, whatever” because there is disruption to learning.

What message are we sending to students if we tell them that in times of upheaval they should be expected to say “yeah, whatever” and, to borrow a cliche, mail it in? The real world doesn’t act like that; higher education shouldn’t either.

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