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Penn has not yet announced if grading policies will change.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

The coronavirus outbreak has upended academic life at schools across the globe — since online learning is uncharted territory for many students and professors, some institutions have adopted pass/fail grading options.

Some schools — such as Smith College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — are implementing grading systems that resemble pass/fail grading for all courses. Other schools — including Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University — are allowing students to opt-in to pass/fail grading.

Penn has not stated whether they are considering altering their existing grading policies. 

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding that pass/fail grading options count toward academic requirements at Penn. Currently, Penn students have until March 27 to change their courses to pass/fail grading. In the College, pass/fail grades do not count toward major, minor, sector, or foundational approach requirements. 

College junior and Student Committee on Undergraduate Education Chair Carson Eckhard said she does not think Penn will be making all courses graded pass/fail. She cited difficulties such as Nursing courses that may require on-site clinicals. She said she may support a transition to pass/fail grading if the University could find a logistically possible solution.  

“Honestly, pass/fail grading, if it is possible, is probably the greatest way to guarantee student wellness at a time when a lot of students' situations are really uncertain,” Eckhard said. 

At MIT, no letter grade will be given in any undergraduate or graduate course. Instead, students will receive a passing grade, an incomplete grade, or a no-record mark, which will not show up on a student's transcript. Each grade will be marked with an "E" — such as "PE" for a passing grade — to indicate that an emergency prevented students from receiving a traditional letter grade.

MIT Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser wrote in an email to MIT students on Sunday that this change was made after determining faculty could no longer guarantee accurate grades from online learning, as well as to alleviate the stress of students and professors. 

Danheiser also wrote MIT determined the change in grading would not have adverse effects for students who plan to apply for jobs or graduate schools. 

“The current global pandemic affects everyone and the unusual circumstances of this semester will certainly be taken into account in the future as professional schools and companies evaluate applications,” Danheiser said. 

MIT sophomore Neosha Narayanan said that she was relieved by this decision. She said she could not imagine being as productive at home with fewer resources and without study partners.

Although she recognized that some students on campus were disappointed that their cumulative GPA will not improve this semester, Narayan said she is glad that the change made was not an opt-in so that she would not feel pressured to take her courses for letter grades. 

At Smith College, administrators sent out a similar announcement on Thursday mandating that all courses shift to a satisfactory and unsatisfactory grading policy. Students can request to see their letter grades at any point in the semester, or for them to be eventually sent to graduate or professional programs, but no grades will be listed on transcripts or factored into cumulative GPAs. 

Satisfactory/unsatisfactory courses at Smith will count for majors and minors and will not be counted towards the cap on S/U courses to graduate. 

Smith College first-year Clara Stokes said although she is not worried about graduate school or professional programs, she has heard complaints about the grading system from students applying to medical school or to transfer to another school. But she said she recognizes that the administration is attempting to create a more equitable situation. 

“This is just such a weird situation and I don’t think the College fully knows what it is doing,” said Stokes. 

Other schools, including Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University, have made courses pass/fail on an opt-in basis for students.

Georgetown sophomore Mike Brodo said he plans to take his courses for letter grades because he plans to study abroad next year and wants more grades to count toward his GPA. He said, however, he does not mind pass/fail grading being an option for other students. 

“No one is really upset about it,” Brodo said. 

Similar to Penn, some students have organized online to change Yale University's grading system for the semester.

Yale students formed a Facebook group called No Fail Yale to advocate for a universal pass policy, in which students would receive credit for their courses and a "P" on their transcript. The group's Facebook page has accrued nearly 1,000 likes since its creation on March 16.

Yale first-year and No Fail Yale student leader Saket Malhotra said that they decided to reject letter grades because it gives students less impacted by the crisis an advantage professionally. 

“The choice creates a stigma against people who choose pass/fail, and that stigma will discriminate against students struggling the most,” Malhotra said.