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Some students appreciate the new optional pass/fail policy, while others believe those in less privileged environments will be disadvantaged.

Credit: Sharon Lee

After Provost Wendell Pritchett announced on Friday that students can opt in to pass/fail grading by April 13 for all courses this semester, students are divided on whether the policy does enough to support students during the coronavirus outbreak and transition to online learning.

The new policy allows students to count pass/fail courses toward general education and major requirements and eliminates traditional restrictions on how many courses students can take pass/fail. Some students praised the policy's flexibility but demand an extended deadline to choose pass/fail, while others claimed students in less privileged environments during the coronavirus pandemic will continue to be at a disadvantage.

College first-year Sarem Leghari said he supported Penn’s optional policy over a mandatory pass/fail policy like the one Massachusetts Institute of Technology has established. Leghari said that he appreciates being able to take classes for a grade to count toward his GPA, especially as professors have altered assignments in some of his classes to better accommodate students during the coronavirus outbreak. 

A passing grade is not factored into a student’s GPA, while a failing grade is averaged into the GPA as a grade of 0.00.

“Things have become much easier for me and for other friends that I know, but I understand that experience isn't universal,” Leghari said.

College senior Jackson Sauls said students who are not in environments conducive to learning are at a disadvantage, even with the opt-in policy. Sauls said students in more privileged environments can take courses for a grade and raise their GPAs. Students who face more obstacles during the coronavirus outbreak without a "good home environment," however, may not have the resources to perform at the same level as others, forcing them to take courses pass/fail with no contribution to their GPA or putting pressure on them to receive a grade to contribute to their GPA.

“It’s kind of sad that some students are trying to use this situation to gain that competitive advantage over others, but, I think, unfortunately with the pass fail opt in policy, some students are still able to do that,” Sauls said.

College junior Karthik Tadepalli said the ability to opt in to pass/fail grading is “a good start,” but he would prefer to see the University adopt a grading system like the “Double A” model that Harvard University students have called for, in which all students receive an A or A- for the semester. 

Tadepalli said he would not support the University moving to mandatory pass/fail grading, because he believes it would disadvantage Penn students applying for jobs and graduate schools against students from other schools who did take classes for grades.

“[Mandatory pass/fail grading] disadvantages all Penn students at the expense of other university students, and doesn't actually help the students who will be stigmatized by pass/fail,” Tadepalli said. “It just means all of us would be stigmatized.”

Wharton senior Jennifer Hu also said she would not support a mandatory pass/fail policy, because she likes the flexibility of the current policy. Hu said some students may not want to take classes pass/fail for many reasons, including the hopes of raising their GPA.

Turkish Studies professor Feride Hatiboglu said she supports the University's opt-in policy and hopes it will also prevent students from panicking about their courses and grades during the coronavirus outbreak.

“During this time, the most important thing is to try to take the stress out as much as possible from students,” Hatiboglu said.

Practice Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Thomas Cassel praised the optional pass/fail grading policy which he said relieves stress for students amid the coronavirus pandemic and also gives students doing well in the class the opportunity to receive a grade.

Cassel added that the policy will not change how he teaches Engineering Entrepreneurship EAS 545/546, and he does not anticipate a change in student performance. Professors do not know when students are taking a course pass/fail, Cassel said.

Students have until April 13 to decide to take any courses pass/fail. Cassel said leadership from the School of Engineering and Applied Science has instructed SEAS professors not to advise students on what their final letter grade might be before the deadline.

While some students think the deadline will give students enough time to see how online learning works for them before deciding whether to switch their grade type, others call on the University to extend the deadline.

Tadepalli and Hu said moving the deadline to the end of the semester would be more helpful to students, particularly for those who may not know their grades in some classes at this point in the semester or are in classes where final exams and papers are weighted heavily.

Sauls added he would prefer a later deadline to account for students who may face unanticipated difficulties later in the semester, including contracting COVID-19 or caring for family members who have the virus.

Hu said she hopes the University’s optional pass/fail policy for this semester will encourage students to prioritize their health, not their GPA.

“This is something that isn't necessarily as emphasized at our school, but health and safety does come first,” Hu said. “Without that, how are you supposed to keep up with coursework?”

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