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Courses taken with pass/fail grading will count toward any major or general education requirements. Credit: Jess Katz

Penn announced an optional pass/fail grading system for the spring semester as classes shift online amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The policy change comes after peer institutions launched similar plans, and a Penn student started a petition demanding that the University make all classes pass/fail. The petition now has since gained more than 3,500 signatures.

Provost Wendell Pritchett sent an email to Penn undergraduates on March 20 informing students that they may opt-in to pass/fail grading for any course until April 13 and count it toward any major or general education requirements. 

The new University-wide policy eliminates many restrictions that the four undergraduate schools have placed on pass/fail courses.

How this differs from Penn's traditional pass/fail policies

This semester, there are no limits on how many pass/fail courses a student from any undergraduate school may take, and courses taken pass/fail will be eligible to count toward a student's major or general education requirements.

But traditional pass/fail courses adhere to stricter guidelines from each undergraduate school.

The College of Arts and Sciences normally limits students to taking eight credit units pass/fail during their time at Penn. The School of Engineering and Applied Science and School of Nursing limit students to four credits while the Wharton School mandates a maximum of three credits while at Penn.

Any courses taken pass/fail during Spring 2020 will not count toward the total number of courses students may take pass/fail according to their School's policy, Pritchett wrote.

Traditionally, the Engineering School only allowed students to take courses that fulfill the Social Sciences and Humanities Breadth requirement or free electives pass/fail, while College and Nursing students could only take pass/fail courses outside of their major, minor, and general education requirements. Wharton students could only count pass/fail courses towards the required General Education Distribution, Non-Business Electives, or Unrestricted Electives categories.

How pass/fail courses count towards GPA

Pass/fail consideration toward GPA is standardized across the undergraduate schools.

If a student receives a D or above in a pass/fail course, they receive credit for the course and a "P" on their transcript, which is not included in the calculation of cumulative grades. If a student scores below a D in a pass/fail course, an "F" will be indicated on their transcript and 0.0 will be calculated into the GPA.

How to switch to pass/fail grading

Students can change their course grading policy in Penn InTouch. 

This semester, students will have until the end of the day on April 13 to change their courses to pass/fail grading, according to Pritchett's email. This extends the previous deadline, which was March 27. Typically, students have until the end of the ninth week of the semester or until just before the beginning of Advance Registration for the following semester's classes to change their course grading to pass/fail.

Instructors are not informed by the registrar which students have opted to take their course pass/fail. 

Other schools that have adopted pass/fail grading policies

Penn's announcement to make pass/fail grading optional and still count toward requirements comes after peer institutions implemented similar policies — and more schools have announced pass/fail grading options since.

Columbia University has implemented a mandatory pass/fail system, while other institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University announced optional pass/fail grading.

Students at some universities have mobilized to demand that their administrations implement expanded pass/fail policies.

At Yale University, a coalition of students is demanding that the University implement a "universal pass" grading system. But on March 20, Yale administrators announced that the University would implement a policy similar to Penn — an opt-in Credit/D/Fail system that will count toward academic requirements without counting toward to limit of Credit/D/Fail courses a student may take.

Last week, The Daily Princetonian published an editorial demanding that Princeton University administrators shift toward a mandatory P/D/F grading system.