A Review of grade policy changes for the Spring Term


Akriti Dhasmana, co-Editor-in-Chief

Following the move to online teaching for the Spring 2020 term, changes have been made to the pass/fail policy to accommodate the needs of students adapting to a new learning environment.

The first reform took place on March 20 when in an email addressing FAQs about the academic affairs for Spring Term, the Dean of Studies announced changes to the course registration policy that made it possible for students to take up to two pass/fail classes. This was a change from the standard registration policy which states that students “may register for no more than one pass/fail course per academic term.” Furthermore, the deadline to declare a course as pass/fail was extended to May 22 (which is the 8th week of Spring term as opposed to the usual deadline of the third week of a term). However, the courses required for the major, a minor, the Common Curriculum (General Education), an Independent Study or Writing Across the Curriculum could still not be taken as “pass/fail.” According to the email, this decision was based on the discussion with the Academic Affairs Council (AAC). The AAC is composed of faculty, administrators, and three student members, Dean Angrist told the Concordiensis via email.

Following these updates, in an email dated April 15, the policy was further reformed so that any/all of the courses of any designation taken by Union students for Spring Term 2020 could be declared pass/fail. The deadline to declare a pass/fail was also extended to June 11, which is during the finals week of the term. This came after “members of the campus community raised a number of concerns, leading us [AAC] to consider broadening the pass/fail course option further,” according to the email.

 Trisha Agrawal ’23 was among the students who reached out to the Dean’s office. With her permission, the Concordiensis is publishing the email sent by her, which is as follows:

Dear Ma’am,

Hope you are safe and well. I am currently a first-year international student from India and I am writing this email regarding my online classes. I understand that the current situation is changing rapidly and out of anyone’s control, however, the online classes are impacting my ability to learn and in turn will impact my grades. Due to the 9.5 hour time difference, my classes happen at odd times and one goes on till 1 am. While the faculty are accommodating, it still hampers me from learning as effectively. Additionally, the wifi connection is not so strong, and so the Zoom call is repeatedly interrupted, which in turn interrupts my learning.

In light of these issues I am facing, I would request you to form a grading plan that takes there various additional factors into consideration and evens out the playing field. While the pass-fail criteria has been eased, it does not apply to any of the classes I am taking as they are towards my major and common curriculum, not helping me in any way. Therefore, further modifying the pass-fail criteria or having a system where all the grades are curved or factor in variables that would impact our learning would really help us in this situation. On speaking to more international students, most of us think that such a step, which effectively adjusts for other factors that are impacting our ability to learn would help make this situation more ideal. Thank you so much for taking out the time and reading my email, I hope appropriate is taken to better the current situation. 


Trisha Agrawal

In response to this email, Agrawal was told that her feedback will be taken into account as possible revisions were considered by the AAC. “The impetus for considering a revised pass-fail policy came both from an awareness of how other institutions were proceeding, as well as from an appreciation of the kinds of dynamics that could affect students’ academic performance this spring,” Dean Michele Angrist told the Concordiensis. 

According to her, the Academic Affairs Council considered the policy in two separate meetings where it compared data on the grading policies of other quarter and trimester schools and “had input from faculty and from department chairs, as well as from administrators, students, parents, and alums.” Along with the access to adequate technology and reliable wifi, the AAC also considered the impact of the move to remote instruction on learning in class, according to Dean Angrist. They “also took into account that the possibility exists this term, much more so than most, that members of our community would become ill or be called on to take care of ill family members,” she said. 

Colleges across the United States are opting to switch to a pass-fail system, U.S. News reported. Some schools have made pass-fail default for the undergraduates, like University of California, Berkeley where “passed-not passed” is now the default system unless the students choose to switch to a letter grade, the US News reported. Similarly, Harvard University has implemented a mandatory Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory (SEM/UEM) policy, the Harvard Gazette reported. Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth have also adopted a default pass-fail policy. Others like Union, have made the pass-fail optional for students. Other colleges following this system include Brown, Cornell and Princeton University. New York University has also declared most of its courses pass-fail optional for students reserving some language/seminar and travel courses which will be graded. Tufts University and Drexel University have adopted similar policies according to their respective school websites.

“It is not easy for me to predict how this changed policy will impact the academic landscape … It is my hope that the policy can ease students’ worries about grades, and maximize the focus (as much as is possible) on learning,” Dean Angrist said.