Pass/Fail grading at Carnegie Mellon

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On March 12, 2020, faced with the national spread of COVID-19, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) decided not to return to in-person classes, labs, assessments, or programs for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. As students, we understand how difficult the decision was to make and we appreciate all of the care taken in making the decision and transitioning into online coursework.

This large and sudden change has left students feeling concerned about the emotional and academic consequences of suspending in-person CMU activities. We are reaching out to request that CMU change their grading policy to help alleviate these concerns. 

On March 13, 2020, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that they would be transitioning to their alternate grading policy, which is a structure of pass/fail grading in the event of significant disruption outlined in Article 2.64 of their rules and regulations manual. As a university of similar rigor to MIT, we request that CMU put a similar policy in place. We ask that CMU provide students the option to a) continue receiving letter grades for the semester or b) transition to emergency pass/fail grading that would still count towards degree completion, unlike traditional pass/fail grading.

Transitioning to optional pass/fail emergency grading would help reduce student stress to counteract the additional stress caused by COVID-19. Many students’ families or hometowns are affected, meaning students may not be able to safely travel home . This applies to all students, but more specifically the ~20% of the student body that is  international, ~15% of the student body from California, and ~11% of the student body from New York. Additionally, with the suspension of in-person activities CMU’s stress-coping mechanisms like CaPs, student organizations, and other campus programming are less available to students. There are many personal difficulties that people may have to deal with: time zones, financially difficult times, access to Internet, access to quiet study spaces, and unexpected home responsibilities (jobs, taking care of family members). Academically, many students rely on in-person office hours and review sessions for in-depth learning. Additionally, as professors transition their classes to online, mistakes and miscommunications are likely to occur that may be difficult for students.

Lastly, we believe that shifting the grading policy to an optional pass/fail emergency structure would align with existing CMU grading policies. New online grading and instruction should not improve or hurt students’ QPAs. SCS’s transfer guidelines recognizes that online classes are less than ideal. While online class this semester is unavoidable, we can attempt to counteract the academic downfalls of online classes by changing grading to pass/fail. Additionally, transfer courses from outside institutions that have not been approved appear as TR on CMU transcripts, as outlined on The Hub. We conjecture that the reason for this policy is that transfer courses might not necessarily align with CMU’s teaching standards and thus have been assigned a system of alternate grading. With the volatility of moving online and changing due dates, assignments, and exams, the online classes will not be as aligned to CMU’s teaching standards as in-person classes and therefore should be graded differently.

We believe that emergency pass/fail grading should be purely optional, as some students would like to retain letter grades on their transcripts for future education (e.g. medical school) or to raise their QPA (e.g. seniors needing to raise their QPAs to graduate). 

As we all do our best to carry on with our studies while managing factors outside of our control, we’d like CMU to consider amending the spring 2020 grading policy to accommodate student needs.

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