Optional Pass-Fail at Lafayette College SP'20 due to COVID-19

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Today is a challenging time. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended not only our lives, but the lives of everyone around the world. 

For students, this means the (temporary) closing of our great college, disruption in our curriculum, and upheaval of our student life. These changes have affected students, faculty, and staff alike from higher education communities globally. We have been forced to move home and change our living situation. Some of us are still stuck at Lafayette and others are now under quarantine. Our lives have changed, and now we will be adjusting to a new online learning environment. This, while some of us face real, uncertain economic, social, familial, and living difficulties. This, while some of us are not able to reliably access the internet. This, while the world around is grinding to a halt. This petition is therefore for all of us students to motivate Lafayette College to offer relief from the pressure of grades and the permanent impact this semester could have on our GPAs.

Students should have the option for Spring 2020 classes at Lafayette College to be graded on a variant of the pass-fail system: pass-low pass-unsatisfactory. Doing so would join the ranks of Smith, Middlebury, Northwestern, CUNY, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT. Classes at Lafayette are usually graded on a letter scale (A, B, C, D, or F). Grading pass-low pass-unsatisfactory (P-LP-U) will benefit not only the students, but also the faculty. 

Students can focus on the learning experience while having to transition to a new environment that at times is not the most conducive for education.  Grades are a reflection of conditions around us - and being at home is less than ideal for many of us. Students do not have to stress about the grade they receive, rather focusing on the growth and opportunities to make mistakes and improve without an impact on a GPA. Students can put energy toward mental and physical health during this stressful time. Grading P-LP-U would be a huge relief for students, and help guarantee student wellness in this time of uncertainty. 

Grading P-LP-U will enable faculty to focus on the pedagogical experience without the pressures of grading. It is easier for faculty grade pass-fail in an online environment. Many classes do not translate well into an online environment, especially many of the classes at a small liberal-arts school that prides itself for small class sizes. Current grading schemes are not optimized for online learning. Faculty can focus on making the most of the new online environment, and help ensure student wellness. 

There are several counterarguments to switching to the traditional pass-fail system that we find are incorrect or that there is a quick fix to alleviate. First is the argument that some students need a grade to get into grad school, improve GPA, etc. By making this pass-fail optional for the students, students that wish to still receive a letter grade can do so. Second, there is the argument that pass-fail will ruin the student work ethic. Any fears of this can be alleviated by having a clause in syllabi stating that one must make at least an effort on all assignments to receive a passing grade. Third and finally, there is the situation where students earning a “D” grade will pass a class under letter grades, but “D” students would fail the class under a pass-fail system. Again, there is a quick fix by tweaking the pass-fail system. Students receiving the equivalent of a “D” grade will earn a “low-pass”, and students receiving above a “D” grade will receive a pass and still receive credit for the course. This will allow students to prioritize their coursework strategy to optimize success. 

Moving to a P-LP-U system is the right move for Lafayette College. These are challenging times for all of us, especially students. This is not an exemption from learning, but a mutual understanding that we have many conflicting pressures on our shoulders that demand our attention.

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