Adopt Optional PE/NE/IE Grades at MIT

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On March 16, 2019, the MIT administration announced that Emergency Academic Regulations would be enforced in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic:

  • "In view of the global pandemic, its effect on our students, faculty, and all the members of our community who support our educational programs, and after extensive consultation and deliberation, it has been decided that the "Alternate Grades" (PE, NE, and IE) defined in Section 2.64 of Rules and Regulations of the Faculty must be used for all undergraduate and graduate full-term subjects this semester."

We are grateful to the administration’s consideration of the hardship that Covid-19 has imposed on both students and faculties, and fully support the decision to make changes to the grading policy in light of this unprecedented situation.  We also recognize that no one solution is perfect, and believe the most optimal solution should be one that accommodates most students’ diverse situations. However, the current decision to apply PE/NE/IE grading to all classes, while relieving some stress of many students due to the current situation, is causing undue stress to a significant number of students who believe this semester’s grade may play a meaningful role in their future academic and career plan. It will also inevitably create more disruption to the success of virtual classes for the rest of the semester. A large number of students have already voiced their dismay and the immense stress that this puts on their academic and career plans. 

In contrast, essentially all other prominent universities which have adjusted their grading policies for this semester are either allowing students to choose which classes to put on pass/fail, and/or giving professors the flexibility to decide the grading scheme for their classes. For example, Carnegie Mellon University announced today (March 17, 2020) that they would be implementing an optional pass/fail policy, in which students will receive letter grades at the end of the semester, but they can choose to change to pass/fail grading that still counts towards graduation. In contrast to MIT’s decision, CMU’s decision has been met with essentially unanimous support from students, and is similar to the original opt-in policy that MIT students petitioned for here. Other universities that currently have policies similar to CMU include Cornell, Yale, Harvard, University of Washington, Grinnell College, and it appears that providing flexibility will be the trend moving forward. We strongly request that the MIT administration change their emergency grading policy in response to student feedback. We propose an optional PE/NE/IE policy in which students receive letter grades at the end of the semester and can then choose to put classes on pass, no-record, or incomplete status that still counts towards graduation.

An optional PE/NE/IE grading policy would help counteract the additional stress caused by COVID-19 to students. Many students have been put in a difficult position as their families and hometowns have been affected. Students have lost access to many important resources, such as office hours, group study with other students, mental health services, tutoring services, and other forms of academic and emotional support from the university. As a result, they cannot perform the same academically as they would in an on-campus setting. An optional pass/no-record grading policy will accommodate these students by allowing them to complete courses that count towards completion of their degree, while taking away the stress of letter grades. As the MIT administration has pointed out, these unusual circumstances will be fully taken into account in the future as professional schools or companies evaluate applications. Students who are negatively impacted by the current situation should feel little pressure to refrain from converting their grades to PE/NE/IE, knowing that almost any application-reviewing committee would appreciate the unprecedentedly difficult situation and not view PE/NE/IE grades as a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, the option to keep letter grades would reduce significant stress for students whose letter grades this semester carry important weight for their future academic and career pursuits. For students who were hoping to improve their GPA this semester, that is no longer a possibility under mandatory PE/NE/IE. For students in one-year graduate programs, their GPA now only depends on one semester’s work. For students who are taking specific classes of great importance for a specific industry or academic area which they are pursuing in the future, they will no longer be able to have these grades displayed on any official MIT transcript. While the administration tries to assure students that “it is our very strong view that having alternate grades this semester will not negatively affect applications for jobs and admission to programs outside MIT”, students hardly feel assured. The reality is that employers cannot give students the benefit of the doubt over what grades they would have received, nor will students always have the convenient opportunity to point out “hidden grades” that they received during this time or receive a positive letter of recommendation to compensate (especially since online classes reduces face-to-face interaction and will make it more difficult for professors to write strong recommendations). MIT students will be more likely than not disadvantaged by the semester lost in grades compared to students from other universities of similar rigor which continue to give students the option of receiving letter grades. As a result, students whose grades this semester were especially important may feel compelled to reconsider their future plans, such as staying an extra semester to retake classes. This is extremely disruptive and undoubtedly adds tremendous anxiety on top of the stress that they are already going through due to the recent change to move students off-campus, which has caused significant disruption to many students’ plans for in-person academic research and activities. MIT should carefully consider these students’ well-being, and minimize further disruption and anxiety by continuing to issue letter grades to those who wish to receive them.

Finally, we recognize that online classes are not ideal for professors, and that they are going through a difficult time as well. An optional PE/NE/IE policy would help mitigate significant disruption to the usual quality of work and effort that professors will see from students. Adjusting to online courses and modified syllabi has already been challenging enough, and instituting mandatory PE/NE/IE will only make the situation more chaotic as professors are almost guaranteed to see a massive drop-off in the quality of work and classroom participation from students. The original intent of alternate grades is that the usual distinction between A/B/C-level work will be difficult to determine, but the distinction between PE/NE grades will be just as arbitrary – if not more – when the entire performance of the class is dramatically shifted down. We understand that professors will need to make some significant adjustments, but we are kindly asking that professors do their best to create take-home exams and problem sets that can distinguish student performance enough to assign grades. Academic grades have never been a static designation to begin with; no semester is ever the same as another, and grades have always been affected by the relative performance of a certain group, or the difficulty of a specific exam. If a specific class has significant in-person components that can’t be replicated over virtual classes, then the professor may request to designate that class as mandatory PE/NE/IE. Overall, by keeping letter grades for the duration of the semester, professors will be able to maintain usual distributions of class performance as much as possible, and ensure a smoother experience for everyone. 

To conclude, we recognize that MIT students come from diverse academic and personal backgrounds, and that each student is dealing with their own unique challenges as a result of the COVID-19 virus. The current PE/NE/IE necessarily relieves stress for many students, but also fails to recognize the valid struggles of other groups of students and adds to the mounting stress caused by existing disruptions to student life, such as on-campus research and activities. It is impossible for MIT to address each individual’s story, nor is MIT in the position to make a statement on how seriously the mandatory PE/NE/IE will affect each student’s academic and career paths. Therefore, an optional pass/no-record/incomplete grading policy is the most optimal policy for relieving stress and mitigating disruption for the greatest number of students, while maintaining normal class performance as closely as possible for professors.

We respectfully ask that MIT reconsider its current emergency grading policy and switch to a more balanced and thoughtful policy, i.e. an optional PE/NE/IE before the end of spring break, in order to accommodate students’ diverse situations and address the concerns of a growing number of students. We thank the administration for their patience and continued effort in guiding students during these challenging times.