Pass/Fail Grading Option at Rice University

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On March 12, Rice University students were hit with an abrupt shift in policy as the COVID-19 situation proceeded to change rapidly; the dean of undergraduates announced that all classes would be moved online, and that, with few exceptions, all students must move off campus by the end of the day on March 25. In light of this announcement, some domestic students had already left for their “Early Spring Break,” and they were now urged to not return to campus to gather their personal belongings, including school materials. Many international students have needed to remain on campus due to travel restrictions, awaiting news that they could safely travel to their home countries and worrying about their families back home. Additionally, students who face financial insecurities and have not stayed on campus have had to navigate the process of moving home to environments that might not be conducive to learning due to unreliable wireless connections, lack of academic support, and other hardships. Some of them are anxiously wondering about the state of their on-campus jobs and whether they’ll be able to financially support themselves without the money they earn at Rice. As Rice students, we are all concerned about our health, the wellbeing and health of our family and friends, jobs, research, graduation, and many other factors amidst this COVID-19 crisis, all of which impair our ability to learn.

We, as students, recognize how incredibly difficult a decision it was for administration and faculty to shift to all-online instruction, and we thank the University for placing our safety above all else. We also greatly appreciate the University’s action to provide housing for those who need it, to offer financial assistance to those moving out, and to aid those who experience technology insecurities so they can participate in online classes. We would like to stress the impact COVID-19 has thrust on students’ wellbeing at this time since we all are experiencing concern for health, potential food/financial insecurities, a rapid change in environment, lack of previous academic support resources, and immense anxiety. Given that COVID-19 has forced all classes to be conducted online, we believe that the appropriate course of action that the University should dually conduct is to enforce fitting changes in grading policy: one vital change that we request is to make all classes have the option of being pass/fail, and yet still count for respective major/minor/concentration requirements, with the addition of relevant notation on every student’s transcript that alludes to the global pandemic’s influence on grades in the spring semester of 2020.

On March 13, 2020, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that they would be transitioning to their alternate grading policy, which is a Pass/No Record policy. On March 15th, Northwestern University published its update for academics during finals season to make all final examinations optional, opting instead to give students their final grades based on their contributions in the year thus far, and that they can pursue to shift their grades from a “quality assessment” (a letter grade) to Pass/Fail in the spring quarter, with the consultation of their academic advisors. Northwestern also ensured that language on every student transcript points to the fact that “a global pandemic in winter and spring quarters 2020 required significant changes to coursework and led to unusual enrollment patterns and grades.” As of March 17, 2020, other peer institutions who have adopted similar policies include, but are not limited to: Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and Smith College. Several schools are currently considering this policy due to student activism.

Transitioning to pass/fail grading would help to drastically reduce student stress to counteract the additional anxieties caused by COVID-19. There exists many difficulties and barriers to online coursework during this abrupt, taxing period. For example, time zones remain a huge barrier--students who live in different areas of the world and country will be restricted in partaking in class and speaking to their professors during mutually-appropriate hours. Additionally, students now face financially difficult times, unreliable or limited access to the Internet, limited access to quiet study spaces, and the already overwhelmingly difficult transition to conducting classes online, attempting to learn without the structure and stability received from being on campus prior to the public health crisis. The unexpected, unavoidable home responsibilities and expectations will and already disturb students’ abilities to complete their classwork and studies to their best capabilities: jobs, taking care of family members, and helping with other household duties consist of a few roadblocks students must face. On another note, with the suspension of in-person activities, Rice’s stress-coping mechanisms that exist on campus remain less available to students. And academically, many students rely on in-person office hours and review sessions for in-depth learning. Students chose Rice for unique reasons, and those decisions all were influenced by Rice’s intimate in-person teaching methods. Hence, creating an opt-in pass/fail option will provide the much needed relief to students in this unexpected turn in the semester. 

In this vein, we would also like to propose the option to maintain letter grading OR pass/fail with pass/failing still counting towards all degree requirements. We recognize that some students need letter grades to be eligible for Medical School or Law School or otherwise, and they would not like to hinder their abilities to seek higher education. Therefore, as a solution, we ask that all published Spring 2020 final grades, be they pass/fail or letter, are denoted an Asterisk to indicate that the learning environment was disrupted due to COVID-19.

We hope that the University enacts this change to the benefit of the entire student community and allows students to pass/fail courses for credit without any penalty. We believe this is of benefit to students and faculty as we adapt in this uncertain time of global pandemic. 

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