Pass/Fail Grading at Robert Morris University

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On March 11, 2020, as a  response to the national spread of COVID-19, Robert Morris University (RMU) discontinued in-person classes, labs, assessments, and programs for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. As students, we understand that this is an unexpected and complex situation and we appreciate all of the care taken in making good decisions and transitioning into online coursework.

This sudden and dramatic transition to online coursework has contributed to students feeling overwhelmed and concerned about the possible academic consequences of suspending in-person RMU activities. We are reaching out to request that RMU change their grading policy to a pass/fail system 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. On March 16 and March 20, 2020, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) respectively, also implemented an updated grading system for the spring 2020 semester. The new system allows all students to elect to take any course on a pass/no pass basis. We request that RMU put a similar policy in place. We ask that RMU provide students the option to a) continue receiving letter grades for the semester or b) transition to emergency pass/fail grading that would count towards degree completion, unlike traditional pass/fail grading.

Transitioning to an optional pass/fail emergency grading system would help alleviate additional student stress in an already stressful national crisis. Many students’ families or hometowns are affected, meaning students may not be able to safely travel home. Additionally, with the suspension of in-person activities RMU’s stress-coping mechanisms such as Thrive, student organizations, and other campus programming are less available to students. COVID-19 is also having other negative impacts on students' lives and their ability to quickly adapt to a new learning forum. Some of these circumstances are: different time zones, financial struggles, limited access to internet and quiet study spaces, and unexpected family responsibilities (jobs, taking care of family members, etc.). Academically, many students rely on in-person office hours and review sessions for in-depth learning. Unfortunately, even with many wonderful professors and their best efforts, a hasty transition from in person classes to an online forum makes mistakes and miscommunications that have a negative impact on students more likely.

Lastly, we believe that shifting the grading policy to an optional pass/fail emergency structure would align with existing RMU grading policies. New online grading and instruction should not enhance or hinder students’ GPAs. Dr. Allison Stranger, a visiting professor at Harvard University, details in an article for the Chronicles of Higher Education, that pass/fail grading during this pandemic is in the best interest of both students and faculty. Although online instruction is unavoidable at this time, we can limit the negative impacts of this unexpected change by switching to a pass/fail grading policy. 

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 GPA (e.g. seniors needing to raise their GPAs to graduate). 

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