Published: Oct. 20, 2020

As we mark the midpoint in the fall semester, I’m writing to provide an update on the pass/fail option. Pass/fail is an alternative in which a student may decline receiving a letter grade in a course.

Russell MooreLast spring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the campus moved to remote instruction for the last five weeks of the semester with almost no notice to students or faculty. To accommodate the academic disruption the pandemic caused—and with the overwhelming support of the faculty—I expanded the pass/fail option to allow a class with a "pass" grade to fulfill almost all degree and major requirements. Students were also given until the last day of classes to declare a class pass/fail. This deadline was subsequently further extended to the end of the grade-submission period.

This fall, I permanently extended the deadline to declare a class pass/fail from the end of the third week of the semester to the end of the 10th week—this semester, that date is Oct. 30 (prorated for shorter-term classes). Other than this significant extension of the deadline, we have returned to pre-COVID-19 guidelines and limits on pass/fail credit.

I have heard and considered at length the requests from our students to replicate last spring’s expansion of pass/fail options. After much consideration about the long-term implications to your academic and professional careers, I believe that continuing to expand pass/fail options would not be the most productive solution. At the same time, I have urged our faculty to take other steps to decrease stress on our students this semester. Let me explain.

My decision was made with input from deans and faculty who are in charge of the grading system. In our discussions, our faculty shared the following concerns:

  • Given the uncertainty of COVID-19, if we were to continue to expand pass/fail options in the “COVID-19 semesters” of fall 2020 and spring 2021, similar to last spring, students could have as many as three semesters with few or no letter grades recorded. This could do considerable harm to students’ transcripts and future plans.
  • Reports from many students from spring 2020 indicated that they lost their motivation to learn once they knew they had the option to take just about any class pass/fail.

While I am convinced that replicating spring 2020’s expansion of pass/fail options is not the best choice for this fall semester, I do urge all of our instructors to show compassion for the stress our students are feeling as a result of this year’s less than optimal teaching and learning conditions.

For all who are teaching this semester:

  • Please understand that many of our students are finding remote and online learning more difficult than traditional in-person learning. Build as much contact with students as possible into your remote and online courses.
  • Remember that our students may be dealing with changes in their living situations, difficulty in internet access, or the needs of their own or their family’s mental and physical health. Please be generous and compassionate about student requests for extending deadlines or taking make-up exams.
  • Reach out to students who are struggling and respond promptly to students who seek your help. If you supervise teaching assistants, please mentor them in how to help students.
  • Examine your syllabus and make adjustments if you have assigned more work than is typical for the course (homework, discussion posts, problem sets, etc.). Students are reporting to us that remote and online classes this semester are more assignment-heavy than the equivalent in-person courses.
  • Make sure you return graded work promptly so your students are up to date about how well they’re doing in your courses.
  • If your pedagogy seems not to be reaching your students in the way you’d like, seek guidance from the Center for Teaching and Learning. For the use of teaching technology, the Office of Information Technology has provided a variety of instructor trainings and workshops.

In turn, I urge our students to reach out to instructors and TAs for help. What we learned from spring 2020 is that taking a class pass/fail isn’t the best solution for doing better. More dialogue between students and faculty is the solution. For students who are having trouble expressing your needs to your instructors: please talk to your academic advisors or department chairs, who are more than willing to help convey any issues you are facing to our faculty.

Students, you have earned your spots at a top-notch public research institution. Our faculty and staff are committed to ensuring your academic success. We are only halfway through the semester, and there is plenty of time for us to come together in our efforts. Together, I know we can make this semester a positive teaching and learning experience for all.

Russell Moore
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs