Today’s educational landscape has experienced a unique and unprecedented shift. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdown has resulted in a nearly global transition from in-person to online education. At the University of Maryland, this transition has brought with it other unexpected changes. One of these was the adoption of the Pass-Fail system option. All students were able to choose this grading system up until the last day of classes, which would generally provide them a Pass in the class as long as they scored above a D-. The pass would be the only thing visible on the transcript, not the letter grade, regardless of what it might be. This was, in my opinion, a sensible policy and a good choice for many students struggling to adjust to the post-COVID world. It also offered some students a level of freedom in their studies which had not been possible until now. No longer would 3% separate a student from + or -. No longer would one or two assignments hold the power to completely change the letter grade; there was no letter grade. Just a flat Pass or Fail. As long as a student could reach the 60% threshold, the Pass was theirs. I would theorize that this opened up opportunities for some students to work no longer for a certain letter grade, but just enough to get by with the Pass. If a 60% and a 90% could be the same thing, would students now be asking themselves why they would waste their time working for the 90?
Why should they? This was the question of the hour. Why would a student spend the time to learn 90% of the content instead of 60? Well, to learn of course. In the middle of this pandemic and amid unforeseen policy changes, an interesting experiment was playing out behind the scenes. Here was an opportunity to separate academic progress from some of the distractions of the modern grading system. To put in the effort to learn the content independent of whether or not(to a certain extent) it was going to affect their grades. I wonder what we would see if we could have taken a peek behind the curtain. To see the breakdown of how students spent their academic time would tell us a lot. Was time spent generally in line with previous semesters or did students pursue topics of personal interest further, even at the cost of other topics? Additionally, how did students end up actually performing on tests even if they elected for the Pass/Fail option? Did they really require the external motivator of a letter grade? Perhaps students who generally performed well would continue to do so regardless, or perhaps certain students freed from the anxiety of the letter grade would begin to excel in this new system. This was an unprecedented opportunity to see how a large population altered their behavior in the face of a considerable environmental change.
This is not the first time that a University has eschewed the modern grading system in favor of an alternative. In fact, the conceptualization of the modern letter grade system in Universities may have origins in as recent a time as the late 19th century, and similar systems such as averaging student scores may have originated only somewhat earlier. And even today there are schools that follow less rigid grading systems. Some even go as far as to abstain from recording a pass or a fail. However, these systems and the like have largely been restricted to a handful of universities and programs, and students with aspirations of graduate or professional schools have historically avoided these options as they could hinder their chances. Thus, this past year was unlike any other in recent history. An untold number of universities ranging from local community colleges to globally renowned Ivy League universities provided the pass-fail option to all students for all classes they may have been taking. Some schools even took the drastic step of forcefully changing all students grading to pass-fail for the Spring 2020 semester. The issue has been introduced into the national dialogue and I suspect it is only the beginning.
Out of chaos comes creation, and we may see the seeds being planted for the growth of a new model of education. Distance learning Pass/Fail models could become more commonplace as technology aids accessibility and the lasting power of the COVID crisis leads to cultural changes in what we view as acceptable models of higher education. It is yet to be seen whether these models can be developed in a way that will be more or less effective. What is for certain is that education is in for a shake-up. The steps we take next will lay the groundwork for future educators and students; let’s choose carefully.