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Photo of Sondheim Hall, taken from The Retriever’s archives.

Pass/fail grading has disappeared since the 2020 spring semester. It’s time we revisit it for 2021.

In these past few weeks, students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, like college students everywhere across the U.S., have had to tackle midterm season from behind a computer screen. While this new online environment has invariably posed challenges for many, in an effort to mitigate these issues in the future, UMBC recently issued a brief survey to receive student feedback about online courses. 

This survey provided the opportunity for students to give tangible feedback to UMBC administration about the progress of their online education for the Fall 2020 semester and actually feel heard. And while I can appreciate the university’s effort, the survey failed to include one crucial way UMBC can best support its students during these arduous times: the option for pass/fail grading. 

Everyone is aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has not vanished. In fact, it’s just the opposite as daily cases in the U.S. reach their highest numbers yet. Simultaneously, focus on improving the online college experience has seemed to dwindle. More often, pressure has been placed on teachers and students to make the most out of their digital platforms, and less on the larger university institutions to implement policies that will make online learning easier. 

When the first wave of COVID-19 struck across the U.S., one of the largest conversations that swept the media was whether universities would implement the pass/fail grading system for their Spring 2020 online courses. As a result of the massive press coverage and student action, some universities, like Yale and Columbia, switched over entirely to this grading policy. Others, like the University of Vermont, Colby College and UMBC itself, gave students the option between graded or pass/fail courses. 

Since the start of the Fall 2020 semester, the question of whether to implement pass/fail policies has been largely nonexistent, but it’s a question that needs to be revisited by UMBC and all U.S. universities. 

Data collected from students planning to be enrolled at 4-year universities in 2020 showed that around 63 percent felt that their previous experiences with online learning revealed it to be worse than in-person instruction and that around 67 percent believed “their opinion of their current institution has worsened due to the level of communication about the pandemic.”

These statistics show that the majority of current college students are struggling to navigate their online courses while feeling disconnected from and unsupported by their universities. It’s no secret that college students this semester have been extra worried about their academics, and even beyond this, economic and political stressors related to the pandemic have played a huge role in negatively impacting students’ well-being.

This is certainly the experience I’ve had as a freshman at UMBC. In my online classes, navigating the BlackBoard platform and reaching out for assistance and advising has been a daily struggle. As spring class registration approaches, I’ve had to find and contact my advisors almost entirely on my own. Furthermore, as the fall semester ends, ensuring I maintain my GPA for my academic scholarships has made me increasingly anxious, especially since I can’t see my grades in some classes and don’t receive consistent notifications for assignment deadlines. 

I can only imagine how much harder it would be to succeed on this digital campus if I wasn’t part of the Humanities Scholars Program and Honors College, where I have access to more resources and assistance. 

But I’m not alone. When asked about her online schooling experience, freshman Lauren LaPlaca,  who’s double majoring in French and global studies, agreed with my sentiment. Due to the inconsistency of flexibility and support her professors provide her, she stated that “some give me lots of leverage and others don’t, but I can say I don’t feel like I have enough … . It’s definitely been a source of stress … .”

However, this problem extends beyond the freshmen class. When interviewed about her workload this semester, sophomore Lexi Smith, who’s currently double majoring in economics and history and minoring in public history, said, “It feels pretty much the same as my previous class experiences… the expectation now is that we should just be used to it [COVID-19] so I don’t have any classes with particularly flexible late policies and I find myself really worried about getting my assignments in … .”

The introduction of a pass/fail grading system for the 2021 spring semester would not only considerably ease the academic-related stress students face, but would furthermore represent UMBC’s solidarity with its student body during this global health crisis. 

A pass/fail system would encourage teachers and staff to treat assignments and grading with the leniency it currently requires. Students cannot be expected to perform at levels they previously did, especially since “closures mean that they can’t access libraries, tutoring and support services like they did before.” 

If universities are worried that students who need to have a GPA won’t be able to thrive under an entirely pass/fail system, the solution is simple: give students the option to decide whether they want to be graded normally or participate in pass/fail. 

For students all across the U.S., the passing of midterms and upcoming finals has placed a strain on their well-being and mental health. Until the COVID-19 pandemic can be solved and campus classes and resources can return to normal, making sure students feel supported by their university and eliminating excessive academic stress is crucial.