Campus News

As students begin online courses, UW-Madison announces special pass/fail grading option for spring semester

The Office of the Provost announced a special Pass/Fail grading option for students during the Spring 2020 semester due to the impact of COVID-19.

The Office of the Provost announced a special Pass/Fail grading option for students during the Spring 2020 semester due to the impact of COVID-19.

Image By: Will Cioci

UW-Madison has a longstanding and prominent reputation of protesting and political activism on campus, so much so that The Daily Cardinal was planning to devote an entire issue of our print paper to the topic before going remote. 

Last Wednesday, Chancellor Rebecca Blank informed faculty and students UW-Madison would be online for the rest of the spring semester in effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s one change on a list of growing restrictions — for the university, the city and the country as a whole. 

Yet, in the absence of physical protest, student activism has not ceased. Several petitions on change.org have circulated throughout the student body, calling for various changes surrounding the novel coronavirus. 

One petition has received a significant amount of traction among the students — garnering nearly 6,000 signatures — calling for the university to change its grading system for the semester to pass/fail instead of receiving the standard letter grade.

“Many students do not have the ability to learn online and this is why we are petitioning for UW to change this semester’s grading system to a Pass/Fail system,” said Sydney Stark, who created the petition. “During this time, students have to focus on their health and an online learning environment only adds an extra amount of stress that is unfair to students.”

And on Thursday, the university complied. Provost Karl Scholz announced in an email a special Pass/Fail (P/F) grading option for students during the Spring 2020 semester.

“UW-Madison is in an unprecedented situation, faced with decisions that we have not navigated before,” Scholz said. “Recognizing that our lives have been significantly impacted by COVID-19, our grading and credit policies must adapt.” 

Students can elect a special P/F grade for a qualified course until May 22, eight days after the final grade deadline. Under this new policy, students will receive a grade for any class they take — like all previous semesters — but will also have the option to replace that grade with an alternative COVID-19 P/F grade for classes that allow.

It will extend to most courses — undergraduate and graduate — but there will be exceptions, such as when strict program degree requirements are in place or when accreditor rules prohibit it.

Though the approach is similar to those taken by several of UW-Madison’s peer institutions — such as Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and others are likely to follow suit, Scholz said enacting these changes to the grading system is complex.

Phyllis Treige, the assistant director of the Center for Digital Accessibility & User Experience, knew the transition to online courses would be “bumpy.” It's her job to design experiences accessible to students and faculty — and there’s even more of a need for that work now.

She's a member of the university's emergency operations group and has helped create student-focused content to help the transition.

“It feels experimental — and we didn’t have a choice about doing this experiment,” Treige said. “Everyone is trying to figure out what this new world is going to be like.” 

Her biggest concern is that online instruction will feel disruptive. And while she knows all the challenges ahead are surmountable — and has been impressed with the university’s handling of the pandemic — it’s still new.

“That's really stressful for students and instructors,” she added. “I don't think any of us need more stress.” 

Part of that concern is the rapid pace of transition. Treige added it feels like everyone is “going to learn a lot really fast.”

And she’s right — university staff and faculty adapted nearly 9,000 sections and courses to an alternative format in a 12-day period, allowing for the completion of Spring 2020 semester.

Advisors and those providing other support services have made “Herculean efforts” to bring their services fully online, Scholz said. Labs and other practicum courses have had to radically shift their approach in a short amount of time.

However, Henry Schlessinger, a senior at UW-Madison studying horticulture, signed the petition for that very reason. Three of his classes had labs, visiting farms and other sites to do hands-on work — work he can no longer do.

“I feel sort of cheated because those are essential skills employers want me to know, but now I’m not going to have [that] understanding when I go into the field,” Schlessinger said. “I think it's unfair to some students to require online courses, and require a grade, when there will be a real lack of physical understanding of the topic.”

Even so, Treige sees a silver lining. For once, almost everyone — not just on campus, but in the world — is going through the same thing. 

“This is kind of a true moment toward a global experience,” Treige said. “This is a chance to revisit ideas we have about what learning and instruction are like and what feels 'normal.'"

This can be a good thing, but it’s a fine line, according to Treige. She also emphasized the importance of recognizing individual circumstances. 

“A mantra we’ve been using internally is to be patient, to be understanding, to treat each other with as much grace at this time. And that's really hard when you're concerned about the outcomes of learning,” she added. “Right now, it’s okay to do less and, if possible, to try to set aside the parts that might not be as important right now. You can pick those up again in a week or two.”

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