When schools decided, essentially overnight, to close up their physical shop and move online, it created something of a panic. Few knew how to make this happen at all, and almost no one was prepared to do it. Profs struggled to find their zoom-legs while teaching a course online, and students struggled to figure out how they were going to do it. It wasn’t optimum for anyone, but the alternative was to shut down completely for a semester, which raises many other troubling issues, and so they made the best of bad circumstances.
We’re now scrambling to transition everyone to remote learning on short notice, addressing each obstacle that arises as a problem to be fixed. Yes, taken individually, each student who doesn’t have a laptop or WiFi access off campus, who didn’t bring their textbooks home when they left for spring break, or whose survival depends on a paycheck now lost can be helped. Online learning and conferencing tools may groan under heavy usage, but we can hope they won’t break. We can also hope faculty and staff won’t break under the huge additional workload entailed in moving courses online that weren’t designed to be taught that way: a translation that poses particular challenges for science labs and practical classes in everything from physical therapy and nursing skills to dance and music performance.
That there are problems with it is neither surprising nor a problem. You play the cards you’re dealt, for better or worse. But then came the secondary question, after both profs and students struggled with whether this impromptu online gig was going to work at all.
But the cumulative stress on the system is too great, and the inequities in the ways this will all play out for different students means that grading as we know it is already over for the semester. It’s time to abandon our preconceived ideas about what needs to happen in a college class for a student to get credit for it.
Instead, colleges and universities should adopt three central principles to ease stress on students, who are reeling like everybody else: Strip down work expectations to the bare minimum; introduce mandatory pass-fail at the very least (opt-in pass-fail would just put undue pressure on our most driven students, many of whom already suffer from chronic anxiety and depression) . . .
Changing from grades to pass/fail seems like an obvious, if unfortunate for the gunners who are outraged over not getting the chance to ace the course, change. These aren’t the classes anyone signed up for, profs included. Nobody knows how well it will work or what will be lost in translation. To hold tight to the usual nuance of grades under unusual circumstances makes no sense when there is no assurance that the classes are doing what they were supposed to do.
But give every student an A?
. . . and consider giving enrolled students A grades as a default; and work to wrap classes up as quickly as possible in most cases, so students can turn their full attention to other pressing matters.
If students are unable to continue in their classes because of “other pressing matters,” then give them the option to bail on the semester, with tuition refunded of course, and retake the class in better times. But taking classes is what students do, why they’re there in the first place, and if they can’t give it sufficient attention to learn whatever it is they’re there to learn, then they don’t deserve a freebie A but the boot.
Education isn’t just about mastering material and improving skills. Education is about ethics. It’s about learning how to be a better member of a community, whatever that community is (a classroom or a college, but also a family, a workplace, a civic polity). It’s about understanding how to balance the drive toward intellectual development and mastery of new concepts and material with self-care and the sane management of responsibilities to the broader community.
It’s going to prove hard enough to manage to teach and to learn in the current online environment, but that’s what they go to college to do, and what the college and its professors owe them in return for their tuition and attention. Fudging the line by the rhetorical trick of saying it’s not “just about” mastery doesn’t change the fact that students didn’t take calculus to learn about “self-care,” but calculus.
There is no shortage of excuses during the best of times for why students struggle. Life has struggles. And in difficult times, struggles continue and are exacerbated by the situation. That’s why pass/fail makes enormous sense. But denying that education is about actually learning something is no reason to destroy any expectation of students not wasting the semester.
If everybody gets an A, nobody does, and the grade is rendered meaningless. And if everybody gets an A, what are the chances students, many students, are going to blow it off and learn nothing because they’re getting an A anyway? Circumstances are bad enough already. Don’t make them any worse than they have to be. Some day, these students will have to do something with their lives, and they just might need the material they were supposed to be taught. Don’t deny them the chance to learn by giving them a default A.
Update: In contrast to the “everybody gets an A” side, Jon Adler at Volokh Conspiracy presents the arguments against Pass/Fail.