Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Campuses adopting pass/fail policies to limit coronavirus impact on grades

April 09, 2020

This article is part of the Council's COVID-19 on Campus series.

Juggling two exams, two term papers and an oral presentation, the last thing Lydia Burns needed this week was a broken laptop.

Lydia Burns Headshot
Lydia Burns

"It's the worst time in the world for that to happen," the University of Louisville (UofL) senior said on Monday as she was emailing professors to explain the malfunction and ask for extensions. "Students are under a lot of stress right now."

Burns, a math and political science major and member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, is one of thousands of students across Kentucky planning to complete courses this semester on a pass/fail basis rather than receiving a traditional letter grade.

More and more campuses have offered the option in recent weeks as COVID-19 continues to disrupt coursework and drive uncertainty over health, housing and finances. Administrators say the unorthodox semester demands a greater level of both grace and flexibility for everyone on campus.

"We will not be perfect," said UofL Provost Dr. Beth Boehm. "The administration will not be perfect. Students will not be perfect. Staff won't be perfect. We have to get that expectation out of the way and do what we can do."

UofL was early to adopt a pass/fail policy this semester, announcing the move in separate letters to students and faculty on March 20. Since then, around 1,290 students have opted in for a total of 2,400 courses.

Boehm said the pass/fail approach struck the right balance between recognizing the unique circumstances surrounding COVID-19 and ensuring students take studies seriously.

"It's not ‘we forgive you everything,' but ‘we forgive you a lot,'" she said.

More than 500 UofL faculty members received training over spring break to transition coursework to online. The university also worked with a local internet provider to secure free access for students for 60 days and launched online resources that offer technical support and tutoring.

However, most of the courses were never designed for remote delivery, and most faculty are still more comfortable in a classroom, Boehm said.

"I know there are going to be glitches; we've already had a few glitches," she said. "We knew that some students would have a difficult time finding an internet connection. So we just kept messaging that we know there are going to be difficulties. Don't give up when there is a difficulty."

Like UofL, Murray State University has moved toward a pass/fail option this semester. But rather than a sweeping change that covers the entire campus, Murray asked academic chairs and faculty to develop a list of eligible courses for pass/fail, which totals close to 1,400.

Murray State has cautioned students, however, that a "pass" grade may not satisfy the prerequisites for advanced courses and could impact scholarships and financial aid. The university is also requiring students to receive final approval from their academic advisor.

At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), administrators and faculty have decided against making a wholesale change to grading this year.

KCTCS Chancellor Dr. Kris Williams said the system will continue using letter grades, although faculty can give "incomplete" or "in progress" grades if a student is unable to complete lab work or a technical class due to COVID-19 protocols.

She said about 25 percent of students were fully online before COVID-19 and faculty have moved quickly to facilitate lab work and technical skills for those now studying at home.

"Mainly we are just trying to protect their ability to transfer down the road," Williams said, noting that many KCTCS students will eventually transfer to institutions that may not accept courses with a "P" grade.

Dr. Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said each campus will have its own needs and take its own approach to grading this semester. But he praised Kentucky institutions for remaining intentional in a tough environment.

"The key is developing a thoughtful, deliberate strategy that meets the challenges of both today and beyond," he said. "As long as we are willing to show compassion and adaptability, I'm confident we'll find many paths to success."

So far, UofL's decision seems to have resonated well with students and faculty.

Afi Tagnedji
Afi Tagnedji

Afi Tagnedji, a pre-med freshman at UofL who also serves on the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, said some of her friends have faced unexpected challenges at work or home and are concerned that COVID-19 could exacerbate inequities for students with fewer resources.

Tagnedji, a biochemistry major, is herself considering the option for a particularly complicated chemistry class.

"I think the pass/fail option is great," she said. "It's actually amazing for me and a few of my friends because some of our classes were going so well at the beginning of the semester."

Burns, the student with the broken laptop, has been sharing a computer with her fiancé and expects to change all 12 of her credit hours to pass/fail.

She said a lot of students are experiencing similar barriers with technology and internet access and that the pass/fail approach helps limit the impact on GPAs.

Burns agrees that having "Ps"on her transcript could raise questions when applying for certain programs in the future. But she said she already benefits from a strong GPA.

"Anyone who looks at my transcript is going to see that I am a senior in the spring of 2020," she said. "They are going to know what happened. I don't think they are going to have any issue with that."

Last Updated: 7/22/2021