By Carolina Lumetta
On April 21, faculty passed a motion to give students the option of choosing Pass/No Credit (P/NC) for Spring 2020 classes. Students had until May 1 to apply the P/NC designation to their classes, which will appear on their final transcripts in place of a letter grade. The new grading option allows students to count coursework completed during the Spring 2020 semester toward graduation requirements without affecting overall GPA.
A few weeks prior, Provost Margaret Diddams began drafting a motion to request the shift to P/NC. On April 17, Student Body President Sarah Yoon, EVP of Academic Affairs Daniel Ju and EVP of Global Engagement Riley Hobby met with Diddams to present their own proposal. After hearing that Student Government (SG) and faculty members were drafting similar proposals, she asked SG to complete their plan and then sent it to the Academic Policies Committee (APC), a group of faculty members responsible for developing academic practices.
“We had already shaped the motion when I talked with the SG leaders,” Diddams said. “They were very professional and ready to engage with me with a lot of arguments about why we should move this way, and I just told Sarah, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
SG’s Proposal 10R43 recommended giving students the option to receive pass/no credit rather than a letter grade for the Spring 2020 semester.
“We argue that students did not anticipate this academic experience when registering for Spring 2020 semester and B Quad classes, and that this extraordinary situation compels Wheaton to care for its least privileged,” the proposal reads.
After receiving preliminary approval from the APC, the motion was delivered to the Faculty Council, which put it on the agenda for the April 21 faculty business meeting.The final draft of the motion incorporated elements of proposals written by SG, Professor of Anthropology Brian Howell and Diddams.
The administration was initially hesitant to adopt an alternate grading system. In a March 16 email to the student body, Diddams rejected a student petition requesting that the college shift all courses to a P/NC system. In the email, she said this kind of change would not be fair to students who wanted class letter grades reflected on their final transcripts, and she did not want to “compel faculty to change their grading methodology.” However, due to emerging differences in students’ ability to learn in the new remote setting, and the precedent set by other institutions, including Ivy Leagues, that have adopted the P/NC policy, Diddams altered her initial position and started to write a motion to present to the faculty.
“We were really aiming to have B Quad be as normal as possible for students, and that’s why we wanted to keep the same grading metric. What no one saw coming was the devastation of COVID-19,” Diddams said. “Some students are not able to be students in the way that others are, due to differences in time zones or wifi access, so we have students who are not able to engage with online learning at the same rate or level. There’s been a level of inequity, and there’s no way we could have predicted that in March.”
Howell began researching the P/NC option in mid-April after hearing about the different struggles his students were experiencing. He posted on the faculty Facebook page asking for input and received positive feedback, with many faculty members responding with their own stories of how they or their students have faced challenges due to COVID-19, particularly with respect to mental health and differing access to digital learning resources.
“Whenever anybody asks us about what we like best about Wheaton, the first thing we all say is our students. We appreciate how conscientious and earnest students are, how seriously they take their work, how they treat us, how they treat each other,” Howell said. “I think we need to honor that. If we really believe in and love our students, we should err on the side of mercy and grace and trust.”
Although an amendment suggested an extended deadline of May 7 to choose a pass/no credit option, the motion was rejected at the faculty business meeting. According to Faculty Vice Chair Jill Lederhouse, the Registrar’s Office does not have a program to automatically make these changes, so they must all be entered by hand. Given this additional challenge, Diddams agreed that a May 1 deadline would give the Registrar’s Office enough time to make the necessary changes by the time final grades are due.
Another primary concern raised in the SG board meeting and the faculty business meeting was whether P/NC classes would be accepted by graduate schools and other higher education institutions such as medical schools. Some institutions such as UC Berkeley and Cornell have adapted their graduate school policies to accept Pass/Fail and P/NC grades from applicants during the admissions process. Other medical schools such as Johns Hopkins have not yet determined whether to accept Pass/Fail credits, and Georgetown is still encouraging letter grades from their applicants.
Sophomore Amanda Miller supports the P/NC option, saying that it will allow her to better care for herself without added stress during finals week. She says her educational outcomes are undermined by the inability to connect over a virtual platform.
“I started remote learning with very ambitious expectations. Despite that mindset, it has been such a struggle,” Miller said. “The quality of online classes and my quality of learning is not to the caliber that it would be if I were on campus. I don’t think it’s reasonable, then, to be held to the same standard of what an A would have meant the first quad.”
Miller said her grades dropped because the shifting syllabi made it harder to see what assignments she was expected to complete. Each of her classes also uses a different platform to meet, so she keeps a master list to remember where to log in. She said that although faculty have been supportive, she has also felt pressured to keep working hard.
“I was blaming myself for feeling unfocused during class or telling myself that I should have tried harder or cleared more space on my desk or faced a different wall,” Miller said. “But I’m coming to grips and giving myself grace, recognizing that a home environment cannot support the same type of learning.”
Senior Given Tanri also supports the P/NC option, but he said that COVID-19 has affected international students differently and that the new grading system presents another learning curve for them. Tanri said that some international students like himself have felt overwhelmed by the recent housing changes for students who remain on campus and the challenges of online communication. He says the administration should better communicate to explain these adaptations.
“The initiative so far has been on students to send emails and find answers. We need to be mindful of how much extra stress students are carrying,” Tanri said. “International students, especially, have less social capital; some of us may not know culturally how things are supposed to work. We have language and cultural barriers and may not always know what we’re supposed to do. The level of communication may be sufficient for 80% of the student body, but we, the 20%, need more stability. Don’t forget about us.”
Diddams, who is retiring at the end of June, sees this alteration to the grading system as a final way she can serve the student body.
“We want to get everyone to get across the finish line, but we’re asking people to start at different places on the track and some have hurdles in their lanes, and so we’re recognizing that some people have to expend more energy than others do. We want to clear the path so that all students can finish strong.”