Current grading options are an equitable compromise


View other op-eds abut Middlebury’s remote grading policy here.

Many Middlebury students have set tangible goals for this semester: to improve their GPAs, to get A’s in certain classes, or to make the Dean’s list. With the current grading options available, the college maintains a sense of normalcy and students can still strive to achieve these goals, making the most of the circumstances they have been dealt.  

While some students fear that offering the choice of traditional letter grades alongside the Pass/D/Fail option will put them at a disadvantage, many others see this semester just like any other: an opportunity to perform well in classes to develop a strong resume for graduate school through strengthening their GPAs. Switching to a mandatory pass/fail system would remove the opportunity for students to achieve these goals. 

We have been dealt difficult circumstances, not only as students and faculty at Middlebury but as a nation. Challenging situations are unavoidable, and will come and go throughout the course of our lives. We still have a chance to make the most out of this situation and to find opportunity amid crisis. Now is the time to strive to learn and achieve in the face of adversity. When confronted with difficult issues in life, it is in our best interest to remain motivated and seek a sense of normalcy. To remove the ability to achieve letter grades this semester would be to remove fuel from our students’ learning interests, which we need now more than ever. 

Despite our best efforts toward equity, every classroom remote or traditional advantages some students over others.  Students all have different needs and challenges. In our current remote educational setting, it is the job of the faculty to equip students with the tools to succeed. Frequent communication between faculty and students is an absolute necessity in order to help address these needs. Faculty must be understanding of the unique challenges individuals may have, ranging from family struggles to health to material accessibility. Faculty and students should work together within this current grading structure to tailor this semester to help meet each individual’s needs and support all students in achieving their goals. 

At a stressful time like this, other schools’ plans provide helpful examples. For instance some schools, including RIT and Carnegie Mellon have instituted options where the decision to invoke pass/fail can be made after final grades are posted. These options can help alleviate the stress of “Will I be able to succeed in a remote-learning environment?” while still allowing students to be engaged, motivated, and driven to achieve.

In these difficult times, we have to be honest with ourselves about our goals and the effort we’re planning on putting into our work. Whether we like it or not, many students are motivated by grades. Are we going to put forth the same effort in a Pass/D/Fail scenario in which a C is equivalent to an A   as we are in an environment which allows us to set goals, improve our GPAs and bolster our graduate school resumes? To remove the ability to achieve letter grades this semester would be to remove fuel from our students’ learning interests, which we need now more than ever. 

One bright side to this situation is that the entire world is confronting the same circumstances, so there will be a significant amount of understanding and awareness regarding this time. The range and magnitude of this pandemic will leave employers no choice but to be empathetic and recognize that many schools are presently providing pass/fail options. The opportunity to choose between Pass/D/Fail and letter grades is only beneficial: Receiving good grades in a time of stress has the capacity to impress employers, and employers are also likely to be understanding and forgiving if students do invoke pass/fail. I find it difficult to believe that employers will be able to, or even want to, differentiate between applicants who had the option to Pass/D/Fail classes and applicants who were mandated to Pass/D/Fail their courses.

As a transfer student in my second semester at Middlebury, I have fewer semesters here than most students in which to build a GPA I feel proud of. Each semester feels critical for me. There are relatively few transfer students at Middlebury, and as a result our voices are not well-represented during this time of critical decision-making. Transfer and first-year students who feel they under-performed in their first semesters are eager to showcase their improvement, in addition to proving to themselves that they can be successful. A mandatory pass-fail option strips them of that ability. 

Although no single option presents a perfect scenario for all students, I believe our current grading structure provides versatility and flexibility and permits each individual student to choose an option that best suits their academic goals. To constrain us to a single option fails to support the varying goals of a diverse community of learners. 

Tommy Eastman is a member of the class of 2021.

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