opinion

OPINION: IU should make final exams optional and let students change to pass-fail



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A sign for Bryan Hall stands March 18 at 107 S. Indiana Ave. Alex Deryn

In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, colleges across the U.S. have canceled in-person instruction and are transitioning to online classes. IU President Michael McRobbie announced Sunday that virtual learning will continue through the remainder of the spring semester, and on-campus residence halls will close Friday.

As professors work into their spring break vacations trying to transition classes to an online format, many students are rushing to travel back home or wondering if they can find fast enough internet access for video-based coursework.

These are stressful and uncertain times for everyone, and it would be unfair to both professors and students if IU kept rigid policies regarding the completion of coursework. IU should give options to both professors and students in how they proceed with their courses.

Final exams should be optional, and students should be allowed to take up to six credit hours on a pass-fail grading scale. 

An online petition that had more than 5,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening is calling for all classes to be graded as pass-fail. 

Provost Lauren Robel released a statement Monday saying IU-Bloomington would allow faculty, at professors’ discretion with approval from both chairs and deans, to assign a grade of S for “satisfactory” to replace a letter grade other than F. In a satisfactory-fail scale, a grade of S would not affect students’ GPAs, but an F would.

A satisfactory-fail option could protect students’ GPAs if they cannot find reliable internet access or struggle to learn in an unfamiliar virtual setting. However, this policy does not go far enough.

A pass-fail scale, which unlike S/F must be chosen by students rather than instructors, would be better. 

Like an S, a grade of P for “pass” does not affect students’ GPAs, according to IU policies. But instructors aren’t notified when students choose to take a class P/F. The usual semester deadline for opting to make a class P/F was Feb. 10.

A student may take up to two courses, typically worth six credit hours, as pass-fail per academic year with approval of a dean. Considering the exceptional circumstances, IU should allow students to change up to six credit hours to pass-fail anytime for the rest of the semester with easy approval from deans.

The administration’s new satisfactory-fail policy conjures an image of a sympathetic university helping its students in hard times, but the process for assigning an S is too strict. Requiring approval from both chairs and deans does not allow for the educational concerns of students to be addressed quickly in these uncertain times.

IU should provide accommodations for students facing difficulties that should remain private or that instructors may not understand. 

Despite the lost week of instruction since IU added an extra week of spring break, all final exams are still expected to take place online during the last week of the spring term

Students’ letter grades should not depend on a final exam that is proctored in an untraditional format. An option to skip a final exam would also help soften the learning curve caused by new formats. 

Northwestern University announced Sunday that all professors have been asked to make final exams optional for its winter quarter after a petition was signed by more than 900 students. All Northwestern students who opt out of final exams will be graded based on the coursework they have already completed.

Northwestern is also allowing students to retroactively change their letter grade to a pass-fail grade after the term ends. Transcripts will include a written acknowledgment that a global pandemic required significant changes to coursework and led to unusual enrollment patterns and grades.

Although IU operates on a semester system rather than a quarter system, it is still reasonable to call on our university to make similar adjustments. IU’s student population is four times larger than Northwestern’s, and IU students accordingly will be in a wide variety of difficult situations due to COVID-19. 

IU should listen to students and provide them with options to reduce the stress of achieving a certain letter grade in these extreme circumstances.

Every school in America should prioritize the physical and mental health of its students, and this includes adopting flexible academic policies.

Ian Nowlin (he/him) is a sophomore studying law and public policy. He has minors in Spanish and Arabic.

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