Last semester, Cornell implemented an opt-in S/U grading policy, where students had until the end of the semester to switch any class to S/U — even if the course did not previously offer it as a grading option. Furthermore, courses where students received a satisfactory grade could be used to satisfy major or minor requirements. In doing so, the University recognized the need for flexibility and solicitude during a year where we saw the world as we knew it fall apart.
Some of that empathy might come in handy this semester as well. This fall, Cornell chose to revert to standard grading practices, implying that students should treat the semester the same manner they treated every other year. However, this year is still far from normal, and Cornell’s policies should continue to reflect current circumstances.
As most classes are now online, few courses are operating in the same way that they had been pre-pandemic. We tend to underestimate the value of face-to-face instruction. It is impossible to replicate the communal feeling of group work while interacting online. Right now, it is still too soon to know for certain what works and what doesn’t in a virtual setting — both students and instructors are participating in the world’s largest pedagogical experiment. Zoom meetings have been shown to be more taxing on the brain since we cannot rely on non-verbal cues to aid our understanding. The additional subconscious layer of anxiety about technology issues adds to the already stressful reality of learning through a screen.
The ways in which exams are held has also completely changed for the majority of classes. Because of these changes, there isn’t even a university-mandated prelim schedule. Numerous math classes — courses where the process of deriving the answer is almost as important as the answer itself — have incorporated multiple-choice tests and quizzes. Some classes choose to proctor exams through Zoom or Examity, while other courses give untimed prelims with a 24-hour window.
Due to the high degree of variance from course to course, opt-in S/U could alleviate much of the stress that comes from managing an unprecedented semester. Students could have a chance to learn without the pressure of being penalized for circumstances outside of their control. Not every student is on campus. A substantial portion of the student body is taking classes remotely — some even in different time zones or different countries altogether. It doesn’t seem entirely equitable to compare the work of remote students with those in campus classrooms. Providing all students with more options is necessary to account for the varied consequences of the pandemic.
Other colleges across the country have heeded the wishes of their students and extended accommodations to Fall 2020. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill permits courses taken pass/fail to satisfy any degree requirement. In a statement, the University indicated student mental health as the primary reason for this decision. Numerous colleges within Ohio State University, including the College of Arts and Sciences, adopted a similar approach to UNC. The University also pushed back the deadline to change a grading basis or drop a course.
Cornell could learn a few lessons of compassion and versatility from these other schools. Students are not all on a level playing field this semester, and the University should not pretend that this is the case. Allowing students the opportunity to make the choices right for their specific circumstances would send the message that Cornell is taking measures to prioritize student mental health.
Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.