How do we grade in Remote College?

With virtually every American campus (save Liberty University) devoid of students, who are now learning remotely, the issue of how to grade them naturally arises. There have been many solutions that we’ve discussed, and these are the subject of a New York Times piece, prominent in today’s paper edition but hard to find in the online version. Click on the screenshot to read.

The options offered by colleges include these (and others)

  • Regular letter grades
  • A choice of regular letter grades or a Pass/Fail (P/F) option with the choice of an option specified in advance by the student
  • The above, but with letter grades mandated for courses in your major
  • A right to choose the P/F option after you see what your grade was (this, of course, would lead to grade inflation, as students who got a grade they didn’t like would request a “Pass”)
  • A “Pass/No Record” system in which you either pass the course and get credit for it or get an “NRC,” which means “no record/covid”. The latter could mean either a fail or a withdrawal, but you wouldn’t get credit for the course. This means that you avoid the stigma of a “fail” because there are other reasons beside poor performance that a student could not complete a course. In some schools the “NRC” would simply not be recorded on your transcript, so you’re not seen as having registered for the course.

This is clearly a very difficult time for colleges, and so I am not drastically opposed to Pass/Fail systems or ones in which you get a choice (but in advance). Similarly, if you have to drop out of a course because of illness of yourself or your family, you don’t have to have that course on your record (often colleges give a “W” for “withdraw” in such cases.  But there are two systems that I oppose, neither of which seems to have been adopted by any college, but which are being suggested by the students themselves.

First, the “everyone passes” system. This is known as “universal pass”, and many students are petitioning for it (see the link below as well as my previous post on this issue):

Some universities will still offer the option of letter grades, while others have dropped them altogether. But that’s not good enough for some students, who are seeking a “universal pass” — meaning that nobody would fail, regardless of performance and whether they can continue to take online classes, and that letter grades would be abolished.

The idea has acquired petition campaigns on scores of campuses and even an acronym among the cognoscenti: UP.

A version of this is a “pass/no record” system, in which if you fail you get an NRC rather than a fail. In my view, NRC should be reserved for those instances in which students cannot complete their course because of circumstances due to the pandemic, not because they withdrew because they were failing or actually failed and didn’t want that to be recorded.

Second is the even more ludicrous system of “everyone gets an A or an A-“, which University of Texas students are demanding. This shouldn’t be given even a moment’s consideration by colleges, for it causes grade inflation and makes most students look better than they are (unless there’s a note on the transcript to the effect that “During this semester, the University decided to give everyone an A or an A-.”) Even with that note, I object to it.

The problem with both of these systems is that the loss of any system of ranking, be it regular grades or the coarser system of Pass/Fail, reduces the incentive of students to work. I hasten to add that not all students are working for grades or motivated by grades: some don’t care that much about grades but do care about learning. But if you’ve taught college students, you know that many don’t really come to college to learn, but to get a diploma for a job or a certification for a career. Increasingly too, many colleges (and I hasten to except colleges like The University of Chicago) care less about the students learning and more about graduation rates and credentialing.  Many students are in college because they are expected to go to college, and once they’re here aren’t that eager to learn about literature, fine arts, or science.

For those students, the threat of a poor grade is a real incentive to work, and that work has to involve learning.  To think otherwise is like arguing that people don’t commit crimes simply because they’re nice, not because they’re afraid of the police, the law, and punishment. If you believe the former, read about what happened during the Montreal Police Strike in 1969, something Steve Pinker’s often discussed.

It seems to me, as a petulant ex-teacher, that many students are arguing for “universal pass” and “universal A’s” not as a way to facilitate the learning experience, but to allow them to get by with less work. Here’s one of them quoted in the NYT:

Mr. Polanco, the Dartmouth student arguing for a universal pass policy, said that at schools with semesters, rather than on a quarter system like his, students have already put in several weeks of work, so they wouldn’t pass based on nothing. But even if they were failing before the coronavirus shut down campuses, he said, it shouldn’t matter, and the focus on grades is beside the point. “In reality, we go to school to learn, not really to receive a grade.”

That may be true of Mr. Polanco, but it’s not true of most students (again, I think that schools like mine are an exception: the U of C has a reputation as a school full of nerds who want to study all the time).

It’s a testament to the moxie of professors and administrators that no school I know of has bowed to these student demands. But even if they don’t, there’s another danger lurking. Once colleges see that online learning is possible, it may give them an incentive to expand that to the detriment of interactive, real-time, face-to-face learning, so that even elite colleges may reduce their brick and mortar presence. (I thank Greg for suggesting this possibility.) As Greg wrote me,

Some adminstrations may see this as an opportunity to ditch the buildings and the faculty– their two major costs. As a colleague put it, “All this does is prove that the old model (teaching’ & ‘learning’) was obsolete.  I see consolidation of online content & delivery with brutal competition for customers—we’ll be lucky if we re-open.”


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    To my mind the issue is students in courses that require lab work, which cannot be done with campuses closed. (My daughter was a Chemistry major.) It doesn’t seem fair to pretend that they are learning what they need to. However, the ‘pass/no record’ seems unfair unless they get their tuition back. To lose a semester, and then have to pay for it again seems unfair. For other courses, lectures and discussions, I say grade as normal.

    • Mike
      Posted March 30, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you about lab courses (I teach biology at a large state university in Canada). The argument against grading-as-normal for other courses is that students vary widely in their access to online resources, and they vary widely in the impact of the pandemic. Most have laptops and phones and high-speed home internet, but some lack these resources and will struggle to complete the online parts of their courses. Most will be healthy and perhaps bored by social distancing, but some will be isolated and far from home and family and unable to travel home, and some will have ill (or dead) family members and will be under very high stress.

      My university has offered to allow students to withdraw from courses with no penalty up to the last day of (on-line) classes; and will allow students who pass their courses but receive disappointing grades to convert those grades from a C or D to a Pass (which will fulfill prerequisite and degree requirements); and students who don’t pass (and receive an F) will not have their failing grades count towards GPA calculation. This all seems fair; it doesn’t penalize students who did well through the early part of the semester (those students can still earn an A); it doesn’t reward students who were doing poorly through the early part of the semester (and would have failed anyway); and it doesn’t penalize students who did well early in the semester and then struggled during March and April when universities went to on-line-only instruction. It will certainly lead to some grade inflation as PCCE pointed out, but that seems like a small price to pay for equitable treatment of students.

      • phoffman56
        Posted March 31, 2020 at 5:32 am | Permalink

        “…a large state university in Canada”

        I guess if you called it a ‘provincial university’ the adjective could be misunderstood, such as city dwellers sneering at ‘provincial peasants’.

        We don’t really have any national universities other than the military colleges that remain, do we?

  2. eric
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Maybe some schools don’t re-open, but I can tell you that as a parent I value the face-to-face learning environment for my kid and I will strongly encourage him to go to a brick and mortar university rather than online learning, if I’m given the choice.

    Even if some things can be taught well on-line, I think there’s value in learning how to live independently, learning how to develop a good work-life balance, and, frankly, there are some things that just can’t be taught remotely (science lab classes, I’m looking at you).

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted March 31, 2020 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      I agree – the study of your chosen subject(s) may be the primary reason for going to university but there are other beneficial aspects as well. Meeting other young people and sharing and disputing ideas (although, as we have seen the tendency for social pressure and group think in student politics sadly constrains this on too many campuses), participating in extra curricula activities such as orchestras, sport, drama and so on, making – often lifelong – friends. Much of this benefit is only really available through physical attendance at a bricks and mortar institution even if at least some of the academic learning can be achieved on-line.

  3. Mark Perew
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink


  4. Posted March 30, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Across the world, academics are giving lecture over the internet (and recording them). Which means that come next year we don’t need the academics, since we can play the recordings.

    Of course online-only learning would not be nearly as good as physically being at a campus, but on the other hand it could be only a tenth the cost.

    • eric
      Posted March 31, 2020 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      Which means that come next year we don’t need the academics, since we can play the recordings.

      I believe it was an economics professor who said “we may put the same questions on the test, but every year the right answer changes” or something to that effect. 🙂

  5. Posted March 30, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I would wish for ‘grade as normal’, and leave it to the instructors to attempt to equilibrate grades to previous semesters if that is needed.
    Besides the P/NP option, I had thought the Incomplete (I) option should also be raised on a case by case basis. This would involve discussion between the prof and the student.

    • phoffman56
      Posted March 31, 2020 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      “Besides the P/NP option..”

      Has this solved the famous ‘P=NP?’ question?

  6. davelenny
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Professor Ceiling Cat

    A semantic point rather than on the topic, but I think of you as an occasionally exasperated rather than a petulant ex-teacher; and so long as the science and other serious posts keep coming, not yet an ex-teacher.

  7. Liz
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I was the tenth person to graduate from a new online program through the University at Buffalo and the Center for Inquiry. It was designed to be novel and I suppose cheaper. I disagreed with the online aspect and moved to Buffalo anyway. I would go to the CFI and talk to the Professors. It came out around the same time as the University of Phoenix and I kept having to defend myself. To this day, I think it was a mistake to make it all online. There are weak connections there. Most of the professors were socially challenged, were old, and exhausted. I would have been better off going for a philosophy Ph.D. The contact matters a lot. It was all online. I was rejected from the Center for Inquiry when I was accepted to the program. The person who got the job over me was the boyfriend of a magician who wasn’t even in the program. That person never communicated with me after the time we met and I was so naive I still thought I had a place to be a field organizer fighting against religion. That man now works as a financial advisor. The social aspect of education is everything. Even if it’s not social in the traditional sense. Online is nonsense. I would have rather pursued something where the students were in contact and the professors cared more about what’s right than about trying to be credited with making something novel and cheap because “it was headed in that direction anyway.” Richard Dawkins had set up something similar apparently at Oxford. I’m not sure whose idea it was to make it online. I would say no to online degrees.

  8. max blancke
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    I have two in school now. Not “in”, as much as enrolled.
    The one studying robotics is doing everything remotely. It is pretty neat that the physical testing of devices has transferred pretty smoothly to simulations.
    The other one has almost all practical lab-type classes. They have taken a “read the text, answer some questions” approach, which is unsatisfactory.
    The grades are not the issue for us. It is more about skills not learned, which are required prerequisites for the next set of skills.
    But it is good, I suppose, for that generation to learn that their accustomed way of life is a fragile thing, and not the norm for most people at most times. Perhaps we will emerge with a little perspective.

  9. Liz
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    To answer the question: It was difficult coursework. The professors graded fairly despite it being online. Again, I do *not* think an online education is the best way to teach. Anyway, I had philosophy of science, statistical analysis, (oh I forgot for a second and so I referenced my refrigerator where I have everything on a magnet. The bibliography for the interdisciplinary studies major I applied for in college, what I learned more recently from Sean Carroll about the effective field theory, and even slightly more recently than that and slightly more helpful from Jerry Coyne about how the main difference in religion and science is the metholodogy they each use.)… back to program coursework- Fundamentals of Educational Research, Understainding Statistical Research, Scientific Writing (I LOVED THIS CLASS AND THERE WAS NO ONE WHO HELPED ME) Thank you. Maybe there was a bias against women? Or straight women or straight people? In hindsight I did EVERYTHING! Science, Texhnokogy, and Human Values, Science Curricula: Current Approaches, Seminar in Informal Science Education (because I *demanded it* they let me sign in online from Buffalo to the school but I never met the teacher or any of the students. Seminar in Informal Science Education (this was never a seminar and I never met the professor) History of Philosophy and Science, Reseach Ethics, then the thesis. I graduated. I guess I should be kissing the professors’ feet from my computer while they make another million. It was a bunch of them that went after money at the same time. All of my elementary school, to middle school, to high school to even my undergrad, I had teachers who cared more about me than these “brilliant” and selfish folks. I was the tenth person. Again. If you have to be a magician in 2007 to be recognized as anyone with smart ideas, there is a problem. Keep your mouth shut though, it’s all online.

    • Liz
      Posted March 30, 2020 at 8:37 pm | Permalink


    • Liz
      Posted March 30, 2020 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      In 2004, three years before I ever started this program, I had volunteered at the Center for Inquiry in New York City. I was 22. I had just graduated with a degree in Philosphy because the major I tried to make up in Philosphy, Religion, and Science was rejected by Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. I organize books, I meet Susan Jacoby. There was an event in New York City with a magician. I was babysitting for a family whose parents were both bankers and worked late. I asked my friend to cover. She took the kids and called me hysterically crying. On my way over the GWB I had to make a decision to turn around. There was no cell phone for Austin or anyone else. I came back to my friend crying hysterically. I said it’s okay. On the inside I was thinking why can’t you just come though for me this one time. She knew I was going to mingle with atheists. It doesn’t matter. I thought then, “If you ever want a career, don’t have kids.” But it wasn’t that at all. My friends shunned me when I talked. It wasn’t because I wanted to sell yarn hand purses. I asked them to think. They couldn’t handle it and they shunned me. My mother, best friends, dads, my parents’ friends, cousins – everyone. Anyway, somehow these atheist people who follow I guess random people just came up around me. It feels like family. This is my family and apparently I will never meet them either. Welcome to Hell.

  10. Liz
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I would also recommend looking elsewhere for good questions about the universe and accurate questions to them (well maybe if they kept me) otherwise everyone else who had a say was either a gay man or lesbian woman. If you are gay at the Center for Inquiry in 2006 or 2007 you were hired. There was a higher magician named James Randi I think and over 10 years later I realized he was running the show. *And he is also gay.* That is all good. Except when you reject straight people who have been acecepted into the online educational program. If you weren’t gay, you didn’t matter. I met them all. Enjoy your online leaning experience. It doesn’t matter if you have also spent your life supporting your gay uncle and lesbian cousin. If the gay people running an educational organization are in charge and you are not gay or lesbian, find a different job and a different course of inquiry. Paul Kurtz has died and he would be ashamed.

  11. Liz
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    For the magician that he is (James Randi) and as much power as Richard Dawkins thinks he has, why do you only accept homosexual people? For such smart people, they should be able to answer that question.

  12. Liz
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I am extremely lucky to have come across everyone on here. It feels like my own family in many ways.

  13. David Harper
    Posted March 31, 2020 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    I’ve studied both at bricks-and-mortar universities (University College London and the University of Liverpool, both of which are in the “top tier” of UK universities) and by distance learning at the Open University.

    The latter was founded in the late 1960s to give working people the chance to gain a degree whilst remaining in work. It pioneered distance learning in the UK, first through late-night TV broadcasts and later by making very effective use of the Internet.

    In no sense were my OU courses easier than the ones I took at UCL and Liverpool. The content was well-designed, the assessment was rigorous and challenging, and the sense of accomplishment I gained when I received my postgraduate diploma from the OU was every bit as satisfying as getting my B.Sc. and Ph.D.

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