More than 17,000 students at the University of Colorado Boulder opted to take courses for pass or fail credit instead of a letter grade during the spring semester, an unprecedented increase attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
CU Boulder expanded options for students to take classes for a pass or fail credit in March, after every class transitioned to online learning only and most students moved off campus to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
In the fall semester, 347 students elected to take one or more classes for a pass or fail credit. That increased to 17,034 students this semester, nearly half of the 34,796 students enrolled.
“We believe more students opted for pass/fail grades in spring 2020 than any other semester in recent memory,” spokeswoman Deborah Mendez Wilson said in an email. “Students were given this option to help alleviate stress and anxiety over final grades during these very uncertain times, and to provide greater flexibility.”
CU Boulder heard positive feedback from students and parents about the decision to expand pass/fail options, said Katherine Eggert, senior vice provost for academic planning and assessment.
“Both our faculty and our students were obviously very suddenly moved into a system of teaching and learning that they hadn’t prepared for and they may not have engaged in at all previously, and I think they worked tremendously hard to turn on a dime and make this type of teaching and learning happen,” Eggert said. “The pass/fail policy gave that little bit of extra assurance to students that they could make progress to their degrees even though this semester went sideways in terms of what everyone had planned.”
Associate Professor Bob Ferry saw some of his highest-performing students opt to take his class for pass or fail credit instead of a letter grade so that they didn’t have to take the final.
Ferry said that was surprising in some cases, but he understands why students would need to direct their attention elsewhere.
On the last day of in-person classes, one student asked Ferry whether he thought graduation would be canceled because her grandmother was traveling from Italy to attend. That student’s grandmother later died from coronavirus.
“Given that stuff was going on for students, I didn’t have any hesitation to do what I could to help them,” Ferry said.
For CU Boulder students and students across the country, this semester will be marked with an asterisk on their academic histories because of how different it was, Eggert said. CU Boulder is working with other universities to ensure students can successfully transfer pass/fail credits between institutions.
“The students and the faculty together have been remarkably resilient,” Eggert said. “Students have been remarkably creative in thinking of things that will help with their success, just as faculty have been creative in thinking of ways students can achieve their goals and progress toward their degrees despite the craziness of the semester.”