April 13, 2020

Harvard Moves to Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory Grading for Spring 2020

Harvard Moves to Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory Grading for Spring 2020

News out of Harvard College’s TheCrimson.com recently announced that the institution was adopting a universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system for the Spring 2020 semester as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  This news was announced via email to faculty and students from Claudine Gay, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Amanda J. Claybaugh, Dean of Undergraduate Education, on March 27, 2020.

The new system will provide grades of either “Emergency Satisfactory” or “Emergency Unsatisfactory” to all undergraduates for their spring classes. There is an option for faculty to provide additional information to accompany these grades with what is being referred to as a “qualitative assessment of student learning” in their proprietary system, “my.harvard”.

Harvard’s University President, Lawrence S. Bacow, announced in a March 10 email that all classes would be moving online and that students would not be allowed to return to the campus after spring break.  After a review commissioned by Dean Claudine Gay, the decision to shift the grading system came after weeks of discussions conducted by the Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy, a standing committee overseeing undergraduate education, along with other school officials.  The council ultimately granted the change with a “unanimous endorsement”.

Gay commented, “We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed. This new terminology is purposefully chosen to indicate the unique nature of this semester in the archival record and to distinguish this semester’s grades from Harvard College’s standard grading system.” Gay indicated she believes the adoption of this universal grading policy, as opposed to an opt-in approach, was important for reasons beyond “the apparent equity concerns.”

In her email, she referenced additional colleges and universities that have started similar temporary grading policies for the Spring 2020 semester, and that fellowship and graduate programs have assured those doing so that they will accept these universal grading changes if they were instituted for all students, revealing that times have indeed changed since these programs historically have always relied on a letter grade system.

Dean Claybaugh emphasized in her email to students that the role of students played a crucial role to the decision that was made, writing, “Our thinking was informed by The Harvard Crimson editorials, by Undergraduate Council proposals, by consultation with the Honor Council, but it was informed just as much by the individual emails sent by so many of you. We have tried, in this new policy, to address the needs of all of our students, while also responding to the enormity of the situation we find ourselves in.”

While the administration empathizes with students who aren’t pleased with the new system, with some engaging in passionate debates advocating for the grading systems they prefer, especially given the entirely uncharted conditions they are studying in, the decision was made in order to adjust the expectations of all students as the institution faces this unprecedented challenge.

“This grading policy better meets the needs of today, and I hope prepares us to face challenges to come as this situation continues to evolve,” Gay concluded.

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