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PDF grading is the only responsible solution

Nassau cupola.jpeg
Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Last week, this Board called on the University to reevaluate the weight given to midterm exams, in light of uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The editorial was one among several calls for action, including a widely-supported student petition. The University promptly responded to these concerns, asking professors to consider adjusting “expectations and procedures for mid-terms.”

Since then, the University has instructed all students to leave campus unless they meet specific criteria. While we commend the University’s efforts to protect students and anticipate the myriad difficulties they will face, we remain concerned about Princeton’s transition to the virtual classroom. While acknowledging it is an imperfect solution, this Board holds that the University should move all classes to a pass/D/fail (PDF) only grading scale.


One of the central benefits of on-campus instruction is that students share equal access to a vast array of academic resources: high-speed internet access, near-unlimited printing, McGraw tutoring, research libraries, quiet study spaces, and other tools. Students choose whether to avail themselves of these resources. This baseline allows professors to evaluate students on a graded basis, because the playing field is as level as it can be. Online courses fundamentally alter this dynamic. 

With students dispersed across the globe, students will have no choice but to “attend” classes at different times, sometimes to a drastic extent. For example, while students on the East Coast will be able to “Zoom” into online class at 9 a.m., students in Hawaii will take the same class at 3 a.m. Some students will have the privilege of working in quiet, private rooms, while others will contend with noisy, crowded, and even public spaces. 

Access to the Internet correlates with socioeconomic privilege. Those with faster Internet connections will be able to more effectively participate in the online classroom than those who do not enjoy such a luxury. Seminars in particular will suffer in the online transition, as they are predicated upon conversation between students and professors. It remains unclear how museum-oriented, dance, theatre, lab, and other interactive courses will fare under the new format. 

The University has worked diligently to protect international students, students with significant financial need, and those without access to stable Internet from the most egregious barriers to participation. But the proposed solutions are imperfect, and will leave these most vulnerable students to face a dilemma many of their peers will not. 

Admittedly, enforcing mandatory PDF would deny many students a valuable chance to lift their GPAs and could not sufficiently reward their diligent work from the first half of this semester. These consequences are significant, since future employers and graduate schools often examine academic performance closely.

However, given that the pandemic has closed hundreds of postsecondary institutions, we are confident that whatever negative effects result from a PDF grading policy will be washed out by a shared understanding of this crisis’ unprecedented scale and severity, especially if transcripts are marked accordingly. We urge the University to follow the courageous and student-centered decisions of Smith College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to undertake mandatory pass/fail and pass/no record, respectively. 


Were PDF to become available for all classes but remain optional, however, students — even those burdened by lack of resources and peace of mind — would still have an incentive to take classes on a graded basis. Mandatory PDF should apply universally to all courses, whether they be distribution requirements, departmentals, or electives. As such, the decision to make all classes PDF should fall on the University, rather than on individual students. Students would be competing on an unequal playing field, carrying not only the stress of taking classes for a grade but also, potentially, the stress of housing insecurity, lack of resources, and concern for loved ones. The ability to “boost” one’s GPA should not be limited to a select few, especially given that the outbreak has yet to reach its global peak.

For these reasons, this Board urges a school-wide adoption of the PDF grading scale this semester. Mandating the PDF format would limit inequities, as well as the harms faced by the least-advantaged among us. To weather this global pandemic, students will need to prioritize their mental and physical health and that of their families; it is impossible to expect that academic work will proceed as usual for the remainder of the semester. If the University truly believes that the COVID-19 pandemic warrants drastically altering the ways we live, then it should impose a blanket PDF policy for all students.


Zachariah W. Sippy ’22

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Benjamin Ball ’21

Shannon E. Chaffers ’22

Rachel Kennedy ’21

Kate Lee ’23

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Jonathan A. Ort ’21

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Cy Watsky ’21