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PDF grading option extended to all courses as U. finalizes its policy

"Song of the Vowels," Jacques Lipchitz, Firestone Library
"Song of the Vowels" — a sculpture in front of Firestone Library
Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70

The University will add the pass/D/fail (PDF) option to all undergraduate courses, according to an announcement from Dean of the College Jill Dolan. Decisions to move individual classes to PDF-only will be made on a course-by-course basis.

After receiving “hundreds of emails” from students, parents, and faculty, Dolan announced finalized policy amendments on grading for the spring semester. Supplementing previously announced alterations, all undergraduate courses will add the PDF option.


“We’re doing the best we can and those of us making these decisions — faculty, administrators, deans, the provost — feel we’ve made the ones that will work best for now,” Dolan wrote. “These policies will stand for Spring 2020. I do ask that you respect our decisions as final.”

Dolan’s announcement included a number of other changes. While Dolan had previously “expected” that departments accept PDF-graded classes departmental requirements and prerequisites, all departments will now be required to do so. The traditional policy of students only being allowed one PDF-graded course per semester had previously been lifted.

Additionally, the deadline to choose whether or not to take a course for a grade has been pushed back further to May 12 — Dean’s Date. This will also serve as the deadline to drop a course.

According to Dolan, all of these changes were endorsed by the Faculty Committee on the Course of Study on Tuesday and approved by the Faculty Committee on Examinations yesterday. 

In addition to applying to students taking University courses — including the language requirement — the PDF option will also extend to students enrolled in study abroad programs.

“While all study abroad grades appear as “T” on the official transcript,” Dolan wrote, “study abroad students will be able to elect to [PDF] any of their courses for the purposes of the internal transcript (on TigerHub).”


Unlike some of its peer institutions, however, the University did not set a standard for whether courses should or should not adopt PDF-only grading. Individual faculty members will “retain the option to elect the PDF-only grading option for their courses,” according to Dolan.

“The Senior Thesis, Senior Exams, and Junior (and, where applicable, Sophomore) Independent Work may also be graded [PDF] optional or [PDF- only], at the discretion of each department,” Dolan added. There is no change in the policy of departments individually determining honors for graduating seniors.

It currently remains unclear how the University’s finalized policy will be addressed on student transcripts. According to Dolan, “the Registrar will decide how student transcripts will memorialize the extraordinary nature of this semester.”

Although the revised grading policy brings the University closer to a unified framework for assessing courses work, the discretion granted to individual professors and departments to utilize the PDF-only option has spurred some concerns over fairness.

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A number of student-organized petitions have been circulating, which advocate for a variety of different grading policies to be adopted as University-wide policies. At the time of publication, more than 900 students had signed a petition advocating for a University-wide PDF-only grading policy, while more than 700 students had signed a petition supporting an institution-wide optional PDF policy. 

Proponents of the latter felt the University should not deny students good grades for hard work. Proponents of the former felt optional PDF grading would put students particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic at a disadvantage — allowing students from more privileged backgrounds to cherry-pick which classes to PDF and “stack their grades.”

In the end, neither petitioning group is getting entirely what they wished for, with different departments issuing different recommendations on grading policies and individual professors making the final decisions. 

“We’ve considered all the positions advanced with care. We appreciate your lobbying and advocacy, and your many eloquent arguments about how to approach this work,” Dolan wrote in her announcement. “I realize that some of you will wish we’d made other choices; I understand. We won’t be able to arrive at a campus consensus around grading policies.”

Without this consensus, faculty members have taken a range of approaches when it comes to grading policy — whether keeping PDF as an option, to mandating PDF-only grading, or adopting a more unorthodox approach.

COS 375: Computer Architecture and Organization is offering the PDF option, but, should students stay on the conventional grading scale, what would conventionally be marked as a B will now be recorded as an A. Students may earn as low as a numerical equivalent to a C+ and still receive an A- on their transcript.

Both the economics department and the German department initially announced or encouraged a department-wide, PDF-only standard, before changing their policies a few days later. On the other hand, all spring writing seminars — in which around half of first year students are enrolled — have been converted to PDF-only.

ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics was PDF-only for about 24 hours. After receiving feedback from students, it switched to PDF-optional.

“When I made the announcement that the course would be PDF only, the students were very upset,” Professor Kelly Noonan wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “Many students have worked very hard for the first half of the semester and want to continue working hard (it can be a great distraction). For these students, PDF-optional is a great choice.”

ECO 301: Macroeconomics, has altered its policy multiple times. Course instructors announced a PDF-only policy on Sunday and polled the options on Monday. Then, despite her own preferences for PDF-only, Professor Wenli Li announced on Wednesday an optional-PDF option for ECO 301 in compliance with an update recommendation from the department.

“As I mentioned before, my preference is for the mandatory policy,” she wrote in a Blackboard announcement to students. “However, the fact that this is not a uniform policy implemented university wide by the Dean of the College leaves students (and professors) in an awkward position.”

Ilyana Kuziemko, another professor in the economics department, took to Twitter to voice her disapproval of the lack of University-wide policy.

“Ugh, we (Princeton) are leaving it up to the professor,” she tweeted on March 21. “I have moved to P/F & some students are unhappy. I really wish we would make it a university-wide policy and have a clear disclaimer on transcripts (what MIT & Columbia, among others, are doing).”

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures Chair Michael Wachtel expressed similar sentiments.

“To be honest, I personally am hoping for a university directive, because it is very complicated if every department is supposed to go its own way,” he wrote.