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As U. departments begin releasing pass/D/fail policies for fall 2020, students face inconsistent requirements

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

When COVID-19 sent students packing in the middle of the spring semester, the University announced it would amend academic policies, including the addition of the pass/D/fail (PDF) grading option to all undergraduate courses. 

The University also required departments to accept courses taken on a PDF basis toward departmental requirements and prerequisites. As of the end of the Spring 2020 semester, this amendment is no longer in effect.


On the Undergraduate Student FAQ page, the University explained that they have retained their decision to allow students to elect the PDF option for all undergraduate courses without restrictions, but they are no longer requiring departments to count courses taken through PDF toward departmental requirements or prerequisites.

With the decision whether or not to count courses taken PDF toward departmental progress entirely under their discretion, departments have been deliberating how best to modify their grading policies and teaching methods given the University’s recent transition to a fully remote fall semester.

The Daily Princetonian reached out to the University’s 37 departments to inquire on how they would be approaching courses taken PDF, what steps they have taken to improve their courses from the spring, and any obstacles they may still be facing in preparing for the fall semester.

Among the departments that have provided their academic plans for the fall, there is no grading option favored by a majority: optional PDF and mandatory A–F grading have been nearly equally adopted.

The Departments of Chemistry, Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Economics, English, French and Italian, History, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), and Politics will be reverting to their previous grading standards that require courses be taken for a grade to count toward department progress.

Since the conclusion of the spring semester, these departments have been striving to improve the remote learning experience for both faculty and students, their representatives have claimed. 


The Department of Politics has taken multiple measures to ensure that the fall semester is conducted more smoothly than in the spring. Examples include offering additional training to faculty, cutting precept sizes to below 10 students, and hiring undergraduate students to supplement the work of graduate student preceptors in their largest course, POL 345: Introduction to Quantitative Social Science, according to Department Chair Alan Patten. 

Affirming how crucial support for both students and faculty is during a remote semester, SPIA is providing technical support to faculty and ensuring libraries are on standby to provide virtual assistance to students, SPIA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Paul Lipton told the ‘Prince.’

According to the History department’s FAQ page, the department has taken extensive efforts to improve their courses for the fall, including providing faculty with training in online pedagogy, devoting time to adapting courses for a variety of online formats, and implementing a new tutorial model to classes that involve smaller precepts, greater emphasis on analytical and writing skills, and more interactions with faculty.

“Last spring, we were all improvising,” said Jeff Dolven, the English director of undergraduate studies. “This fall, we know better what we are doing, and we are ready to hold ourselves and our students to our accustomed standards.” 

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The Departments of Comparative Literature, Computer Science, Mathematics, Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE), Slavic Language and Literature, and Spanish and Portuguese will continue allowing students to count courses taken PDF toward department progress.

Retaining the University’s previous amendment, the departments were primarily motivated by students who may still require flexibility in grading.

“We know that these are difficult times. The pandemic has deepened our inequalities,” Javier Guerrero, the Spanish and Portuguese director of undergraduate studies, told the ‘Prince.’ “We have to take care of all our students and their personal circumstances.” 

Students have responded well to their departments taking their own personal circumstances into account in planning for the fall.

“I think the Slavic language and literature department is doing a great job taking the interests and opinions of its undergrads into account,” Gregory Wall ’21, a concentrator in the department, said.

While the Department of Mathematics does not encourage students to take departmental courses PDF, they acknowledge that special circumstances exist when it is in the student’s best interest to do so.

“We feel that most of the students are working hard and took the PDF option only when really necessary,” professor János Kollár, director of undergraduate studies for the mathematics department, said.

The computer science department shares a similar sentiment, believing that the PDF grading option should only be used under certain circumstances due to the uncertainty of how it will affect post-graduate plans for students.

“We strongly recommend that students take COS courses for a grade where possible, to maximize their engagement with and learning from the courses,” the department explained on their Fall 2020 FAQ page. “We do not know how employers or graduate programs will assess your work during unprecedented semesters like last spring and this fall.” 

To provide students with the necessary attention that they will require under remote circumstances, the ORFE department has decided to double the number of precepts offered while halving their sizes as well as adding a co-instructor to assist with most online lectures.

Recognizing that balance between flexibility and academic competency must be reached during unprecedented times, the geoscience department has adjusted their grading policy to ensure both are met.

Accordingly, the department has decided that prerequisite courses may be taken PDF, but departmental courses must be taken for a grade.

“It seems reasonable to be flexible with prereqs, but the core material in the major courses is critical for competency in the field,” Department Chair Bess Ward said.

The ecology and evolutionary biology and physics departments have yet to reach a decision on how courses taken PDF will be treated within their departments.

Although the departments said they will be considering student feedback into their deliberation processes, incoming first-year students have expressed their concerns in the matter.

“As a first-year student, the transition from high school to Princeton is already stressful,” Stephen Grant ’24 told the ‘Prince.’ “While I know the EEB department is doing their best to provide the best resources possible for us, learning remotely will be a huge difficulty. Having graded courses adds a sense of pressure that I don’t think is necessary at this time.”

Students also understand the complexity that comes with the issue of allowing courses taken PDF to count toward department progress. 

“Physics and many other natural science classes have many aspects that make it really difficult to transition to an online format and therefore makes it hard to reflect your effort in the class. In that sense, a PDF grading option from the department would be a blessing,” Elisabeth Rulke ’23 said.

“However, I think that A–F grading for physics is very important because of the impact it will have on your future opportunities. Even though we are going through a pandemic, grad school and research opportunities are extremely competitive,” she added. 

According to students in each respective department, the African American studies (AAS), anthropology, molecular biology, architecture, art and archaeology, astrophysics, chemical and biological engineering (CBE), classics, electrical engineering (ELE), mechanical & aerospace engineering (MAE), music, near eastern studies, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, religion, and sociology departments have also not yet reached a decision on whether or not they will be accepting classes taken PDF toward department progress.

Despite the varying grading policies, departments agree that they will all be facing challenges for the fall.

The greatest obstacle the comparative literature department currently faces is “the very fact that we can’t be together with the students, in the same room at the same time,” Department Chair Thomas Hare said.

Despite the countless workshops faculty in her department have attended to prepare for the fall, French and Italian director of undergraduate studies Christy Wampole said “extensive adaptation to the new environment” will still prove to be challenging.

Speaking for the Geoscience department, Ward said that technological limitations may affect the ability of departments to adapt to their new virtual learning environment.

 “Zoom alone does not serve all of our online teaching needs,” she said.

The ‘Prince’ did not receive responses from students or faculty in the Departments of East Asian Studies or German regarding how they will be adjusting their grading policies for the Fall 2020 term.