The student leaders behind an open letter to the University community — which implores the University to re-adopt the default credit/no credit/general credit grading system that was developed in the Spring 2020 semester — are hopeful that the more than 1,400 student signatures are too great for U.Va. administrators to ignore.
“Frankly, we're prepared to dig in. We know and the 1,400 students that have signed this [letter] know that this is the equitable decision to be made,” said Matt Gillam, a fourth-year Batten student and the Undergraduate President of the Batten School.
Gillam, along with Ellen Yates and Dre Dilao — fourth-year College students and Student Council president and College Council president, respectively — wrote the letter, which is addressed to the University community at-large. The letter is built on previous efforts from fellow students in Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va., the Minority Rights Coalition and the First Generation Low Income Partnership.
According to Yates, Gillam and Dilao, it will ultimately be up to school deans and Provost Liz Magill to decide if the University changes its grading policy. In their discussions with faculty and deans, they’ve found that there are numerous misconceptions regarding students’ opinions on grading policies.
“We've learned that there's some concern that students were actually more stressed by the spring grading system and that has actually taken a greater toll on mental health,” Yates said.
According to the results of Student Council’s survey on the University’s grading policy, however, most students were satisfied with the spring grading options.
In Spring 2020, students were defaulted into a credit/no credit/general credit grading system. Credit was given to students if they received a C or higher, while general credit was rewarded for passing grades less than a C. No credit was given to students who received an F. Neither option affected a students’ GPA.
Students could opt-out of this system and choose to be graded on the standard scale — letter grades A through F — any time before the last day of classes.
“The significant majority of students on a scale of one to ten, rated their satisfaction with their [choice of grading option], eight or higher, and the mode was ten,” Yates explained. “We have significant evidence to show that students actually were really happy with this system.”
The same Student Council survey found that 69.5 percent of students anticipated barriers to learning in the Fall 2020 semester.
According to Gillam, a meeting occurred between the deans and Provost Magill on Monday to discuss changing the grading options for the semester.
“Our understanding is that they are continuing to meet this week. We are continuing to encourage folks to reach out to professors and their deans to express their concerns and desire for this to be implemented in the meantime,” Gillam said.
The University’s Faculty Senate voted Monday on whether it would advance discussion of an application-based CR/NC/GC grading system for the fall semester to a discussion and vote at its Oct. 20 full Senate meeting. In the proposed application-based system, students would be allowed to fill out an application to take their classes CR/GC/NC, submitted to the Office of the Dean of Students until the last day of exams based on personal circumstances.
Under this proposal, students who apply for CR/GC/NC will take all of their classes CR/GC/NC and will be able to maintain their current status at the University. The ballots are being cast virtually and will close next Monday, according to Faculty Senate Chair Joel Hockensmith.
Yates, Gillam, and Dilao are advocating for a default CR/NC/GC system instead of an application-based one.
Yates, Gillam and Dilao decided to go ahead with the petition despite statements from the University in its Return to Grounds planning that the standard grading policy will apply.
“Final decisions have been made before and changed in the past,” Gillam said.
An email sent out to students from Yates indicates that the University is expected to announce a decision on the grading system for the Fall 2020 semester by the end of the week.
Yates, Gillam, and Dilao all emphasized that the pandemic and other stressors have only increased in intensity since the spring.
“The ability to proceed as normal in this semester with everything that is going on is quite frankly, an enormous privilege,” Yates said. “Students that have access to quiet places to work, good internet, stable financial circumstances, good mental health — those are all things that are not particularly widespread at this point in time.”
In the letter, the authors refer to a late June survey taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that 25.5 percent of 18-24 year olds surveyed had “seriously considered suicide” in the 30 days before completing the survery.
“Structurally, not much has changed in regards to the state of the pandemic and the proclivity to want to return to normal is something we certainly understand… but it's just not something that has happened,” Gillam said.
The changes to the system proposed by Yates, Gillam and Dilao allow students to opt-out of a credit-based system, allowing students that feel they have the means to be graded on a letter scale to do so.
“I understand that there's a vast spectrum of where people are right now in terms of their, you know, academic obstacles, financial difficulties and burdens. But like to be completely frank, if you don't, if you're privileged enough to not need this, this doesn't affect you,” Dilao said.
In the letter, they cite the fact that many peer institutions have adopted similar grading systems to the credit/no credit/general credit system that they propose.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which canceled all in-person classes due to a COVID-19 outbreak on its campus, implemented a grading policy that allows students to opt to take any course pass/fail by their last day of classes.
Georgetown University decided to allow its students to opt into a satisfactory/credit/no credit system by their last study day, Dec. 10 — an essentially identical system to the one proposed by Yates, Gillam and Dilao.
“I'm really hopeful that given the fact that like, peer universities have kind of taken this on, and we've started to have some significantly more fruitful conversations with folks,” Gillam said. “I'm hopeful we can see some change on this issue.”
As of press time, two faculty have signed on to the letter. According to Dilao, faculty members have expressed some hesitations about signing on.
“[Professors] worked really hard to create their syllabi,” Dilao said. “They've worked really hard to have assignments and engage with their students, especially in this format, where it's already difficult to do that.”
Professors also have expressed worries that students will stop attending classes and engaging with their peers once they have done the bare minimum to obtain their credit.
“I understand where they're coming from,” Dilao said. “But we're students... and this is what's best. We have the students' best interests at heart.”
Yates also believes that faculty haven’t signed on in part due to the fact that the authors of the letter have been spreading the message primarily over social media.
“I really do think it's probably mostly because we've just been circulating it on social media, where students are tuned in and not necessarily faculty,” Yates said.
This article has been updated to note efforts from YDSA, the MRC and FLIP.