Admin. amends pass/fail policy for Spring 2020 courses following student feedback


Photo by Kathleen Creedon

This article is a part of the Trinitonian’s coverage of Trinity University’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Click here to read the rest of our coverage.

On top of my regular stress and anxiety, this pandemic and all the changes that have come with it make staying focused, engaged and motivated very difficult.

I am stressed, unmotivated and distracted, and I want to break out of it, but anything I would do to solve this is hindered by the quarantine.

I think no matter what Trinity is doing, it’s still extremely insensitive to low income families and those without a stable home environment. However, my one complaint is obviously not going to fix the situation.

When students filled out an anonymous survey sent by the university on April 2, their responses reflected much of the chaos, uncertainty and discomfort of life in a world wrought by COVID-19.

These responses are just one part of the reason the Office of Academic Affairs extended the pass/fail deadline beyond the initial extension.

On Wednesday, April 22, vice president for Academic Affairs Deneese Jones announced changes to the pass/fail policy for Spring 2020 courses that came from multiple surveys and weeks of feedback from students and faculty:

“The Office of Academic Affairs will accept and approve student requests to convert to pass/fail registration through the end of the Fall 2020 semester,” Jones wrote.

That means the Office of Academic Affairs will approve all requests for elective coursework, Pathways coursework and major/minor coursework through December 17, 2020. The change applies to all students, including graduating seniors, and allows students to receive their final grade and then make a decision about their registration.

This decision is broader than the initial extension, which required approval from department chairs and advisers for Pathways and major/minor coursework. The deadline of the initial extension was April 3, three weeks after the beginning of online synchronous courses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Fall 2020 deadline for making such requests is meant to give you ample time for consultation and careful decision-making,” Jones wrote.

This response is, in part, a result of two surveys — the aforementioned survey sent on April 2 and one spearheaded by a student and sent on April 9 — and feedback from faculty.

The first survey was released by the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness. Of Trinity’s 2,573-student population, 1,053 responded to this survey. It included questions of whether students felt “stormy” or “a little rainy” with academics, areas affecting their abilities to learn and what academic support services students need.

But sophomore Rachel Kaufman wasn’t satisfied with the types of questions that the survey asked students.

“I was really concerned with Trinity students being able to keep up with the rigor of the status quo that we have. Trinity is a really tough school, and a lot of professors didn’t seem to be adjusting from that,” said Kaufman, the student behind the second survey.

Kaufman’s survey addresses more mental health-related issues she saw her friends and fellow classmates having.

“This isn’t just a matter of whether you have stable wifi, so I wanted to make a survey that encompassed our academic stress, beyond wifi and if we’re feeling stormy,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman also said she’d thought students would respond better to a survey created by a student. So, she went to Sarah Beth Kaufman, assistant professor of sociology and of no relation to Rachel, who put her in touch with Michael Soto, associate vice president for Academic Affairs.

Rachel explained that Professor Kaufman had been instrumental in making the survey happen in all of its stages.

Then, once approved by the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness and run past members of the Office of Academic Affairs, Rachel brought the survey to the Student Government Association (SGA), which provided feedback.

As of April 23, the survey had 1,116 responses, just under half of the student body.

Rachel and members of SGA compared Trinity to its aspirant institutions’ responses to COVID-19 and looked through students’ feedback from Rachel’s survey. They met with Soto, and some SGA members also met with university president Danny Anderson.

Incoming SGA president Jaelen Harris, junior, was one of the SGA representatives at the meeting with President Anderson.

“When we first arrived, the first thing we made sure to tell President Anderson, we underscored how serious of a situation that our students are in,” Harris said at this Wednesday’s SGA meeting. “We knew this transition would be a struggle, but there were certain things, especially around grading, where we felt students were suffering mentally and large action could be taken to relieve that stress.”

Harris and the other members of SGA agreed with Rachel’s findings from her survey: Students feel overwhelmed despite the initial April 3 pass/fail extension.

“If 700 students are saying they can’t do this, then you need to realize that the pressure is too much,” Rachel said about the survey results, which will be finalized April 24. “I don’t think that students should receive a B in a pandemic. I think that’s preposterous and aggressive and demeaning to the morale of our student body.”

Administrators looked at the data from Rachel’s survey, the data from the original university-created survey and the feedback they’d received from faculty members and decided to extend the deadline.

“The goal all along has been to do what’s best for students and to give them some some flexible options,” Soto said. “The faculty want to be supportive of students. And that includes kind of helping them manage an ongoing crisis, but also helping them achieve their their longer term academic career goals.”

Soto explained that a student’s decision may conflict with some academic goals, as institutions may disregard classes registered as pass/fail.

“Students who are interested in graduate or professional school are having important conversations with their academic advisers and their other mentors about those decisions usually in the middle of the fall semester, and sometimes toward the end of the fall semester,” Soto said. “But switching the registration to pass/fail is the easy part. Having the conversations that matter ahead of that time? That’s going to take some some time, and I wanted to make sure that students have enough time for that.”

As of Wednesday, Soto said around 600 requests had been made by individual students for individual classes, though it’s too soon to tell what the final number will be in December 2020.

Soto said he recognized the importance of students’ voices in this decision-making process.

“One thing that I think my faculty colleagues have realized is the capacity among our students to empathize with each other. And so whether or not there’s a personal tragedy involved … I think all students really care deeply about what’s going on in their peers,” Soto said.

Rachel said she thinks there still needs to be more burden reduction for students, though she’s grateful for the changes made to pass/fail registration.

“I feel really lucky to be a part of a community that was willing to do this with me,” Rachel said. “I’m glad everyone’s being responsive and so willing to work together.”