'Online classes suck'

Examining grading trends after a year of pass/no pass policies



In March 2020, UC Berkeley implemented a universal pass/no pass, or P/NP, policy for the semester, setting a campus precedent for an adjusted grading system during remote schooling. Adjustments were extended through fall 2020 and spring 2021, with various differences between colleges. Despite the worsening pandemic, grading policies for summer 2020 and part of fall 2020 continued as usual until campus administrators adjusted to student concerns.

The bar graph shows the number of letter grades requested by students before and during the pandemic. In spring 2020, during universal P/NP, the number of requested letter grades was half of the usual amount. The distribution of all grades in fall 2020 was more similar to that of prior semesters, but the number of requested letter grades still fell short. A possible explanation for this result is that P/NP policies were mostly undetermined until late fall, giving students less time to decide between grade options. Another explanation could be that students had become used to remote learning and felt more comfortable taking their classes for a letter grade. The Rausser College of Natural Resources was the only college where the number of letter grades surpassed all prior numbers from spring 2019 to spring 2020.

In spring 2020, how many grades from each college were letter versus pass/no pass grades?

In spring 2020, 61% of grades across all undergraduate colleges and schools were P/NP. Haas School of Business had the highest P/NP percentage at 66%, with the College of Engineering following closely at 64%. This grade distribution is interesting given that The Daily Californian previously found that Haas and engineering students are the most likely to be employed right after graduation. College of Chemistry alumni are the most likely to attend graduate school immediately after undergrad. Coincidentally, the lowest percentage of P/NP grades was held by the College of Chemistry at 50%.

In fall 2020, how many grades from each college were letter versus pass/no pass grades?

By fall 2020, only 31% of grades among all undergraduate colleges and schools were P/NP. The College of Environmental Design had the lowest percentage of P/NP grades at 21%. Similarly, only 25% of chemistry grades were P/NP. By contrast, 39% of engineering grades were P/NP, a 7% difference from the next lowest percentage held by the Haas school. Interestingly, Haas students were subject to stricter grading policies for fall 2020 and spring 2021, as they were only allowed one business course per semester to be taken P/NP. In the business school’s policy announcement, administrators stated they “must also consider the academic implications and potential negative impact on students for career and graduate school opportunities.”

By spring 2021, everyone had adapted to some variant of adjusted grading. P/NP options were the standard for online schooling.

For upperclassmen, remote learning revealed a change in academic rigorousness and motivation. In an anonymous survey conducted by the Daily Cal, a junior electrical engineering and computer sciences and business major claimed that continued remote education meant “a continued reduction in education quality.”

They said, “I actually really do enjoy the classes I'm taking, but my productivity and effort has continued to diminish and I'm left feeling less than satisfied with my performance.”

A senior computer science major said, “online classes suck.”

Meanwhile, younger students struggled to find their footing at Cal. “Still having trouble adjusting to distance learning,” said one sophomore integrative biology major. One freshman reported feeling burnt out after one semester.

When prompted to compare spring 2021 to fall 2020 in the survey, students most frequently cited social life as a reason for bettering or worsening stress levels. “I think moving to Berkeley has actually increased my stress, although bettering my social life as well,” said a sophomore computer science major.

Some cited the adjusted grading policy as a stress reliever. “I just cared a lot less because I was P/NP, so my stress and sleep responded in kind,” said a senior studying industrial engineering and operations research and business.

About this story

Data for pass/no pass and letter grades was sourced from UC Berkeley's public database Cal Answers. Spring 2021 grade data was not available as of press time.

This project is open-source on GitHub.

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