3 ways institutions should adjust student evaluation and grading policies

Expert Insight

3 ways institutions should adjust student evaluation and grading policies

As remote instruction becomes the “new normal,” administrators and faculty must adapt student grading and assessment to account for COVID-19 disruptions. For many students, academic priorities compete with pressing family obligations, housing issues, and other unpredictable challenges.

Meanwhile, instructors must transition courses to remote instruction and teach in an unfamiliar modality, while balancing their own personal conflicts and responsibilities. In this environment, a status quo approach to student grading and assessment jeopardizes students’ academic standing and degree progression.

Use the checklist items below to update institutional policies on letter grading, calculation and denotation of academic standing like GPA and honors, and deadlines for academic milestones like major declaration.


Institutions in the U.S. and Canada publicize documented grading change policies, according to Dr. Laura Gibbs' Digital Teaching blog
Institutions in the U.S. and Canada publicize documented grading change policies, according to Dr. Laura Gibbs’ Digital Teaching blog

1. Introduce a non-letter (or non-numerical) grading system to ensure student degree progression

Weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, dozens of colleges and universities now offer students a non-letter grade option to replace letter grades for courses disrupted by the transition to remote instruction. Options include binary grade denotations (e.g., credit/no credit, pass/fail, satisfactory/unsatisfactory) and systems with three denotations (e.g., pass/low pass/unsatisfactory). You and others on your campus may be asking if you should follow suit.

Why EAB recommends offering a non-letter grade option

Many students now face additional challenges, such as increased family obligations, loss of income, sharing space and technology with others, and poor Internet connectivity–not to mention COVID-19-induced stress and anxiety. In addition, students may find that their reliable practices to succeed academically no longer apply. Disruptions may range from losing a favorite study spot to no longer having time to study on weekdays.

Not only will COVID-19-related struggles threaten every student’s success, they will disproportionately impact under-represented minority, low socioeconomic status, first-generation, single-parent, and female students.

Institutions should note that an opt-out non-letter grade system advances equity for students. Research and practice confirm that individuals in under-represented groups are less likely to take advantage of opt-in systems for fear that their choice may reflect negatively on them.

Some students may prefer to retain an official letter grade, especially if they feel confident about their performance in a course or if their plans depend on a strong GPA and/or a transcript with letter grades. For example, students may require letter grades to:

  • Maintain GPA-dependent funding, like scholarships or grants
  • Receive employer tuition reimbursements
  • Transfer credits from one institution to another
  • Apply to graduate school
  • Qualify for competitive professional opportunities   

Help students make an informed decision

Evaluate the best non-letter grade policy for your institution based on the five sample policies outlined below.

As part of a non-letter grade policy, consider allowing students to:

  • Select a non-letter grade on a per-course basis
  • Reverse their decision throughout the term
  • See their final course grade prior to making the decision on preferred grade type
  • Elect the non-letter grade option without counting it against their maximum allowed number of non-letter grade courses (as determined by institutional policy)
  • Count non-letter grade courses toward gen ed, minor, and major requirements, regardless of departmental policies, as long as the change does not violate accreditation requirements

Administrators and faculty worry that students will rush to elect non-letter grading without weighing the consequences of their decision on future opportunities

To address this concern, consider the following options, currently under evaluation at some institutions:

  • Consult with relevant accrediting bodies to determine the repercussions of non-letter grading on degree progression within programs with programmatic accreditation or that lead to licensure or certification
  • Encourage students to consult their advisor prior to making their final decision
  • Advise students to verify letter-grade dependent policies that impact their funding, academic career progression, or professional goals
  • Develop a decision tree or a pros and cons list that students can use to guide their thinking

5 non-letter grading policy types at U.S. institutions from most to least burden on students

On a case-by-case basis, students may retroactively petition to change a letter grade to a non-letter grade, based on extraordinary circumstances and/or consultation with advisor.

Northwestern University
Auburn University

Students receive a letter grade, unless they request a non-letter grade option. They must choose the non-letter grade option prior to seeing their final course grade.

Prairie View A&M University
Grinnell College

Students receive a letter grade, unless they request a non-letter grade option. They may choose the non-letter grade option after seeing their final grades, with at least a seven-day window to decide.

Carnegie Mellon University
Clarkson University
CUNY The City University of New York
Brigham Young University
Lehigh University
University of Calgary
University of Guelph

Students receive a non-letter grade, unless they request a letter grade. As such, faculty must maintain letter grades for all students. Administrators must now formalize the process to convert the non-letter grade to a letter grade in students’ transcripts.

Duke University
Swarthmore College
University of Michigan

Students necessarily receive a non-letter grade. In some cases, they may receive an academic citation for exceptional work, or they may request a statement of their letter grade(s) separately from their transcript.

Bowdoin College
Columbia University
Dartmouth College
Kalamazoo College
Smith College
University of Washington

Take a 3-question poll: Impact of non-letter grading on student engagement

As the ink still dries on COVID-19 grading policy updates, their impact on student engagement remains unclear. Some partners worry that students will engage less actively in non-letter graded courses than in those that remain letter-graded. We will update this toolkit with findings from the poll to inform your thinking on the implications of a temporary non-letter grading system on student engagement.

2. Exclude the term(s) and/or course(s) affected by COVID-19 from academic standing calculations to prevent penalizing students for unavoidable conflicts and stressors

Example Institutions

Kalamazoo College: Student transcripts will reflect that the institution required credit/no credit grading during the Spring term

Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan: Administrators introduced a “No Record Covid (NRC)” transcript notation

University of Washington: Transcripts will contain asterisks next to impacted courses, followed by an explanation of COVID-19 circumstances

Dartmouth College: Faculty may select students to receive academic citations for high performance

It’s no secret that COVID-19 will harm many students’ academic performance. In turn, it may complicate students’ ability to secure institutional awards or pursue continuing education and other opportunities that require a strong GPA and transcript. Administrators can introduce policy changes that level the playing field for students adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Evaluate the following changes to GPAs and transcripts:

  • Create a transcript denotation that notes COVID-19 circumstances
  • Exclude non-letter graded courses from GPA calculations
  • Remove all courses during impacted terms from consideration for standard academic honors and distinctions (e.g., Dean’s List, class rank, honors standing)
  • Consider introducing an academic transcript denotation to commend students for exceptional academic work during the COVID-19 crisis

3. Adjust academic deadlines to allow students more time to consider important academic progress decisions

  • Postpone major declaration deadlines to give students more time to virtually connect with advisors and weigh their decision (e.g., current performance in prerequisite courses)
  • Postpone Fall pre-registration to account for unexpected COVID-19-related conflicts that may influence students’ decision-making for their next term
  • Extend the penalty-free course drop deadline to help students balance competing priorities. Some institutions, like Rice University, allow students to drop a course as late as the last day of class.

“Brown has a particular approach informed by student advocacy. We do try to minimize consideration of grades and maximize consideration of student learning, and this was the proposal that we thought… would allow that to happen.”

Dr. Rashid Zia
Dean of the College at Brown University

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