As coronavirus challenges education, UWRF students now have option for grades

Posted April 3, 2020

Undergraduate students at UW-River Falls will now have the choice to switch their spring 2020 course grading scales to “pass/fail.” The news came Thursday afternoon when Provost David Travis sent an email to the approximately 6,000 undergraduate students notifying them of the change.

Most courses at the university are offered using an A-F letter grade. The choice to switch to pass/fail was approved by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, which late Tuesday night forwarded the recommendation to Chancellor Dean Van Galen. Late Tuesday night, the chancellor signed off on the temporary adjustment to academic policies.

The decision to give undergraduate students the ability to convert classes to a pass/fail grading scale was made in response to the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic that has led all classes to be delivered by “alternative methods” until at least the end of the spring semester.

Many degree programs require certain grade achievements in prerequisite classes to allow students to move to the next tier of courses. Under the changes, pass/fail will not work for those courses.

“If you need a prerequisite grade, it’s going to be a ‘no,’ you can’t do pass/fail for this class. It’s not a blanket, everything goes through a review just to make sure that students don’t get slammed by problems like that,” said Faculty Senate Chair Mialisa Moline.

Students will have the opportunity to request a conversion to pass/fail until April 30, using an electronic form. Once the form has been submitted, the student’s academic advisor — followed by the instructor of the course — will either approve or deny the request. Any request that is denied requires justification that will be given to the student. The deadline for academic advisor and instructor decisions is set for May 5. Students who are denied their request will be able to appeal the decision until May 31.

Typically, motions passed by the Faculty Senate require a vote of the full Senate body. However, the Executive Committee was exercising its “emergency powers” that are granted in times of crisis.

“I’ve got a full Faculty Senate who are swamped and trying to teach online for the first time. We decided to open the conversation up but not require a full senate vote,” Moline said. “I had over 40 individual comments from faculty members about this issue. I sent those to the senators and the Executive Committee before we talked on Friday.”

Moline used the feedback that she gathered from faculty to create the final proposal to submit to the chancellor late Tuesday night. According to Moline, the typical response time for the chancellor to make a decision is a week. However, Van Galen approved the motion in less than 24 hours.

For students, faculty and staff alike, UWRF is in uncharted territory and the university will be continuing to work through some of the struggles that go along with alternative learning methods. Thousands of students will be using Canvas, the online course management system, for all their classes. Online delivery also presents challenges for faculty who have not taught classes this way and who are creating lectures using audio and video for the first time. Staff in the Division of Technology Services are providing resources to help faculty and students who are more familiar with the in-person class structure.

Student Senate President Tate Schlichting said he believes it is a pivotal moment for UWRF.

“This is a university that prides itself on having the most resources possible to give their students the greatest experience they can,” Schlichting said. The political science major expressed concern, however, that having all of the students’ classes moved to online delivery, shutting down the campus and, for many, moving back in with parents where “stay home” orders are in effect, can be disruptive to their grades. “So, providing the opportunity for students to go to satisfactory or not satisfactory is incredibly important because this is an adjustment period for everybody.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, Georgetown University and others across the country also have approved pass/fail measures for the 2020 spring semester.