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Why Notre Dame should move to pass/fail

| Thursday, March 19, 2020

The past week has been one of the most destabilizing, frightening and saddest weeks of my life. Most of my friends can say the same.

In the upcoming week, students are going to have to figure out how to get home and adjust to living in isolation. For many of us, the second half of spring semester is the best time of the year, and having this taken away is heartbreaking, even though it is the right decision. For some of us, we still need to figure out where home is. As someone with divorced parents living in two different states and the uncertainty of domestic travel bans, I still don’t know where home will be for me.

In this time of monumental upheaval and uncertainty, we will still have to refocus on school in a week. While I agree that this is the right decision to keep classes going, this will still be an uncomfortable adjustment for many students who have never taken online classes before or who have never been asked to learn remotely. 

It is impossible to believe that going forward, anyone will be able to learn and understand classroom material as well as they have been able to do up until this point. First, the adjustment to online classes will be choppy and inevitably have difficulties for all parties involved. Second, the absence of in-person discussions with teachers, peers and tutors will inhibit and degrade the learning process. 

When I took my first philosophy class during my first semester on campus, I loved going to class, and my professor became a friend and mentor who had me over for dinner and wrote recommendation letters for me. When I took another philosophy class this past fall, it was my favorite class I’ve ever taken, and the impassioned discussions we had in class were one of the main reasons I decided to become a philosophy double major. My story is not an anomaly, and it is part of what makes Notre Dame so special. There’s a reason that a textbook costs $120 and tuition is over $50,000 — being on-campus and being able to interact with other brilliant people has a value that far supersedes the value of the information in a textbook.

Because of all that we, as a Notre Dame community, are losing, I believe Notre Dame should continue to be a champion for the best interests of its students and give students the ability to make all classes pass/fail on a course-by-course basis. This would be consistent with the actions of other respected institutions like Harvard University and Cornell University as well as with Notre Dame’s self-proclaimed desire to do right by its students.

From in-class activities to group projects to tests, it is inconceivable that the learning and personal development that typically happens on-campus will be able to happen in the same way. In addition, all the stress and change that students and faculty are going through, both academically and personally, create an environment that is not conducive to optimal learning. The absence of valuable resources such as office hours and the added stress of living in isolation and under great uncertainty makes it unreasonable to assume that students will be able to be fully cognitively present. As such, I believe that it would be unfair to continue to force students to be graded on the traditional grading scale that implicitly contains a lot of assumptions about our learning environments that will be unmet in the upcoming weeks.

From a more cynical perspective, students who are taking tests and doing in-class assignments from home are undoubtedly going to have the temptation to cheat and use resources that they wouldn’t typically have access to. For example, I know one student who is going to campus from Chicago just to grab his second laptop so he can use it side-by-side with his main laptop when taking tests and assignments. This creates an environment where students who would otherwise act honestly must decide between acting consistent with their morals or producing a level of work that is on par with what other students are unethically producing. If students are worried about having to keep up with a prescribed curve, it is naïve to believe they won’t cheat and shift their focus from learning to doing whatever they can to get the best grade.

Ultimately, the development of COVID-19 has been problematic and heartbreaking for the entire world, and I applaud Notre Dame for how they have acted so far. However, I believe Notre Dame should continue to proactively do right by its students by giving them the option to make classes pass/fail during this unusual semester. This is an unprecedented time, and Notre Dame will need to continue to take unprecedented actions. In unprecedented times, it is challenging to find actions that are fair and ensure that students can learn as best as possible. Getting rid of in-person classes was the right and easy decision. Executing the rest of the semester with wisdom and compassion is where the real work begins.

Luke Brizzolara


Mar. 15

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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