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As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many colleges and universities have implemented policies to allow students to take classes pass/fail this semester. Students will now be asking their advisors about the consequences of this decision. It seems like it would be good to have some consensus about whether or not graduate programs in CS, or jobs in CS, would hold it against CS majors if they took a CS course pass/fail this semester instead of for a grade. Many students are facing severe displacement (e.g. living in quarantine camps in their home countries, lacking reliable internet at home, needing to take on jobs to help their family pay bills after a layoff, etc). My gut instinct is that employers would probably prefer to see a "Pass" grade on a transcript rather than a grade that lowers a student's GPA. I also suspect graduate programs would understand "Pass" grades for this semester, even in core courses like operating systems. But I'm not sure, and it's a high stakes decision for students. I would love feedback from the community of CS professors.

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    $\begingroup$ The SIGCSE mailing list has a discussion going on about policies on P/F. I assume you are a member. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 31 at 17:59
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Unfortunately, at the current time, a student would be making a decision with incomplete information. I'd be more interested in how graduate schools will treat such grades and I don't know of any who have stated a policy yet. I'm pretty certain that employers haven't really even thought of it yet.

I hope, of course, that they (grad schools and employers) will be reasonable. I also hope, of course, that advisors will be able to give good and accurate letters of recommendation for students no matter which way the students choose on this question.

But there is a vast amount of disruption even beyond the obvious. Expect that even good students will have trouble keeping up to their normal standards. It will require a lot of ongoing support. Some students are stuck in travel-hell. Some will lose family members. Some will have poor connections to their universities. Much, much more.

So, at this time, it is hard to recommend one choice over the other. What is sensible to do now, with available information, may prove sub-optimal when the policies fall in to place.

But you can lobby your own institutions for the quick creation and dissemination of reasonable policies. It is probably required that the whole academic establishment come together with principles. The current mix of policies may actually be adding to the chaos while trying to solve the issue individually.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, we came up with a reasonable policy here at Denison, and I was on the group that proposed it. Part of what we factored in were statements from med schools about how they would be handling pass/fail marks on transcripts for this semester. It would probably be helpful to have similar such statements from a few flagship CS grad programs. $\endgroup$ – David White Mar 31 at 20:07
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Given the scale of this pandemic, and the hard questions being faced by many schools, I strongly suspect that graduate schools will be okay with Pass/Fail, if only because more and more institutions are utilizing it for this semester.

Here are just a few universities and colleges that have instituted the change to P/F (or a close variant): Smith, Middlebury, Grinnell, Northwestern, CUNY, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth, and MIT. The list isn't even slightly close to being exhaustive, it was just what I got today from the top result on my Google search, along with assertions that "most schools" have either moved or are considering moving to P/F.

It is likely that the schools to which your students will be applying with their pass/fail grades will themselves have been issuing pass/fail grades during this period, so I expect that admissions officers will look elsewhere on the transcript for more detailed information about student performance.

Obviously this creates some winners and some losers, as it assigns more weight to the other semesters of a student's undergraduate career, but it does not appear that it will be any kind of "black mark".

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    $\begingroup$ One scary data point was certain med schools saying "we won't hold pass grades against you if you didn't have a choice", which would mean my institution's policy "everyone can opt-in to pass/fail" would lead to students who choose that option being penalized. I kind of figured CS grad students would not take such a hard line, for reasons analogous to those you laid out. $\endgroup$ – David White Apr 1 at 20:14

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