Instructor Q&A: Grading for Spring Semester 2020

Published 04/02/20. Last updated 04/24/20.

On Friday March 20, 2020, in response to the challenges to our campus academic mission brought in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the campus announced a new grading policy(link is external) that will be applied in the Spring 2020 semester, whereby the default grading option for all undergraduate student enrollments will move to P/NP. The default grading policy for graduate student enrollment remains unchanged, but the policies approved do provide graduate programs the flexibility to design local responses (Covid-19 information for graduate education(link is external)).

This new grading policy is an emergency measure in response to the truly extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in as a campus. The primary aim of the policy is to alleviate some of the stresses that students are inevitably subjected to under the unprecedented conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health response. Our students are justifiably proud of their accomplishments here at Berkeley, and grades are important to them, but in this time of crisis, there are—and should be room for—higher priorities. The new grading policy is intended to allow students to take their classes on a P/NP basis without fear of negative consequences. It is vital that the campus, colleges, departments, and programs—as well as individual instructors and academic advisors—clearly convey the message that taking the P/NP grading option in Spring 2020 will not carry any adverse consequences in relation to degree requirements or academic status.

Another underlying intent of the emergency P/NP grading policy is to reflect the fact that instructors have in many cases been forced to drastically alter their course plans as well as their methods of both instruction and assessment, and that it may be difficult to confidently issue letter grades via the usual means. In fact in many cases it might have been preferable for instructors to be able to impose a blanket P/NP policy without the option of a letter grade. Such a policy, however, was found to constitute a potential violation of the campus’s contractual obligations to students, and there was strong pushback from many undergraduate students and their representatives. This is why, even though the Spring 2020 emergency grading policy makes P/NP the default grading option for all undergraduate students, instructors must nonetheless maintain sufficiently robust grading records for each student so that a letter grade is available upon request. In many instances instructors and their programs will need to work creatively and collaboratively to find resolutions to this challenging situation.

The emergency grading policy for Spring 2020 is intended to alleviate some of the serious negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our academic mission. Any such measure, however, can only provide a partial, “least bad” solution to these unprecedented challenges. To realize, to the greatest extent possible, the underlying aims of the policy—to alleviate students’ anxieties over academic performance, and to reflect the vastly altered context of instruction we are all encountering in Spring 2020—will require flexibility, agility, and imagination from every member of the campus community.

This Q&A is a living document. If your question is not answered here, please submit it to sends e-mail) and an answer will be posted as soon as feasible. Please note that a companion Q/A for students is available. Please refer your students to this resource. The companion Q/A is being coordinated with related Q/A that have been composed by Colleges, e.g., the College of Engineering(link is external), to answer frequently asked questions.

Questions Covered

Q. Why do I have to report letter grades where requested, even if I feel a blanket P/NP grading option would be more appropriate to the circumstances of my class?

A. Because we have a legal obligation to do so. The advice of Campus Counsel is that to refuse to provide a letter grade where requested by the student could be legally ruled to constitute a breach of the underlying contract with the student. Undergraduate students retain the ability to request a letter grade via Cal Central until 11:59 pm on Friday, May 8, 2020. 

 Q. What are my obligations for recording or reporting grading information for undergraduate students who retain the default P/NP grades for Spring 2020?

A. The need to maintain clear and robust grading records for all students is purely a function of our obligation to provide a letter grade where a student requests one—bear in mind that undergraduate students may opt to revert to a letter-graded grading option up to 11:59 pm on Friday, May 8 (end of RRR week). There is, however, no requirement to record or submit letter grades for students who retain the default P/NP grading option.

Some earlier communications on the Spring 2020 emergency P/NP grading policy referred to an obligation to maintain and submit letter grades even for students retaining the default P/NP grading option. After further consultation, and with input from the Office of the Registrar, we can now state that there is no need to submit letter grades except for students who request them. Instructors may wish to keep their own records of the letter grades that students taking Spring 2020 P/NP grades would have earned, for reference in recommendation letters or similar purposes (and bear in mind that grade grievances are still possible even under the emergency P/NP grading policy). Instructors may enter such “hypothetical” letter grades in the comments field on their grade reports in Campus Solutions, but there is no requirement to do so. Students may need to be reminded that retroactively changing a P/NP grade to a letter grade is not permissible.

 Q: How does the policy change impact Incompletes?

A. The grading basis for Incompletes earned prior to Spring 2020 is based on the student’s original grading option. Instructors may see an uptick in the number of students requesting extensions of Incompletes. The process remains unchanged.  For Incompletes granted in spring 2020, the grading option a student chooses by May 8 at 11:59pm will apply when a grade is issued in the future.

 Q. How can I help to reassure students that they can retain their default P/NP grades without negative consequences?

A. While any one student my opt to choose to take a class for a letter grade or P/NP, the need to ensure that students can take default P/NP grades in Spring 2020 without any negative consequence is a basic principle underlying the policy. A number of measures are being taken across campus to bring this about. In particular, departments and degree programs are urged to waive requirements for letter grades for major credit or as prerequisites to admission into a major. In addition, everything necessary is being done to preclude possible negative impacts of Spring 2020 P/NP credit on the calculation of student GPAs.

On this point, it is vital to bear in mind that the message about local adjustments and workarounds for the new conditions of instruction and assessment really need to come from a local source—so we strongly encourage colleges, departments, degree programs, as well as individual faculty and academic advisors, to spread the word regarding such Spring 2020 waivers of letter grade requirements to their own students. A good example of a college-wide resource for students and instructors can be found here: College of Engineering Spring 2020 COVID-19 FAQs(link is external)

 Q. How can I encourage my students to opt for the default P/NP grades this semester?

A. As outlined above, it is a basic principle of this policy that opting for the default P/NP grading option will not carry negative academic consequences for students. By the same token, grades and transcripts for Spring 2020, both on this campus and across the country (and indeed the world), are going to look different, and be treated differently, from those in more normal circumstances.

More generally, any letter grades issued this semester will likely be taken with a very large grain of salt by employers or graduate schools. While UC instructors have done an incredible job switching to remote instruction, graduate schools know that learning this semester was complicated in both delivery and reception. They also know that there are issues of academic integrity involved in a rapid transition to exams that can no longer be proctored on campus. 

Consequently, and here we quote from a statement released by the Council of Deans(link is external): “UC Berkeley evaluates applicants for admission to its graduate and professional schools holistically, meaning that we consider an applicant’s combination of personal accomplishments, letters of recommendation, personal statements, academic record, and test scores in making our admissions decisions. Such a review will take into account the significant disruptions of COVID-19 when reviewing students’ transcripts and other admissions materials from Spring 2020. We understand that many institutions across the country instituted P/NP grading policies during that semester. Thus, we will not penalize students for the adoption of P/NP and other grading options during this unprecedented period, whether the choices were made by institutions or by individual students. Our admissions evaluation will focus primarily on a student’s academic performance prior to this period, and if applicable, following this period. What is most important is that applicants demonstrate that they pursued a challenging curriculum that was relevant to their plan for graduate or professional school.”

Perhaps the best and most important message around the Spring 2020 grading policy is to clarify its underlying intent—that is, to alleviate some portion of the stress and anxiety that students are inevitably encountering in this trying time. The message to students at the human level is, “You have enough stress in your lives without worrying about letter grades. Your lives have been turned on their heads. You have been forced to leave campus in the middle of semester. You are living under quarantine. You and your families may be facing job loss and economic hardship. Most important, many of you will fall ill or have people you love fall ill in the weeks ahead. So think twice about adding to all the pressure and complications by taking your classes for a letter grade.” 

At the same time, however, instructors should refrain from coercing or pressuring students to take the class P/NP. There have been reports of instructors “guilting” students, complaining that they are already spending a lot of time moving classes to remote instruction and that they shouldn’t have the additional burden of providing letter grades. While the emergency Spring 2020 grading policy has been formulated with the understanding that P/NP grades will be the best option for most students in most courses, instructors need to bear in mind that the choice of grading option is ultimately in the student’s hands.

 Q. What are the implications of the new grading policy for graduate student enrollment? 

A. The default grading option for graduate student enrollment was not changed. However, the grading policy changes approved by the Academic Senate are available to graduate programs. Specifically, each degree program can decide to relax requirements regarding the S/U option. The existing policy allows graduate students to change the grading status of their courses up to the last day of instruction. We encourage departments and programs to apply some of the same flexibility in assessing Spring 2020 graduate S/U credits that we are requesting be granted for undergraduates who opt for the P/NP grading option.

 Q. Why did the grading policy for graduate student enrollment remain unchanged? 

A. Graduate courses span a much greater range of circumstances than undergraduate courses. Thus we left the discretion of making a change in the grading policy to the local level where constraints (e.g., the demands of professional accreditation) will be best understood. 

 Q. Are there things to consider about grading on a curve?

A. The ability of undergraduate students to change from a letter grade to P/NP as late as May 8 may complicate the process of grading on a curve, The impact will depend on how you treat the scores of students who take the class P/NP. If the curve includes only those students who take the class for a letter grade, then the likelihood that students with low grades will opt for P/NP could make it difficult for even strong performers to earn a high grade. Indeed, if most students initially take the course for a letter grade and the low-performers then opt for P/NP in early May, the grades of many of the remaining students could potentially fall as a result. By contrast, if the curve includes the scores of students who are taking the class P/NP (and you are required to maintain grading records for all undergraduate students this semester regardless of the grading option they eventually choose), then the curve may be considerably easier than in normal times, since many students will be doing just enough work to pass, as opposed to striving for the best possible grade. 

Because of the late date for switching to P/NP, it is probably better to avoid grading on a curve. Concerns about academic integrity are another reason to avoid grading on a curve: students who cheat may still get their A’s, but in the absence of a curve, their “success” will not reduce the chances for other students to get A’s as well. If you decide to grade on a curve nonetheless, be sure to inform your class how the curve will work, in particular, how the scores of students who take the class P/NP will be treated.

 Q. I feel my ability to issue letter grades in my class is not unduly compromised. Am I required to advise my students to stick with the default P/NP option? 

A. No. In some courses, instructors may feel that their ability to carry out instruction and assessment is not impacted to the point that a blanket P/NP grading policy is needed or warranted. The emergency grading policy therefore preserves the autonomy of the individual instructor to make the best local judgment as to how to advise students about choosing a grading option. At the same time, instructors are urged to remain mindful of the broader challenges their students are facing in the current instructional landscape as well as in their lives. An instructor’s confidence that instruction and assessment can proceed more or less normally does not erase the exceptional and widely disparate challenges students are facing in regard to access and full participation in their academic work. Regardless of how the instructor decides to handle advising about grading options in Spring 2020, the principle that no student who accepts the default P/NP grading option should suffer any adverse academic consequences must  be maintained.

 Q. I feel my ability to assess student performance is seriously compromised. What strategies might there be to assign grades where required, even if I don’t feel the usual means are viable?

A. The Spring 2020 emergency guidelines afford instructors flexibility to shift the grade value of various course components, in response to changed conditions of instruction, from what was initially laid out at the beginning of the semester (see also COCI’s guidelines for Spring 2020 Final examinations). Syllabi distributed at the beginning of the semester must typically contain a clear rubric of the graded requirements and the value of each assignment towards the final grade that is maintained across the semester. In the case of Spring 2020, in which we are confronted with substantially altered instructional circumstances, if making changes to that grading rubric accords with the instructor’s sense of the best or “least bad” grading strategy, then it will be reasonable for an instructor to change the grading rubric. 

When entertaining such emergency options, however, it is important to bear in mind that any changes to a grading rubric should be announced to students in a clear and timely manner. Furthermore, while instructors are afforded flexibility to alter the weighting of course assignments as needed, it is not acceptable to establish different sets of requirements for letter-graded versus P/NP grading options.

Q. How can I address potential problems with academic integrity?

A. All disciplines are not created equal when it comes to finding ways to carry out graded assessments remotely without compromising academic integrity. In most Humanities and Social Sciences courses, it is relatively easy to replace exams with papers or oral presentations, so these sectors should not have much trouble issuing letter grades. For the STEM fields that rely primarily on exams, by contrast, it is less obvious how to proceed. Faculty in STEM fields have serious concerns about cheating. These concerns are exacerbated by the lack of in-person proctoring during this time of shelter in place. Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution, although the Academic Senate does offer a set of guidelines here

One strategy to mitigate cheating and remind students of their obligation not just to themselves but to the community is to have a statement on an exam that the student must sign. To this end, the honor code at Berkeley is simple: “As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others.” The code was recently developed by the ASUC in conjunction with the Graduate Assembly, the Deans of Letters and Sciences, and the Academic Senate. The honor code does not preclude instructors from including statements about honesty and integrity on their exams and assessments. For example, students could be required to sign a pledge along the lines of: “I swear on my honor that I have neither given nor received aid with this assessment/exam.” Students should also be reminded that penalties for cheating on exams could be severe – failure of the course at a minimum and possibly suspension.

Q. Can instructors of graduate courses change the default grading option for their course?

A. No. Individual graduate students can change their grading option from Letter Grade to S/U until the last day of instruction (May 8). The Academic Senate has temporarily suspended regulations governing S/U grades that will give programs and students flexibility during Spring 2020: 1) for those courses that degree programs require to be taken on a letter-graded basis, programs may decide to accept S/U grades for those courses this semester*, and 2) graduate students registered this semester can take more than 1/3 of their total units on an S/U basis. We strongly urge faculty to discuss changes in grading policy for programs and come to consensus before finalizing any decisions.

* This flexibility applies to Option 2 graduate certificates as well.

Q. How can a student change the grading option for one of their courses?

A. Students can change their grading option in CalCentral. Detailed instructions can be found once students have logged in to CalCentral or on the following website: This resource will be updated to address student concerns should they arise.

Q. Are summer 2020 enrollments going to be changed to default P/NP grading?

A. We do not anticipate changing summer enrollments to default P/NP grading due to COVID-19.

Q. How is In Progress (IP) grading for two-semester sequence courses being handled under the Spring 2020 grading policy?

A. Two-semester course sequences (e.g., for senior honors thesis projects) usually receive an IP grade for the first semester, with a final grade for the whole course being assigned in the second semester. Students in the second semester of a two-semester course sequence in Spring 2020 may either accept the Spring 2020 default P/NP grade, or opt back to a letter-graded option (in courses approved for letter grades), and allow this grade to serve, as usual, as the overall grade for the two-semester sequence. In addition, a one-time exception has been approved for Spring 2020 to allow students who accept a default P/NP grade in the second semester the option (in consultation with their instructor/advisor) of splitting the grading for the course across the two semesters, so as to retroactively change their Fall 2019 IP grade to a letter grade, to be assigned in addition to the Spring 2020 default P/NP grade.

This option is available only to students who opt for a Spring 2020 default P/NP grade in the course. Students who opt for a letter grade in Spring 2020, or who take an Incomplete grade, will receive (as usual in such courses) a single grade for both part one and part two of the sequence. When work for Incomplete grades is completed, a grade will be assigned based on the grading option the student has chosen as of May 8th, 2020.

Students in the first semester of a two-semester course sequence in Spring 2020 will receive an IP grade for Spring 2020 as usual in such courses. A decision will be made based on instructional circumstances in Fall 2020 as to whether or not to extend this exception beyond Spring 2020.

Compiled by Robert Ashmore, John Battles, Patrick Holmes, Jonah Levy, Terry Johnson, Oliver O’Reilly, and members of the Graduate Council, Undergraduate Council, and Committee on Courses of Instruction of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.