UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With alternative grading again an option for Penn State's spring 2021 semester, students and advisers recently discussed the decisions they made about using alternative grades.
In January, the University Faculty Senate voted 79-62 to reimplement alternative grading options for the spring 2021 semester as a tool to help undergraduate students navigate the ongoing pandemic. With the decision coming earlier in the semester than in fall and spring 2020, students and their academic advisers have even more time to decide whether alternative grades can be helpful. After final grades are submitted for the semester, students ultimately make the decision of whether to use an alternative grade (a SAT, V or Z) and they have many things to consider beyond just protecting a GPA. Academic advisers are a crucial part of the conversation, but what they and their students must consider can vary depending on the student’s goals and their academic and professional aspirations.
“It’s an individual decision for each student whether to use alternative grades for one or more of their courses,” said David Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies. “The decision should be based on a student’s individual context and goals. If that goal includes eventually submitting grades earned in college, then students should think about how those grades will look and be interpreted.”
Since alternative grading was first introduced in the spring 2020 semester in response to the pandemic, students and their support networks at Penn State have had to consider both the short- and long-term effects of choosing alternative grades over letter grades (also known as quality grades).
While alternative grading was instituted to give students a safety net in case of learning difficulties related to the pandemic, grades have effects beyond hurting or helping a GPA. There are graduate schools to consider and how their acceptance processes will interpret alternative grades. Some majors with administrative controls at Penn State won’t accept alternative grades for required courses. Scholarships that come from outside Penn State have their own criteria for evaluating whether a student can continue receiving funding, or be considered in the first place. Some organizations that provide credentials, such as in health-related fields, require quality grades on transcripts.
Academic advisers are also grappling with the question of whether there are bigger underlying issues when students take numerous alternative grades. With alternative grades, interventions related to academic warning and suspension won’t necessarily be triggered when a student encounters academic difficulty. Before the pandemic and alternative grading, if a student encountered significant academic difficulty, controls kicked in to keep them from doing too much damage and digging an academic hole too deep to climb out of.
Though there are big questions surrounding alternative grades, Penn State statistics show that only 12% of total students have used alternative grading for one or more courses.
Carolyn Jensen, director of academic advising in the Eberly College of Science, said she’s spoken to many colleagues about alternative grades, from other academic advisers and support staff, to faculty instructors.
Jensen said she has advised students who took an alternative grade for good reasons. One student she advises had done well in all of their other classes, but earned a C in a synchronously delivered course that, for the student in a different time zone, met in the middle of the night. Jensen said she supported the student’s decision to take a SAT alternative grade in that instance. Another of Jensen’s students, who was also doing well in their other courses, struggled in an academic area they usually do well in and made use of an alternative grade after earning a C-.
But Jensen also said she and her colleagues have come across cases where students were taking alternative grades for Bs and B+s in a biology course, for example. She cautioned students against considering taking the alternative grade in those situations just to protect a perfect GPA. It could lead to a perception problem where individuals looking at the SAT grade on a transcript may interpret that as more likely a C or C-.
Jensen added that one medical school has already been clear with college advisers that they won’t be accepting alternative grades and will consider those courses as having not been completed.
Isabella Gaitan-Salanga, a sophomore at the University Park campus, said she has considered taking alternative grades but ultimately decided against it.
Gaitan-Salanga noted that remote learning came with a learning curve and made connection with peers and professors more difficult. She said she considered using alternative grades, especially for the spring 2020 semester, but ultimately did not. Her biggest reason for not taking an alternative grade in the fall 2020 semester, she said, was that the academic program she hopes to be accepted into at Penn State stated it would not allow alternative grades for prerequisite courses. But she also ended up doing better than she expected when final grades were posted.
“I talked to my adviser on multiple accounts regarding alternative grades,” Gaitan-Salanga said. “Most of the time it was because my grades qualified, and I was considering using it. Sometimes my grades were barely Cs, and I would contemplate alternative grading until final grades came out. When this happened, almost always my low C's would become high C's or even B's, and I opted to leave my grade as-is.”
Marwa Khan, a senior biology major at Penn State Harrisburg, had different reasons for keeping her letter grades. While at the beginning of the pandemic she wasn’t afraid of graduate schools looking at alternative grades in a bad light, now that time has passed, that view has changed. She said it was tempting to use an alternative grade for a course where she didn’t get the grade she had hoped for but worried about how that may be interpreted in the future.
“Let's say that if I got an A- and not an A and I opted to use alternative grading, no one would know that I actually still did quite well,” she said. “It would definitely help the GPA, but you can't stand out by choosing to use it. People reading your transcript will question if you really struggled or chose to pick the easy way out. To me, that was what was important.”
Alternative grading systems were implemented at many colleges and universities during the pandemic. Some, like Penn State, have continued to offer alternative grades as an option.
“The academic advising community has done a fantastic job adapting to changing circumstances,” Smith said. "Our continued focus is to support learning and to help students to reach their academic goals."
Students looking for the most up-to-date information regarding alternative grading should visit keeplearning.psu.edu. An Alternative Grade Calculator Tool, as well as additional information on the alternative grade selection timeline, can be found at registrar.psu.edu.