Due to COVID-19, I have found myself teaching a course online. I worked with the university teaching center to transition the course online, prepared an online classroom, and updated the requirements of the course to deal with asynchronous leaning. The course went along reasonably well, and at the end I felt good about the learning demonstrated by a majority of the students.

However, some students did end up failing the course, largely due to a poor performance on the final assessments. Here is the situation:

  • The students failed to turn in early homework. I reached out to them to see if there was any technical difficulties. There were technical difficulties, and I provided a solution that the students confirmed as solving the technical issue.
  • The students continued to turn in homework late, wherein I often had to reach out to them to get submissions. Trying to be empathetic to the COVID-19 situation, I waved the late penalties (although the late submissions are recorded by the online system).
  • The final exam was available for two weeks as a take-home. The student turned in very little, earning less than 10%.
  • Upon seeing their grades, they reached out stating the same technical issue as before (which they had previously said was resolved) and that they needed to pass the course to graduate.

I feel as though I am being pressured by the students and department to pass the students with a minimum grade (the department thinks we should be lenient due to the pandemic). The students never showed up for online lectures (NB: all course materials were available for fully asynchronous learning), their course interaction scores were very low, and I felt I did everything I could to succeed in the course. Yet I feel completely at fault and guilty.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 2:55

8 Answers 8


Your department defers to you as the final authority on the student’s grade, and for a good reason: because you are the only person who sees the full picture of the student’s performance and the context in which it was assessed.

The department can give you high-level guidance and advice, but that is never a substitute for an instructor’s reasoned judgment taking into account the details of the situation.

The student, like all students everywhere, wants to pass, and like many (but not all) students will offer any excuse they can think of, no matter how feeble, for why they deserve lenient treatment. If the excuse rings hollow, ignore it.

Whatever your conscience dictates doing is the best course of action here. Making that final call is precisely what the department pays you to do and expects of you.

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    This is the answer I most agree with. I fear retaliation but I want to and will stand up for what I believe to be the honest and just decision in this situation.
    – user128402
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:02
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    I'll note that, depending on rules, you might wind up in the worst of all worlds if you take this advice. While it "feels good" it might not be effective, as it is possible that you will be overruled and punished. I agree that this is the way it should be, but, too often, isn't.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:26
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    @Buffy OP hasn’t described the departmental pressure they are subjected to. My answer imagines “normal” pressure of the sort that one might experience in a normal, reasonably well-functioning department. One can also imagine alternate scenarios in which the pressure is more along the lines of “nice tenure-track position you have there, it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it...”. In that case my advice might be a bit more similar to what you are recommending.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 19:00
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    @Buffy also, to clarify, it’s not about doing what “feels good”, it’s about doing the right thing.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 19:01
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    I'd also add that there is a need to think of all the students who DID pass on their own merits (and they were all subject to the global pandemic, too). You have an obligation to them to make their effort and pass grades meaningful.
    – Pam
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 10:08

Have you considered offering an Incomplete instead of immediately offering a pass or fail grade? This might be a compromise you could suggest which wouldn't automatically pass the student without the work being completed, while still allowing them the opportunity to complete that work and pass the class. Having been in a similar teaching situation this spring an Incomplete was a way to say, "Right now you have not remotely fulfilled the requirements to pass the class. However pre-covid shutdown you had been doing well enough (both grades and participation) that we expected you to pass the class, and as such are willing to give you more time to complete the requirements."

For a number of students in this situation we found that it was only partly about technical issues, and often there were other life circumstances compounding any technical issues. For example, chaotic living situation that was not conducive to focusing on schoolwork, struggling to keep track of all the asynchronous assignments without the structure of a class schedule, and/or extra stress about health of themselves and loved ones in the face of Covid.

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    Yes, this seems like the best solution to me. I would be willing to believe that the student thought they were submitting parts of the final (hence why they were surprised they only got 10%). Sit down, say "We're figuring out this technical issue, then you will have a week to do it, this is your only chance." Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:14
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    There are major downsides to giving Incompletes. One, it's extra work for the instructor at a busy time with no extra compensation. Two, in some environments it's very rare for students to successfully make up incompletes on their own. Especially for students with a track record of poor communication and missing deadlines, IME there's a cycle of trying to get in touch with them, and not completing the makeup work, either. In fact, it can further delay progress because the student can't register to retake the course (as they often expect to do) until the incomplete is resolved. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 22:59
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    @DanielR.Collins That's a very valid point about Incompletes having their own downsides. It sounded like the OP was feeling caught between a rock and a hard place, in which an Incomplete is another avenue to consider. Depending on the exact circumstances with student/class/graduation requirements/university it may or may not be the best option. Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 12:50
  • @DanielR.Collins: I got an I first quarter college away from home (grad school, completely underestimated the workload, couldn't get traction on 40 page paper), took the I, converted the I next quarter, but it caused a cascading failure where I had another I because of the first I, tried to convert it over summer, failed to finish doing so, converted it the first two weeks back at college. Cascading Is are a chronic problem but not an unsustainable one.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 18:35
  • Genius answer by question. There is a 3rd option besides pass or fail: incomplete!
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 15:51

The students haven't demonstrated that your course material or teaching methods are problematic. They also didn't bother making use of the material provided to help them succeed.

From your side, you resolved the technical issue timeously, and went above and beyond to both waive late penalties and chase up the student(s) when they still did not submit homework.

For me it's a clear-cut case: these students failed because they didn't put in the effort, and now that reality has sunk in, they're now trying to blame the technical issue - and implicitly you - for their failure. That's flat out dishonesty, and it's unacceptable, regardless of COVID or not.

They failed of their own accord - fail them. If they really believe they have a case, they are welcome to appeal to your department listing exculpatory reasons why they should be passed. But I suspect they won't.

Please always remember - you are part of the machine for enforcing academic honesty and integrity. Passing failed students who are also dishonest, is failing in your duty to uphold these ideals. Yes, the world needs graduates - but it needs truthful ones, not politicians.

Finally, unless your department has produced an official policy document that requires you to pass those who have supposedly failed due to COVID, pass/fail remains entirely your discretion. I suspect your department wants to have it both ways - passing more students while not appearing to relax standards - and that's also dishonest. Until or unless they're willing to formally change their policy, you have the final say, and their pressure means nothing.

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    “didn't bother” ⇒ The observation is that the student did not. It does not follow that they didn't bother, which is a statement about the student's internal motivations unsupported by evidence.
    – Reid
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:10
  • 6
    @Reid Disagree. If you are unable to complete coursework due to extenuating circumstances, you should let the person who has set the course know as soon as possible. That is standard procedure, which COVID does not affect, and these students did not do this. So either they had so much drama with COVID that they could not make even that communication (yet they were able to sit the final exam and complain about technical issues)... or they didn't bother with the course. Occam's Razor is rarely wrong.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:30

A passing grade in a course indicates that the students has achieved the minimum requirements of the course. In this case it seems the students have not submitted sufficient evidence to reach the minimum course requirements, so they are not entitled to a passing grade. Further, it shouldn't be your 'choice', the department shouldn't put pressure on you to change grades without good cause and clear written advice. It may have consequences for the institution as a whole and its external accreditation.

With that in mind you have 3 routes:

  1. The students in question fail the course
  2. Following discussion with your department, allow additional evidence to be submitted/taken account of (e.g. coursework, additional exams etc.)
  3. Following discussion with your department, accept that the course requirements for the 2020 course should be changed and re-grade accordingly.

Either option 2,3 require strategic decisions to be made, not by you as a course teacher, but by someone with overall responsibility in the institution and with due consideration of the external certification process (if applicable e.g. chartership, medical licensing).

Yet I feel completely at fault and guilty.

It sounds like you tried your best to deliver the course as well as you could, but it hasn't worked out as well as you hoped. Addressing this feels like a very different question, but I hope this works out for you in time.

  • As a matter as opinion: #1 to me seems to be appropriate, it's the situation you are currently in and there's no obvious justification for change. #2 seems to be a reasonable compromise if such materials are already available or exams can be re-set and re-sat. Bear in mind however this is will be a potentially substantial amount of extra work for you and your colleagues.
    – David258
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 8:19

Under the circumstances, I would probably bite my tongue and go along with a minimal passing grade. Others would disagree, I'm sure, but let me explain why.

First, it seems like you did your job, giving feedback to the student along the way that there were issues with their learning. I won't fault you on that. But I agree that the final is not the time to learn you've failed. In fact, I tended to minimize high risk exams altogether, but if I were still teaching, would do so even more in the current pandemic situation.

Some student, who are otherwise quite good in a certain educational setting won't do as well in others, since the expectations and processes have changed and they haven't had time to adjust. Certainly, few students are currently "experienced" in the new way of delivering courses. That alone is disruptive and it might also be in psychological as well as educational ways.

Being a bit generous isn't a sin, generally speaking. If the student is bad generally, it will catch up with them. If they are good generally, then a single course blocking their graduation, or delaying it for up to a year, seems unfair in itself, if they tried.

I'll note that there are some universities who have decided not to fail students at the current time, for some of the reasons above. In fact, they are essentially giving only top and incomplete grades. Until we get more experience with online teaching, we need to be cautious not to harm students for things that they have little control over.

I can't judge the level of effort that the student put in, of course. Normally, I would fail students who didn't try, but work with those who were willing, so as to get them over the line. But that is much less possible now, both to judge the situation and to compensate for it.

And given that the administration is suggesting leniency, I'd recommend going along. But it is a tough call, I know.

And, for the record, your administration should defer to your judgement.

  • 8
    I agree. @novice don't bother with that student. Give him the worst grade you can, but let him pass. For some the current situation is very severe, I would not be too harsh this year.
    – user117200
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 20:21
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    -1 Fraud isn't generosity. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 2:49
  • 11
    I do not think passing everyone as a rule is being generous. It means telling hiring committees "grades from this period do not have any meaning, so just ignore them". Grades are a measure of how much one knows about a topic. Plus, my experience in my department is that passing rates this year are similar to other years...
    – wimi
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 11:24
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    @CarlWitthoft, absolutely not. Don't mischaracterize what I said. Don't flunk someone at the margin if you can't be sure your assessments are valid. And assessments are never perfect.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 13:01
  • 13
    @buffy ummm... "earning less than 10%" is hardly a "marginal" case. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 13:05

Supporting some other answers: spring 2020 has been an exceptional time. The stresses affect many people quite severely... and some don't quite realize.

Sure, maybe the student was not really working hard all along... but the advent of COVID-19 just made/makes all the usual things break.

My attitude, and advice, is to be generous in spring and summer 2020.

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    You realise it's winter now, right? I hear that they're may be a 'northern hemisphere', but personally I think that's just quackery. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 10:23
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    I’m guessing that many of the downvotes are from students who actually did work hard these last few months despite the adverse circumstances, and recognize the obvious unfairness in what you are suggesting.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 14:23
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    @DanRomik, of course, I can understand that some people might be resentful that someone else is "getting off too easily" or similar. Perhaps the issue is as much ideological as pedagogical. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:13
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    Why is "passing everyone" equal to "being generous"? I think "passing everyone" is closer to "lying to everyone" than it is to "being generous".
    – wimi
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:18
  • 12
    @paulgarrett I am not even considering "fairness", I just mean that writing "this student has passed the Linear Algebra course" on the transcript when the student knows only 10% of the content sounds like lying. My university has made it such that failing this semester does not carry any academic disadvantage: it does not appear on the transcript, and the graduation deadline is extended by one semester. Exams this semester are "free tries". But I do not think that giving degrees to people who do not know the content will help anyone. (We might have to agree to disagree though).
    – wimi
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:30

Many of the existing answers focus on options available within the academic structure of the university. Depending on your institution, you probably have at least two other options.

Many universities employ an ombudsperson. They don't possess much authority, but can be helpful in mediating disputes. They can also help connect you with the appropriate people and (informational) resources to navigate a conflict. There may be better avenues to try, policies or information you don't know, etc. The ombudspeople can help with this.

Second, consider talking to your institution's auditors. Being pressured to pass a student who did not garner that grade is fraud. A department who does this for one student is likely to have at least tried to do it for others, and may be at a higher risk for other kinds of fraud. Even outside of fraud, it highlights a management problem that may also demonstrate a risk for financial problems, HR problems, and a litany of other things.

What can auditors do? Well, they also don't have much authority, but they are excellent at performing investigations and they have the ear of university executives. If you have a board of trustees or similar, they typically report directly to them. Your auditors are in a position to hear your compliant, and if it seems to represent a risk to the university, conduct an investigation and let the high-ups know.


Fail them, but don't make it count against their GPA.

My university had the following policy for the classes that were affected by the Covid-19 lockdown: all classes were online, and students who failed were recorded as having failed, and would need to repeat the courses they failed. However, these failed courses wouldn't be counted on their transcripts, and wouldn't be counted for the calculation of their GPAs.

After all, if the student hasn't passed the unit, it isn't fair for everyone who put in the effort to pass the class legitimately. Additionally, if they haven't gained or demonstrated the knowledge that the class aimed to teach, then they should be given another option to gain or demonstrate that knowledge by redoing the class at a later date.

This would, of course, delay their graduation and result in them paying additional tuition fees, but that's what happens when someone fails their classes.

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    This would typically be a university policy decision, not something an individual professor has the power to impose. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 6:24
  • Well, an individual professor can lobby the relevant committees or deans to implement similar policies.
    – nick012000
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 6:31
  • 1
    Yes, but I doubt it would happen in a time frame that would do much for the specific students that OP is concerned about. Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 7:27
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    @CarlWitthoft: I am not from the US, so there might be a cultural issue here, but what is the problem to start a course"fresh" when one wants to?
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 13:09
  • 1
    In a U.S. university, the only way to have a course not count against your GPA would be to re-take the course entirely. In most cases, if they pass the second time the higher grade would be computed in their GPA IIRC (but their transcript might still show the original F). Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 14:49

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