As We Approach the End of the School Year

I gave my last lecture this semester via Zoom yesterday morning. With a large class, I did not really have a chance to see all of my students' faces on one screen. After teaching this class since the beginning of the Fall semester, it was difficult to say "farewell" given the circumstances. My students were mostly aspiring to become physicians. Did I actually prepare them for the Medical College Admission Test specifically, its Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section? Did I provide them with the skills they need for next year's Organic Chemistry course? It was not straightforward to answer these questions when all of us were learning at the same time, and perhaps, for the first time, how to cope with a pandemic. Lessons on resilience and self-discipline were simultaneous with lessons on coordination compounds of the transition metals. We covered the chemistry and physics behind climate change while our planet was in a dramatic pause in its use of fossil fuels. We discussed rates of processes while we saw how many cases of COVID-19 were being discovered each day. We were being forced to learn so much, and most of it, on our own. This musing left me with one more question. As the semester was about to end, how were we supposed to be graded?

Above copied from C&EN

As Claire Jarvis notes in an article published in Chemical & Engineering News, some schools have decided to give students "the option of switching from letter grades to pass-fail in their courses". My school, Georgetown University, belongs to this list, It is not surprising that some of my students have recently sought my advice on whether they should take this option or not.

I think with all the work and energy my students have poured into the course, they all deserve a reward at the end. The fact that they are still engaged at this time is truly worth something. I do need to prepare all of them for the future so I have remained faithful to the curriculum. We have covered not just valence bond and crystal field theories, but also ligand field theory. We have continued with the syllabus, getting to nuclear chemistry in the last two lectures. Now, it is my job to make my students realize that they have actually learned something during these weeks where everyone is under a stay-at-home order. What this requires is complete transparency. Only pleasant surprises are acceptable at this time. What I need is an honest assessment with one clear goal: To use grades to reward the efforts of my students. Most of my students are likely to be in the front line in the next pandemic. The least I can do at this time is to help my students begin to have faith in themselves. I am hoping that grades can do that.