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Letter to the Editor – Pass/Fail


Postsecondary institutions are failing students during the pandemic by focusing on choice rather than equity and harm reduction

When COVID-19 hit North America, colleges and universities were among the first to respond. Students were sent home, instruction moved online, and instructors scrambled to adapt their teaching and assessment. However, while these efforts have been commendable, a trend has emerged that will foster additional inequity and hardship for our students. That is, allowing graded work to continue and putting it to students to decide between a grade, pass/fail, or a late withdraw.

The pivot to online delivery is understandable, but based on problematic assumptions: first, that all students have access to reliable and cap-free Internet; second, that our students’ and faculty’s time will not be newly occupied managing their family through this pandemic. The third is that circumstances are not going worsen. None of these assumptions are sound. Consider the demands that students now face. Some have parents hospitalized; some live with mental illness; some are separated from their young children; many are out of work. The list is as diverse as it is long, and we hear new stories every day as the pandemic escalates.

For final grades, nine of the U15 group of universities have adopted some form of the choice plan described above, while the other six are continuing with grades as usual. While student choice might seem like the fairest strategy, it is in fact a regressive policy. It will invariably benefit some more than others because the choices will not be equally viable for all. Some will be able to continue and maintain or improve their grades, while others will lose the opportunity to improve their grades and be forced to choose among a lesser grade or a PASS for reasons out of their control.

This plan also fails to reduce harm because it creates incentives for students to take risks. Academia is notorious for fostering a culture of overwork, and many students will no doubt put their mental, and perhaps even physical health, at further risk in order to perform.

To ensure equity and reduce harm, there is only one solution. Grading for all ongoing courses should end, and full numeric marks should be assigned for all remaining unsubmitted assignments. The result will be a numeric grade that reflects the work they have done and what they might have achieved with full effort. Classes should continue, so people can participate and enjoy the continuity, but if we want to protect our students, graded work must stop.

Philip Loring, Brett Favaro, Douglas Clark and Shoshanah Jacobs
Dr. Loring is an associate professor at University of Guelph; Dr. Favaro is an instructor at Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University; Douglas Clark is an associate professor, University of Saskatchewan; and Shoshanah Jacobs is an associate professor, also at the University of Guelph.