After shifting all in-person classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Alberta announced on March 19 that it was implementing a mandatory credit/no credit grading system, touching off a debate across the country as to whether this is the best way to proceed with student assessment during these challenging times. Many students were alarmed by the move, but some faculty members supported it.
The university said on its website that it made the decision “to ensure equity among all our students” and to “preserve academic integrity.” No letter grades will be assigned, and the designation will have no bearing on a student’s grade point average.
U of A president David Turpin, speaking to the university’s student newspaper The Gateway, said “these changes will help alleviate concerns students are facing and give clarity on what to expect moving forward.”
In response to the announcement, an online petition was quickly launched demanding that the university give students the option to choose between credit/no credit or a letter grade. It has since collected over 13,000 signatures.
“I think it should’ve been optional,” said Alyssa Miller, a third-year anthropology student at U of A and one of the students who signed the petition. The blanket decision “really took away choice and created a lot more issues for some students,” she said.
Carolyn Sale, an associate professor of English and film studies at U of A, also disagrees with the university’s approach. “By not giving [students] choice, we are doing a kind of harm,” she said. “It is just wrong of us to be so presumptuous about our sense of what these transcripts may or may not mean to their individual futures.”
U of A was one of the first universities in Canada to modify its grading system in response to the pandemic, taking cues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, which also implemented a mandatory pass/fail grading system. Since then, about two dozen universities in Canada have implemented the pass/fail, or credit/no credit, grading model. However, for most of these universities the choice is optional and is being presented as a “flexible and compassionate” option for students.
The details differ slightly for each university. At the University of Calgary, for example, students can either accept their final grade for each of their courses or opt for “credit received” or “fail.” At Queen’s University, meanwhile, students will be able to request pass/fail grades, but the approval rests with that particular faculty or school.
A “nimble” response
Despite the strong opposition to a mandatory system at U of A, as evidenced by the petition, there are students and professors who support the policy. Akanksha Bhatnagar, president of the U of A Students’ Union, endorsed the mandatory pass/fail grading model as the most fair approach, but said she understands why some students are concerned.
“Students believe that this will have a negative impact on their academic careers, for scholarships or for future academic endeavors. But we just want to reiterate to people that this is a global pandemic, and postsecondary systems are responding as quickly and as nimbly as they can,” she said.
Jacqueline Leighton, a professor of educational psychology at U of A, said adopting a mandatory pass/fail scheme addresses some of the issues that may arise from courses being moved from in-person to online. For example, some students may have difficulty accessing online resources from home or may face other obstacles due to the pandemic.
“Because there are so many interruptions to the regular routine of classes … it really does create inequities for students depending on the situation they find themselves in with this COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “It seems unfair to penalize students who really did not anticipate this.”
Dr. Leighton, whose research focuses on student assessment, said that’s why she can’t support the optional pass/fail model other universities have taken, as it wouldn’t address the inequities that impede students as a result of the pandemic. “The students who are going to be choosing the grade [option] are going to be students who are at the very top end of the grading scale, and the students who are going to get Bs or B-minuses, or even C-pluses are probably going to opt for the credit,” she said. “So just giving students the option creates an inequity.”
A group of professors, in a letter sent to University Affairs, agreed with that assessment. “While student choice might seem like the fairest strategy, it is in fact a regressive policy,” they wrote. “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.” The letter, which can be viewed in its entirety here, was signed by Philip Loring at the University of Guelph, Brett Favaro at Memorial University, Douglas Clark at the University of Saskatchewan and Shoshanah Jacobs at the University of Guelph.
As there are various grading models being used by different universities, Ms. Bhatnagar at U of A says the priority moving forward should be to resolve some of the confusion that this creates for students with regards to admissions, transfers and scholarships.
“The number one concern comes down to students who are applying to grad school, who are applying for further education or who are applying to different kind of degrees,” she said. “I think [other postsecondary institutions] are going to have to speak out a lot more and say, ‘Hey we’re going to be updating our admissions procedures to respond to this pandemic.’”