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Universities differ on whether a pass-fail grading scheme should be optional

While the University of Alberta has opted for a mandatory credit/no credit assessment this term, other universities are letting students decide whether to forgo a letter grade.

BY NATHAN FUNG | APR 01 2020

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.’”

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  1. Helen / April 1, 2020 at 10:30

    Rather than dumbing down expectations because some students might be concerned or upset, why not develop strategies to allow them to recognise and fulfil their potential in spite of circumstances? This generation of students has consistently been given short shrift when it comes to academics, from the outset. They are the generation that was not allowed to fail but were passed into the next grade to keep up with their peers even if they had not mastered material, thereby creating a weak foundation upon which to build subsequent learning. They were the generation who were not required to submit assignments or complete tests on the due date, throughout high school. Now we wonder why there’s a mental health crisis and when there’s a global crisis, we once again diminish them by allowing them not to demonstrate their mastery of material. Consistently selling them short and giving them the opportunity to cop out rather than to rise to the challenge is not going to help them nor will it help society.

  2. Jim / April 1, 2020 at 15:33

    As with the four professors finding a pass/fail system “regressive”, perhaps for a variety of reasons, I am also concerned about the lack of measurement or meaningful demonstration of performance implicit in such a system of evaluation. And the points raised by Helen, who also provided a comment on the article, resonate with me as well. In short, the adversity we face today with this awful COVID-19 pandemic should not yield to complacency in our educational institutions. We have, or should have, meaningful standards of performance in all that we do, and we are duty-bound to ensure that they are being met. If not, the short-term gain (or easy way out) may lead to long-term pain. Let us not go there!

  3. Brad Wuetherick / April 1, 2020 at 17:06

    This is an interesting issue, and one that I am sure Higher Ed researchers will explore in coming years. Quite frankly, there are downsides to each option being explored.

    Some of the inequities that people cited in the article from an optional pass/fail are true, but there are also inequities that could arise from a mandatory pass/fail. For example, a student on probation in the current semester due to a cumulative GPA below a particular threshold might have received grades high enough to help them move back into good standing, but now might be penalized by a mandatory pass/fail. The same could be true for a student whose cumulative GPA is too low to convocate, and was relying on this semester’s grades to move above the expected convocation GPA. Not to mention, as cited in the article, the impact on a student applying to graduate school or professional school. While I truly hope that institutions around the world make future admissions decisions that do not penalize students for this past semester regardless of how institutions handle grading, there is no guarantee that students won’t be negatively impacted from a mandatory pass/fail grade. No other institution has to make accommodations for the choices of another institution’s approach.

    One could argue that if faculty were being truly student-centred, then the best option might be for faculty to work with students in each of their classes to ensure that the students’ individual contexts are taken into account in assigning a final grade. For example, one could re-weight assessments taken during the period of disruption to add more weight to previously completed assessments. Or faculty could allow final assessments to be completed in a variety of ways that allow students to demonstrate learning outcome attainment that recognizes their circumstances. Or faculty could defer final assessments, through a pending grade (however your institution handles that), and allow students to complete them when their circumstances enable them to do so. But to do this would require significant effort by each faculty member (not to mention it may require waivers of academic policies or regulations in place on campus).

    Dalhousie has chosen to encourage faculty to consider students’ individual circumstances in assigning grades where possible (including having our Senate waive particular academic regulations that might have restricted faculty options to re-weight assessed work) together with optional, student-initiated grades of PASS (a GPA neutral grade that assigns course credit for the completed course) and ILL (a GPA neutral, non-credit grade that is normally only granted to students on compassionate grounds in the case of illness or other unusual circumstances). For students to request these grades, they need to speak with an advisor to talk through their individual circumstances and make a choice that best meets their needs. It is not necessarily ideal, but neither are any of the options available during these unique circumstances.

  4. Al Scott / April 2, 2020 at 20:31

    There are many things this article fails to mention in regards to grading options. One of the most important is how universities are going to maintain the integrity of their exams when they transition them into an online format.

    They reality is that many exams which are based on memorization/knowledge, and use multiple choice or short answer questions simply cannot be safeguarded against cheating in the online format. Cheating will occur and it will affect the grading curve of many of these classes. No one has yet come up with a viable solution to prevent this from happening, and in all likelihood there isn’t one.

    Universities will be administering exams without being able to ensure that all students adhere to the same conditions

    A second issue that few universities seem to have addressed is the realities of the pandemic itself. The peak of the pandemic is currently expected on April 15th, right in the middle of exam time. What do they propose to do with students who are sick with COVID-19. Another problem is that many students will have family members and loved ones who could be deathly ill during this time. It seems rather cruel that these students should be expected to focus on classes and exams when this occurs. This also extends to professors as many will have aging parents who are greatly at risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus, and many will be at risk of infection themselves as well.

    Forcing students to sit through exams sick, lest they fail or have to retake courses should be something universities strive to avoid.

    The point made that student choice is a regressive policy is also quite valid. Students with better access to resources, who are wealthier, etc… will be unfairly advantaged when applying to graduate school.

    The reality is that any of these options is going to help some students while unfairly disadvantaging others for something that is entirely out of their control.

    In my opinion, the only way to ensure that fairness is upheld is to cease the exams altogether and give all students an equivalent grade. These times of crisis require equality and compassion be extended to all.

  5. Stuart Chambers / April 4, 2020 at 22:47

    The entire change to pass/fail was a panic reaction. Those students who were already doing poorly saw the pass/fail option as a way out of a bad mark. Some universities offered the final exam as optional, so those with solid averages saw no reason to write a final. This was all a solution to a non-issue. No one knows the mindset of a student, so keeping everything as is (i.e., writing a final exam and counting the grade point average) would have caused less chaos.