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Grading during COVID-19

Statement from President Loreman about grading during COVID-19

Covering the period April-December, 2020

During the Winter semester CUE did not adopt a pass/fail system of grading when we shifted from face-to-face delivery to alternative delivery models, but instead followed our normal system during the COVID-19 public health crisis. This system is outlined in Section 9.3 of our Academic Calendar. This policy will continue remain in place throughout 2020, regardless of course delivery format.

In keeping with the overall approach to following our existing policies, please note that the option of requesting aegrotat standing is available. Aegrotat standing is designed to assist students who experience serious illness or injury which prevents them from writing their final examinations and deferred final examinations, and may be applied in the current COVID-19 circumstances for students in similarly vulnerable circumstances. Decisions on granting aegrotat standing are made by the Dean overseeing the department offering the course upon consultation with the course instructor. It consists of a letter grade or the CR notation if a letter grade cannot be assigned, or the course normally is marked CR/NC. Details on aegrotat standing can be found in section 9.2.3 of the Academic Calendar. This is far from a panacea and would not be beneficial for all, but students undergoing serious hardship who wish to apply would do so using the relevant online form found in ‘Online Services’.

Staying with our normal system of grading at CUE during the COVID-019 public health crisis takes into account the following factors:

Fairness to students

In a pass/fail system an alpha grade of ‘F’ equals a ‘Fail’, or ‘No Credit’. Very few would question the fairness of that. However, a ‘Pass’ or ‘Credit Received’ includes students who achieved alpha grades of D all the way through to A+ and does not distinguish between them. The student who was heading for a D gets the same grade as the student who was heading for an A+.

Instructor capacity

At CUE our faculty and sessional instructors have put a lot of effort in to preserving the learning experience during our move to off-campus classes, and they are similarly able to assess student performance in such a way as to arrive at fair and reasonable grades using our current grading system. Our classes at CUE are typically small, and instructors have the capacity and skills to be able to adapt their final assessment to the off-campus reality.

Institutional integrity

When students register at CUE we are making a commitment to them, and that commitment includes recognizing learning appropriately. Our grading scale is calibrated in such a way as to allow discernment between students in terms of performance, and also to not penalize students in special circumstances who might, for example, need to withdraw from a course. Having made this commitment, unilaterally changing course evaluation to pass/fail is problematic. CUE will deliver on what we have promised, and what we have promised is fair and accurate recognition of student learning and effort via the grading scale that features in every CUE course syllabus.

The future aspirations of students

Maintaining the integrity of our grading practices is critical to the future aspirations of our students. The grade a student earns is forever on their transcript. Grades that suddenly shift to pass/fail will not be helpful to CUE students in terms of applying for future scholarships, renewing current scholarships, and entry to graduate or other programs in the future. Admissions Offices in universities take the grades on an academic transcript into account above all else. Additional letters from professors saying “Student X was very good and was on course to get an A before we moved to pass/fail” are unlikely to be helpful.

University governance

CUE has adopted the 4-point grading system that is common throughout Canada. This decision was made by CUE’s governance body known as General Faculties Council (GFC) that operates under the authority of our Board of Governors and features representatives from faculty, administration, sessional instructors, the faculty association, students, and staff. The President is Chair of GFC by virtue of office. The purpose of GFC is to govern the academic matters of the university, which includes grading. Any changes to the grading system must first be advanced to a GFC standing committee known as the Academic Standards Committee. This committee considers the matters brought to it, and makes decisions that pass through the Executive Committee of GFC and later to a meeting of the full GFC (which occur 4 times each year) for ratification, modification, tabling, or defeat. This is a lengthy process involving deadlines and other procedural practices. In addition, changes of the sort of magnitude that modifying our entire grading system involves, even temporarily, are unlikely to be made lightly and without considerable debate. GFC operates with a long-term view, and making snap decisions for changes that come with significant consequences in a time of crisis would be unusual.

Student stress and mental health

One argument put forward for the adoption of a pass/fail system is that it reduces stress on students and therefore improves mental health. I do not see any evidence that this is the case. It could equally be argued that imposing a new system of grading would be more stressful to a greater number of students. We simply do not know. What we do know is that assessment periods are always stressful for many students regardless of the circumstances. The COVID-19 public health crisis may or may not make this more so, but we have supports in place to help. Those who need to talk to a caring and understanding mental health professional can reach our Student Life and Learning team by calling 780-479-9241, or by email at studentlife@concordia.ab.ca.

A ‘new normal’

This COVID-19 public health crisis will impact our operations for an indeterminate amount of time. Our spring and summer courses will be delivered online, and we are currently considering our options for the Fall. What is evident is that for now off-campus education is the ‘new normal’ and that in the long-term, along with the short term, moving to a pass/fail system becomes increasingly problematic. At what point is the integrity of a degree undermined when many of the courses that comprise it are graded only in the most rudimentary of ways? In sticking with our normal grading system CUE will avoid having to answer that question.

I hope that this has helped to clarify some of the thinking behind why CUE will be sticking with our normal grading system during COVID-19. Doing so is fair to our students, preserves our institutional integrity, and takes into account the reality of the situation we are faced with.