To Grade or Not to Grade? During Coronavirus, That Is The Question

Mar 19, 2020

Crises tend to insert new words into our lexicon. For educators in the era of coronavirus, one such term is “continuity.” It’s become both a strategy and a rallying cry as classrooms darken and instruction shifts online.

Except—striving for continuity may be a bit delusional right now. Or it may be an effort that betrays misplaced priorities. That’s the view of Jesse Stommel, a digital learning fellow and senior lecturer at the University of Mary Washington.

“I don’t want there to be ‘continuity.’ I want my students to deal with their lives,” he says. “I don’t have any expectations of continuity in my course. I let go of that the instant this started to happen.”

Like Stommel, some faculty and administrators are wondering whether the pandemic demands they shed traditional practices, at least temporarily, rather than sustain them at all costs. One custom they’re reconsidering? Grading.

As of March 18, about a dozen institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, Smith College and Vanderbilt University, had changed their usual grading policies “in response to the stress and chaos of the coronavirus crisis” to permit students to convert their credits to pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory, according to “Alternate Grading in a Crisis,” a resource compiled by Laura Gibbs, an online instructor at the University of Oklahoma.

As Smith College explains it, such measures aim to “recognize the extraordinary character of current circumstances.”

“As we move instruction into alternative modes, we are necessarily changing our agreements about expectations and assessments,” the college posted in its COVID-19 response guide. “In a new and unfamiliar environment, we cannot hold faculty and students to expectations constructed in and for a different instructional experience.”

Stommel supports such changes. The executive director and founder of the journal “Hybrid Pedagogy” has spent two decades researching and experimenting with alternatives to traditional methods of assessing students, and he’s concluded that the As, Bs and Cs that instructors mete out can do more harm than good, even under ideal circumstances. Studies suggest, for example, that grades can frustrate students’ intrinsic motivation and make them more focused on how they’ll be measured than on the material they should be studying.

During a crisis, an insistence on grading could send the wrong message to students who are struggling to cope, Stommel fears. And he points out that grades from this highly unusual semester may not accurately measure student learning anyway, but instead assess other variables, such as how well students perform under stress or whether they happen to have the right tech tools available.

“At a moment like this, how institutions are addressing the issue of grades becomes almost a bellwether for how they’re addressing all kinds of issues,” Stommel says. “We need to be communicating with one another. Giving each other feedback. Asking each other how we’re doing. I think grades frustrate those conversations more than help them.”

Petitioning for Pass/Fail

Forgoing letter grades in favor of pass/fail assessments encourages students to experiment and improve without worrying about ruining their GPAs, argues David M. Perry, senior academic adviser at the University of Minnesota, in an opinion article published March 18 by CNN. He thinks the approach may be especially useful during a semester that will be inherently experimental for many students and faculty.

“We're all going to be messing up a lot in this unprecedented moment anyway,” Perry writes. “Everyone should shift to a pass/fail basis for a while, cutting each other as much slack as possible, while still acknowledging the work we're all doing, staying connected and trying to remember what normal looks like.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Without grades, some educators wonder, will students stay motivated? Will academic rigor be maintained, for the good of both students’ education and institutions that need to retain their accreditation status?

Additionally, not every college has the same freedom to do away with grades. While elite institutions are unlikely to suffer many repercussions from this kind of policy change, community colleges may do their students a disservice by allowing them to accumulate pass/fail credits if four-year colleges don’t agree to accept those courses for transfer credit.

“There are so many different pieces of this system,” Stommel says. “Everyone needs to decide to be humane at the same time.”

As for what students want, some have expressed dismay that going pass/fail might rob them of recognition for their hard work. But others across the country are petitioning their institutions to permit alternative methods of assessment that won’t delay student progress toward meeting major and degree requirements. After all, notes a petition from students at the University of California at Berkeley, fallout from the coronavirus has made earning goods grades “extremely arduous.”

Some educators have recommended allowing students to decide for themselves whether to take their courses on a pass/fail basis this term. Stommel says he’s normally in favor of giving students options, but he’s not sure all students will be fully comfortable selecting something so far from the norm.

So he has advocated that his institution switch to a “pass/no record” system. He has informed his students that he will find a way for all of them to succeed this semester, with as much flexibility and room for error as possible.

And if his college doesn’t come around, Stommel has a backup plan, he says: “I’m planning to give my students all As.”


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