TORONTO — Grades may seem trivial in the middle of a pandemic. But for undergraduate university students who’ve spent countless hours studying in hopes of getting into competitive graduate programs, COVID-19 has thrown an unexpected twist into those plans.
Many Canadian universities are offering undergrad students the choice between a final grade this semester or a standard pass on their transcripts. But in some cases, universities are passing all students, no matter how hard they’ve worked, or are moving ahead with usual grading practices.
With on-campus classes cancelled and residences shuttered, many universities have acknowledged that students may not be operating at their A-game. John Doerksen, Western University’s Vice-Provost of Academic Programs and Students, said it’s important to cut students some slack.
“What we’re trying to balance in our approach is compassion and understanding for students and the situation they find themselves in, and on the other hand, the academic standards of the institution,” Doerksen told CTV News in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Western is allowing its students to continue many of their classes online, and, once grades are released in May, they’ll have the option to either accept their final grade or opt for a pass or fail. If a student opts for the pass, their GPA will remain unchanged from the previous semester.
So far, that’s the most popular approach. Similar options are being available to undergraduate students at the University of Victoria, Ryerson University, York University, the University of Calgary, Dalhousie University, Queen’s University, McGill University and St. Francis Xavier.
The situation is more complicated for graduate and PhD programs, many of which follow different grading schemes and schedules.
Doerksen said he expects most students will go for the numerical grade. Even so, he suspects that graduate and professional programs will have to adjust their admission processes for 2021.
“My thinking is there will be some flexibility,” he said.
Other universities are giving individual faculties the power to decide how to proceed. Such is the case at the University of British Columbia.
“There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to academic assessment and associated regulations, but various options to make changes do exist,” said Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC, adding that students have been advised by their faculties as to how they’ll be assessed.
But not all universities are offering students a pass-or-fail option. The University of Saskatchewan said in a statement that, after considerations, it decided to stick with its standard letter grading practices.
“This decision helps to ensure that large sectors of the student body will not be placed at an academic disadvantage,” the university said in a statement.
At the University of Alberta, students won’t receive letter grades. Instead, all students will either receive a credit or no credit on their transcripts. However, exceptions are being made for students who need to meet accreditation or licensure requirements.
For students vying for placements in competitive programs, the University of Alberta said it is working to create a “template letter” for instructors in indicate how a student performed in class relative to their peers.
“While this won’t replace traditional grading, it will be a useful addition to applications,” the university said on its website.
Clare Brett, chair of the University of Toronto’s department of curriculum, teaching and learning, said these uncertain times call for universities to be considerate of their students.
“Everyone is pretty freaked out by this experience, it’s fair to say. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, there’s a lot of fear. And then to suddenly change the modality without much warning and say, good luck with that, it doesn’t seem very humane,” Brett said.
In her department, online wellness programs and mindfulness classes are being offered to students, and financial support is being made available to students who need it most.
Those changes came after the World Health Organizations declared COVID-19 a pandemic earlier this month. Universities scrambled to find ways to conduct classes online, but many hands-on programs in the arts and sciences that require labs or in-person workshops were unable to find online equivalents.
In some circumstances, students were forced to vacate residences to move back home with little notice.
“I think the main thing right now is supporting people’s stress,” she said.
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