As Jenny Davidson tracked the news early last month about the coronavirus, it began to seem inevitable: Her university would move instruction online for the rest of the semester.
She immediately thought about the chaos that would envelop her students’ lives as they packed up their dorm rooms and moved home or elsewhere. To ease the strain, Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, told them they would all receive A’s in the course.
“Academic pressure, at least as far as my class is concerned, doesn’t need to be added to your stressors,” was how Davidson put it in an interview.
Columbia subsequently moved classes online and announced a mandatory pass/fail policy. Students will either pass a course or fail it, with no option to petition for a letter grade.
As students were sent home and professors retooled courses for online delivery, instructors and colleges encountered a quandary about how or even whether to adjust how students’ work is assessed.
While the pass/fail option reduces the pressure to earn a high letter grade, students who choose it may be penalized later, when they apply to graduate school or for grants or scholarships.
Professors at institutions across the country have developed an array of grading approaches based on the needs of their students and the course content.
Like Davidson, Calvin Deutschbein, an adjunct instructor in computer science at Elon University, favors giving A’s to all or — for students who take the pass/fail option — awarding them B’s if they would have failed. Deutschbein prefers to be identified by the pronouns “they,” “their,” and “them.”
Deutschbein, a fifth-year Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said their student experience informed how they approached grading by making them aware of the accessibility issues and grade anxieties that students face.
“A lot of times, it’s not the best way to get feedback to students,” they said about grades. “A lot of times, it’s just something that our bosses or administrators want us to do, and it’s not always serving aims of education.”
Awarding universal A’s could help erase bias that might influence grading and instruction. It could also ensure that students who return to homes with spotty internet access or a disruptive study environment would not be put at a disadvantage. Elon University is using an opt-in pass/fail grading policy, which Deutschbein said doesn’t go far enough.
“I would really like the university to come in and use their institutional clout and reputation to say: ‘Hey, we believe in our students. We believe in our professors. We can back universal A,’” Deutschbein said. “It’s so much harder for me as an individual professor or students individually to ask for that because we aren’t accredited the same way the university is.”
‘Ungrading’ Amid the Pandemic
Susan D. Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, isn’t grading assignments this semester. She hasn’t for a few years. Instead, Blum practices “ungrading,” an approach in which she focuses on what students have learned in her courses instead of counting points and calculating percentages.
“Grades don’t actually foster learning, and they do foster a kind of gaming the system,” she said.
Although Blum’s university requires her to assign a final letter grade, that score is based on meetings with students during the semester that assess their learning. As the coronavirus upends her students’ lives, Blum said, sticking to a traditional grading structure is unfair and unproductive.
“To me it doesn’t really reveal lack of learning,” she said about poor grades. “To me that reveals life challenges, and we have enough of that kind of inequality built into our system as it is.”
Jessica Calarco had been ambivalent about ungrading before, but the transition to remote instruction pushed her to reconsider her stance. “What would higher education look like without grades?” she asked herself.
Calarco’s students won’t receive a grade below the one they had when classes moved online. The grade can only go up. Students who still want to learn or earn points can continue completing assignments, but the coursework is, essentially, optional. Calarco, who studies educational inequalities, said she recognizes the disadvantages some students may experience at home.
“I know how difficult it can be for students who are facing those challenges to trust faculty members enough to be able to ask when they’re in trouble or need help,” she said.
Some faculty members are trying to maintain the status quo with just a few changes.
Camille Harrison, a professor of modern languages at Oakton Community College, in Illinois, isn’t changing a thing about grading. She uses Google Meet videoconferencing to teach her French and Arabic courses remotely at the same time and on the same day they once convened on the campus.
So far, things are going well. Her students sign on and participate in discussions. For some students, isolation has made them more comfortable experimenting with pronunciation and other language skills. Harrison talked to her students before moving online to better understand their circumstances before adopting her grading approach.
“As I’m doing my work and they’re doing their job, I don’t see why I should change anything,” she said.
Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Perimeter College at Georgia State University, shifted his grading scale upward after courses moved online. Work that normally might net a B now could be bumped up to an A. “If you complete all the work and do a decent job, I’m going to do my best to make sure that you get a decent grade,” he said.
Jenkins, who writes a column on community colleges for The Chronicle, sees grades as a way to motivate students. Grades also still play a significant role in the admissions process for graduate programs and other specialty schools.
Bryan Dewsbury, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island, is helping other faculty members adjust how they assess student learning.
Some professors resort to multiple-choice questions, but Dewsbury encourages them to think more creatively about how they can gauge learning in a way that requires more thinking and less memorization. A reliance on multiple choice suggests that some false assumptions about learning have been perpetuated in academe.
“The problem is that a professor has been brought up in a system to think that the only way to evaluate a student is through a 100-point multiple-choice exam,” he said. “When we work with grad students who go on to be professors, we have to really be a bit more sophisticated in how we think about what it means to assess learning.”
Viji Sathy, a teaching associate professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has redesigned tests in her introductory statistics course to pose short-answer questions, and problem sets that require students to apply principles learned in class, not regurgitate facts.
Although assessing student learning that way might be more effective, it takes longer for Sathy to develop new questions that students can’t answer by searching the internet.
“It takes a lot of work to come up with questions that aren’t Google-able, and to be able to do that semester after semester after semester,” she said, “I think that would be a true challenge.”