U of A’s pass/fail grading prescriptions should be optional

The current system does not allow for all students to succeed in these trying times

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the University of Alberta has transitioned all courses to remote delivery. To help students manage the transition, courses will now be evaluated on a pass/fail basis. While the University asserts that this decision is best for its students, the move away from a letter-based grading system puts some students at a disadvantage. 

The option for pass/fail grading should be available to all students, but letter grades should remain available. Such a strategy has been undertaken by schools like the University of Toronto and University of Calgary. The Registrar at the University of Alberta claims that the University of Toronto system has been in place for a long time, and because the University of Alberta’s response had to be developed under emergency circumstances, a similar hybrid system wouldn’t work. However, if student success is the university’s top priority right now, shouldn’t the they be working to develop a system that benefits all students equally? Given the research skills, community engagement, and tuition money that students bring to the university, they deserve the extra work that would be required to develop a hybrid system. 

While it has been argued that a hybrid system would disadvantage those that choose the pass/fail option by raising questions for admissions officers, the same disadvantage will apply to all University of Alberta students when compared to candidates from other institutions that maintained letter grading. Furthermore, the same critics argue that the current circumstances of a global pandemic will justify the appearance of a pass/fail grading system on a student’s transcript; the same would be true in a hybrid system.

For many who are impacted by the current pandemic, pass/fail evaluation will allow them to move forward with their degree programs uninterrupted. For students faced with sudden moves, family illness, or financial difficulty, the switch will remove stress from finishing their courses. Consequently, many have portrayed the change as the best thing for students as a whole

However, the undergraduate experience is extremely diverse, and for many, particularly graduating students, the change is a disadvantage. Although the pass/fail system will not impact GPA, for those graduating and hoping to continue with further schooling, this will be a setback for students who were hoping to improve their records with a strong Winter semester. 

The U of A has promised the delivery of letters from professors attesting to student achievement. Although this is a viable workaround for students hoping to attend graduate schooling or another post-graduate degree program, it also places the onus for student success on already-overworked professors. They’re in the midst of transitioning courses to remote learning on top of their regular instruction, administrative, and research responsibilities. 

Furthermore, students regularly undergo hardship. Over the course of my degree, I lost a grandparent, experienced housing insecurity when my apartment flooded, and left an emotionally abusive relationship. Peers of mine have dealt with financial difficulty, mental illness, and more — challenges which, currently, COVID-19 is exacerbating. It’s true that dealing with life’s hardships is crucial to managing not only academics, but all career paths; however, more supports should be consistently available (such as more robust mental health supports or a more permanent pass/fail option for students).

For students who have spent the semester balancing jobs, courses, and extracurriculars, the change is disappointing. These sacrifices seem less meaningful in the face of a sweeping system that makes all passes equal to one another. While some argue that letter grading is an unfair system of evaluation to begin with, a system that does not differentiate between the accomplishments of students is no fairer. 

The U of A has presented pass/fail as the most equitable solution for students, but in reality, an equitable solution can never be a homogeneous system. Rather, equity would allow students to choose the option which best suits them. In a time when we have so little control over our lives, giving students more meaningful control over how they are evaluated should be one of the university’s priorities.

Katherine DeCoste

Katherine DeCoste wishes she was a houseplant, but instead she's a third-year English and history honours student. When she's not writing reviews of plays or hot takes about fossil fuels, she also dabbles in poetry, playwriting, and other non-fiction, which she has published in various places. Other interests include making and eating bread.

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