Sunday, March 29, 2020

Grading in Times of Pandemic


The stress level for both students and faculty is higher than ever, as we resume classes after Spring Break with one month left in the semester. Hardly any of us has any experience at all with remote teaching. We have been forewarned that technological glitches inevitably will occur and, even if they do not, the dynamics of a virtual classroom are certain to be very different from those of an actual classroom. However confident we might or might not be about our classroom teaching, few of us have any reason to possess confidence in our online teaching abilities, especially in circumstances where a few or many students might not be able to participate live in the class session, but must watch a recording of it.


Regardless, remote teaching will be simple when compared to remote examining and grading, which raise more difficult policy problems for university administrators and operational problems for faculty. The biggest problem, of course, is that there is no reliable method of examining students virtually that does not carry a heightened risk of academic misconduct. It simply is not possible to ensure that students are not communicating with one another during an exam. Requiring students to write papers, rather than examining them, could be an effective substitute (so long as each student is assigned a distinct topic). The problem of plagiarism would be no greater than usual, and reliable plagiarism detection software is available. But requiring all students to write papers for all their courses would be extremely burdensome for them, especially given the time and effort it takes to write one decent paper, let alone several, as well as for faculty members, especially those of us teaching large-enrollment courses. In addition, a paper on a single topic really is not a substitute for an exam because it cannot cover all the topics and issues covered in a course. Meanwhile, inherently unreliable, "virtual" exams provide no basis for assessing grades in the normal fashion.*

Given the uncertainties of teaching effectiveness using new technologies, problems relating to examining and grading, and the high levels of stress already felt by both students and faculty members, it seems sensible to make one other change in ordinary procedures: Instead of issuing letter grades this semester, courses should be graded pass/fail. Overall, such a change would lower the "stakes" of exams, thereby ameliorating stress for both students and faculty. More specifically, it would relieve stress on students, who worry overly about grades even in the best of times; and it reduce pressure on faculty to draw nuanced grading distinctions based on exams that are likely to be even less reliable than they usually are as indicators of student learning. Unlike letter grades, a grade of "pass" has no effect on student grade point averages, which arguably should be left as they are during this semester of upheaval and displacement.

So far, my two academic homes at Indiana University have adopted different approaches to grading this semester. The IU Maurer School of Law has, wisely in my opinion, opted for a pass/fail approach, with strong support from the faculty and a poll of law students. That a super-majority of students preferred pass/fail this semester is somewhat surprising. Law students ordinarily are more competitive than most other students in large part because of the extreme grade-consciousness of legal employers. That they overwhelmingly preferred pass/fail this semester is a clear indication of the stress they are experiencing, as well as their good sense. They must believe, correctly it is to be hoped, that legal employers will recognize this semester as an aberration.

My other half-employer, the O'Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs, without asking faculty and students about their preferences, has chosen to follow the Provost's recommendations to stick with letter-grading, with exceptions for cases where faculty members find it difficult, with respect to specific students, to assign a letter grade. A faculty member can appeal for permission to grade an entire course pass/fail, but they are adopting a wait-and-see approach of not granting any requests before exams have been administered. I consider this not only unfortunate but downright wrongheaded. It certainly is not in the interest of SPEA students, particularly undergrads, who have less reason to obsess about grades than do law students, for example. Nor is in the interest of faculty members who must attempt to derive nuanced letter-grade distinctions from remotely administered exams that are exceptionally fallible. If it is not in the interests of faculty or students, it must be somehow in the larger interest of the university or the State of Indiana. It is difficult to imagine what that interest might be, and no explanation has been provided. It is true that some students require letter grades for scholarships or other reasons, but it would be much less trouble to provide a letter grade as an exception than as a rule.

In the absence of any well-reasoned** explanation for sticking with letter grades in this unique semester, and the presence of good reasons for assessing student performance on a pass/fail basis, I can only conclude that the law school is responding more sensibly under the circumstances than SPEA or the Provost's Office. If they really were as concerned as they claim to be with student well-being in these parlous times, not to mention faculty well-being, they should change their preference from ordinary letter grades to pass/fail. Keeping to the usual letter-grade requirements this semester strikes me not only as foolish but even cruel, particularly to students who already are under a great deal of stress. Extraordinary times are no time for ordinary academic practices.

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     *The grading problem is compounded by certain averaging and curving requirements in different departments.
     **I do not take arguments from tradition, or "because other schools are doing it," or the need to keep things "as normal as possible" under the circumstances to be "well-reasoned." Nothing is normal in the university right now. Not only are students away; they are not allowed to come back. All nonessential personnel are likewise barred from campus, a category which includes most faculty members for most purposes. All faculty-student interactions are now "virtual," including classes and exams. To keep a single element - the grading system - constant while everything else changes is not just abnormal but perverse. 

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