By Nikayla Goddard, April 27 2020 —
In light of the pandemic and the isolation and disruption it’s caused, both the University of Calgary and now the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) have adopted alternative options for final grades.
UCalgary’s decision came on March 22 through an email from provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall, who said in the email, “This nuanced approach will help students who need their grades for advanced placements or applications for further studies, while not penalizing those whose performance is affected by difficult circumstances. We trust our students will continue to apply themselves academically and seek the most from their courses and will act with integrity as they complete their course work and assessments in a remote learning environment.”
UCalgary students have the choice to accept their final course letter grade, or opt for the Completed Requirements (CR) / Fail (F) option. Students can request the CR if they are an undergrad who received a grade of D or above, or for grad students if they received a grade of B- or above. Students can make this choice after receiving their final winter 2020 grades and have until May 22 to communicate their choices to the Registrar’s Office through an online submission.
SAIT’s decision was released on April 16, following efforts made by the SAIT Students’ Association (SAITSA) to advocate for the choice. In addition to granting SAIT students the option of accepting letter grades or taking a credit, SAIT has provided a third option at the recommendation of SAITSA — withdrawing from the course.
SAITSA President Ryan Morstad spoke of the SAITSA’s efforts to have this decision made. When SAIT transitioned to online courses, the original plan was to stick to regular letter grades. Morstad explained that the SA asked for feedback and information from students, and the response was many students panicking over dropping GPAs due to professors’ inability to transition into online teaching effectively and from their own obligations that suddenly arose, such as focusing on family or income. This also impacted many of SAIT’s courses, such as mechanical engineering students, petroleum students or health care students who have to do labs and learn hands-on.
The association encouraged students to submit letters detailing how they have been impacted by the pandemic, and they received over 25 personal letters from students and a petition with over 1700 signatures. The council then brought the students’ opinions with a written letter to SAIT administration, culminating in Vice President, Academic Dr. Brad Donaldson and the Executive Management Team taking their recommendations to adopt the three final grade options.
“I would say that the reason that this happened is almost exclusively because of this Students’ Association, but it wouldn’t have happened without the help of all the students and the students who wrote to us that they wanted this to happen,” Morstad said.
He continued, “Our new model is in our advocacy document in our letter that we pitched to them. We wanted them to go with the University of Calgary model and then did, but they added an extra thing too: so they said you can go letter grade, you can go credit or you can withdraw after you receive your mark. For everyone that is affected by this, I think it’s an incredibly student-centered approach.”
Donaldson commented, “It is always a priority for us to listen to our students and we knew as we began to move programs online, adapting to teaching and learning remotely, every decision we made might need to evolve. To that end, we heard from students and their biggest point seemed to be around having a choice.”
The decision to offer an alternative grading system, sometimes called compassionate grading policy, is being adopted by many universities across Canada beyond Calgary, including the University of Manitoba, University of Alberta which is moving to credit/fail grading with no option to take the letter grade, the University of Victoria and more.
“Schools across Canada are looking at decisions like this and it is tough to say with full certainty which is the best,” Donaldson said. “For SAIT, it was important to us, for our students, that we maintain academic integrity as best as possible. The benefit being students having an accredited grade that validates their learning outcomes. That meant proceeding with letter grades for our students – allowing grades to contribute to GPAs, graduation and course progression at SAIT or for students looking at degree and graduate programs at other institutions.”
When asked if there would be any negative impacts or repercussions from the decision to provide different grading options, and whether any faculties or students would be particularly negatively impacted by the pandemic isolation practices, Donaldson responded, “Certainly, there is impact. Our students and even students around the world, from primary school to post-secondary, are experiencing wholesale shifts in how their education is being delivered and they are used to learning and collaborating. Our urgent need is actually the long-term strategy – the longer this goes on and classes are disrupted, how we continue to improve and evolve in delivering leading-edge curriculum and instruction. The notion of looking at the disruption to “regular” classes does provide an opportunity to advance our use of technology, to improve distance education delivery. As well, our students who are learning during this time are gaining a real-time lesson in adaptability and resilience – skills their future employers and our province will need as we come out of the pandemic.”
Donaldson concluded the interview by providing a positive outlook for those who attend and teach at SAIT: “We are in uncharted territory navigating through this pandemic. SAIT is proud of what our students have achieved, and continue to achieve. We are also proud of our faculty and staff who work tirelessly to support our students in their learning. They have been able to move mountains and pivot to the online delivery of course material. What they have all done is nothing short of incredible. We are committed to our student’s success and to ensuring they graduate with the right skills for employment.”