Admin, professors temper grading policies for quasi-normal semester

Alex Wilson/The Miscellany News.

This past March, the decision to close campus due to the spread of COVID-19 prompted a speedy foray into online learning, and with it a frenzied introduction to the many pitfalls of the virtual classroom. While many students, including those catalyzed by Nobody Fails VC—a student group pushing for a campus-wide no-fail policy—pressed the administration to craft accommodating grading policies, administrators and individual faculty members implemented varying ranges of accomodations.

Last semester, in the words of Registrar Colleen Mallet, was an upheaval. Thus, students were allowed to exercise the Non-Recorded Option (NRO), which reverts a student’s grade in a course to pass/fail if the grade falls below a threshold of the student’s choice. NROs from the semester would not count towards the maximum of four that students are allowed. Students could also withdraw from all their courses (taking a leave of absence) up until the last day of classes. 

For this year, administrators faced the challenge of adjusting to the new normal. This shift included crafting grading policies reflective of both newfound stability and the pervasive uncertainty of a pandemic-stricken world. Mallet believes that, compared to last semester, everybody was going into things a little more prepared. “So we would return to normal grading…while still realizing that there are a lot of challenges this semester,” she explained.  

So what exactly has changed? Students can still withdraw from all courses until the last day of classes or withdraw from individual courses until the last day of exams. Students are not required to maintain 3.5 units after their withdrawal. Courses can also be NROed up until the last day of classes (the NRO deadline used to be the end of the first six weeks). Now, however, NROs will again count toward the maximum of four over the course of a student’s time at Vassar. And while a decision has yet to be made by the Committee on Curricular Policies, Mallet cautions not to count on a note on our transcripts similar to that from last semester, which explained that “unusual” grading and enrollment patterns reflect the conditions of a global health emergency.

One of the biggest policy changes, however, has taken place within the Economics Department—generally known around campus for its rigor and exceptionally stringent grading policies. Perhaps the most infamous of these policies is the standard that reserves “A” grades in core courses to the top third of the class. 

Now, that policy has been removed—and not just for this semester, but for good. 

Professor and Chair of Economics Sarah Pearlman explained that, essentially, the policy was an implicit grading standard made explicit. She continued, “While we didn’t notice any noticeable changes in grades in classes, that did not align with students’ perceptions of the policy. Student perceptions of the policy seemed as if it was quite binding, and that it was leading instructors to give fewer As and A-s than they otherwise would.” According to Pearlman, in some cases the policy actually pushed students up into the “A” range. Therefore, she cautioned that economics students are unlikely to see significant changes once this policy is removed, although it will provide instructors with added flexibility. 

Despite a lack of concrete grading policy changes in other academic departments, many departments and individual faculty members have expressed a willingness to make accommodations that address the mental health hurdles students may be facing this semester. As 71 percent of university students are experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19 and 82 percent have indicated increased concerns regarding academic performance, more and more professors are moving toward added flexibility in grading.

Professor and Chair of Political Science Fubing Su said that there has not been a collective effort to mandate grading policy changes within the department. Rather, he explained, “All faculty are encouraged to adjust their teaching to accommodate students’ needs in case of difficult personal and family conditions during this time. Political science department [sic] does not have special grading changes but encourages faculty members to be attentive to students’ needs.” At the end of the day, he says that the hope is for professors to be able to address any individual issues that may arise. 

Other instructors echoed their commitment to this case-by-case model. While speaking to a desire on the part of both students and faculty for grading adjustments, several professors emphasized their dedication to ensuring flexibility in the classroom. 

Some students want to see more in the way of change. Charlie Jones ’21, a leader of Nobody Fails VC, believes that change did not go far enough in the spring, and wishes that these conversations on grading were continued into this academic year. They explained, “When the pressure is put on professors and students without universal protections, there necessarily will be cases where students who are already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic will suffer greater consequences academically.” Citing the imperative to consider intersecting racial and class inequities, they lamented a lack of compassion from administrators.

According to the Vassar Student Association’s (VSA) Chair of Academics Susannah Karron ’21, this is a learning experience for us all—the encouragement of feedback will hopefully allow for the eventual improvement of Vassar’s academic experience. “Shaping assignments and course expectations around the whole person is paramount. The administration is definitely encouraging faculty to take these considerations into account,” she explained. 

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