In a Pandemic, Everyone Gets an Asterisk

Rethinking how we assess, test and grade our students gives not only them but also instructors needed flexibility during an impossible time, Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis write.

March 23, 2020
 
 
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The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced on March 16 that the U.S. has begun human testing for a new coronavirus vaccine. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the institute, while the trial was launched at record speed, a vaccine won’t be ready for at least a year. It takes time to develop and test a vaccine that is both safe for humans and effective in fighting this virus.

There is an uncanny parallel between testing a vaccine on humans and testing students in the extraordinary circumstance of a health emergency where all courses must be put online without advance preparation. Under normal circumstances, it would take at least a year to do this well. Since we don’t have a year, resources in higher ed need to be pooled and shared to help prepare faculty members to meet students where they are. Remarkably, all over America institutions and individuals are responding with amazing creative energy, responsibility and generosity.

Ironically, if there is an area where many still remain mystified, it is in the area of testing itself. We don’t have a year to become experts in how to assess students during this emergency period of distance learning. Even at higher ed institutions where residential life is a cornerstone of all they do, it seems somehow easier to close the campus, move every student out of the dorms and place all courses online than to change policies and practices for how those students will be tested, assessed and graded. Fortunately, though, a number of higher education institutions are recognizing this educational deficiency and are working on ways to see past it. We can learn from them.

The University of Washington, in Seattle, the original epicenter of the COVID-19 virus in the U.S., was one of the first universities to make the decision to move all of its classes to remote instruction. According to an exchange on Facebook with President Ana Mari Cauce, faculty members at the university can decide whether their courses will be graded or whether they use CR/NC (credit/no credit). Grades have an asterisk beside them to explain the circumstances of such choices so that students in competitive majors won’t be penalized, especially in cases where students need a high GPA in order to continue in professional school.

An asterisk may seem small, but it is an important modification of the notion that one letter or number “represents” what one achieved in a course. Don’t we all need an asterisk this term? If many of us are feeling too much like experimental subjects in some gigantic educational test, we all could use that asterisk to indicate the extenuating circumstances under which we have been compelled to perform this year.

Smith College in Northampton, Mass., is another college that offers an excellent model for changing how to calculate student success. Seemingly overnight, Smith not only moved to remote learning but also went to a mandatory satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system in order to “recognize the extraordinary character of current circumstances.” Thoughtfully, the Smith FAQ about academic continuity explains, “As we move instruction into alternative modes, we are necessarily changing our agreements about expectations and assessments. In a new and unfamiliar environment, we cannot hold faculty and students to expectations constructed in and for a different instructional experience.” Everything about this statement reaffirms the foundational principles of a liberal arts education, even when conducted at a distance: it should prepare you for whatever challenges might lie ahead outside of college, or, as noted on the Smith College homepage, it is an education designed to “empower the whole you.”

At Georgetown University, a team of imaginative educators has spent the last decade exploring a variety of learning innovations. In this crisis, they have turned their attention to alternative forms of grading. According to Vice Provost for Education Randall Bass, Georgetown has not only moved courses online but has worked to come up with ways to “ensure that both students and faculty are supported to do their best work.” That means changing assessment. For spring 2020, Georgetown will give its undergraduate students the option to choose either a letter grade or pass/fail. Students are allowed to make this choice until the last day of classes, in any course (including core, majors, certificates and electives). It’s a pivot, and an extraordinary one, in extraordinary circumstances.

We are pleased to be hearing from colleagues at a number of other institutions that are right now discussing the appropriate way to grade in this pandemic. The admirably helpful University of Oklahoma professor Laura Gibbs (@OnlineCrsLady) is even compiling a crowdsourced list, “Alternate Grading in a Crisis,” to keep track of changes, decisions, discussions and petitions. She notes that community colleges have an additional problem adopting an alternative grading system lest they hinder their students’ transfer to four-year college.

Our own City University of New York has extended the deadlines by which students decide if they will take a course for a conventional grade or a pass/no credit/fail option. Any adjustment signals an awareness that the current disruption has changed all of our options for pretty much everything and on every level.

Are these makeshift solutions or are they small revolutions in university grading policies that we wish to continue? Susan D. Blum, one of several prominent advocates for “ungrading,” insists that she began using formative, narrative written feedback instead of grades when she began to see greater variety and diversity among her students. As she notes in an essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Grading requires uniformity. It assumes uniform input, uniform process and uniform output … Students don’t start out the same. They don’t have the same life experiences -- or even academic experiences -- during our semester together. They don’t go to the same places afterward.”

It is hard to imagine anything that makes those differences sharper than a pandemic. Higher education will never have a silver bullet solution, like a vaccine, to fix the status quo. Disease, we know, affects us unequally and, with remote learning, the burdens that fall on our students are grossly unequal. The pandemic magnifies differences at a basic, structural level. Do you have Wi-Fi? Have your preschoolers and your teenagers been sent home from school, disrupting your online class? Are you taking care of an elderly relative and suddenly have no one to help you? Have you been laid off from your part-time restaurant job? Are you required to continue to work at a hospital? All of this contributes to your life. An A, B, C, D or F grade does not come close to measuring what you are learning or how.

For more than 100 years, testing and grading have become the tail wagging the dog we call higher education. As we all scramble to make do as best we can in the worst pandemic in a century, with the unfair and unequal pressures it has placed on all of us -- teachers, students, administrators, staff -- it is useful to pause and think about the purpose and mission of what we do. What might we learn from this extraordinary time and this radical, unanticipated and mandatory realignment of our usual practices? What is essential? What falls away? Maybe this horrific pandemic can also make us aware of the virtues of flexibility and the importance of the forms of learning that cannot be tested by standardized measures.

When this is over, many of us will gladly return to our former ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that: crisis operations are in no way replacements for best practices. Yet in this extraordinary time of innovation and pedagogical sharing, we are seeing renewed commitment to teaching, to caring and to generosity across fields, ranks and institutions. These are precious. Adjunct and junior faculty and graduate student instructors have, notably, been at the forefront of solicitous sharing, despite the abuses many of them have experienced in our profession. We must remember that.

This crisis has forced us to put our old habits and practices under a spotlight. We’ve been required to get creative and to do it fast -- too fast. Maybe the other requirement for this time is to recognize that, although we might not be perfect, we actually might be learning new methods and techniques and embracing values that improve what we were doing before.

We are all being tested in the most profound way by this disease. Rethinking how we assess, test and grade our students not only gives them flexibility at an impossible time. It also gives instructors an opportunity to be flexible. It allows us all -- faculty, students and staff -- to give ourselves an asterisk that says, simply and profoundly, we are human.

Bio

Cathy N. Davidson is cofounder and codirector of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). She is Distinguished Professor of English and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina Katopodis is a doctoral candidate in English and Futures Initiative fellow at the Graduate Center CUNY and an adjunct instructor at Hunter College. Together, they are writing a book tentatively titled Transforming Every Classroom: A Practical Guide (under contract to Harvard University Press, anticipated 2022).

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