How COVID-19 Has Impacted College Grading Systems

How COVID-19 Has Impacted College Grading Systems
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on November 30, 2020

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The history of grading in U.S. higher education can be traced back to Harvard College in the 1600s. But it wasn't until the 1940s that letter grades (i.e., A to F) and a 100-point scale gained widespread use in the country.

The earliest attempts at assigning college grades focused on exams. This method is still prevalent today, often taking the form of midterms and final exams administered at the end of a class.

Grades provide a way to measure your progress and academic achievements.

Simply put, grades — through exams and assignments — provide a way to measure your progress and academic achievements. The process can stress out some students while motivating others to perform better.

Many changes in college grading systems have taken place over the years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the most recent shifts. This year, we've seen plenty of exams get replaced with alternative assignments or canceled altogether. And at many institutions, students can choose how their work will be graded and recorded for the time being.

Though we don't yet know how long these latest changes to college grading policies will last, it's important to understand how this process is evolving, as well as how it could impact your own college experience.

Epic Finales Instead of Exams

When courses abruptly moved from the classroom to a remote format, many professors wanted to alleviate some of the stress students were facing due to the rapid changes. Chapman University professor Stephanie Bailey shared her solution — an "epic finale" — with EdSurge.

Instead of assigning a traditional final exam for her physics class, Bailey had her students meet via Zoom with senior citizens in a local residential facility. Each student was required to share with their Zoom partner what they learned over the course of the term. After these meetings, the students had to submit essays detailing their experiences while also integrating reflection on their learning processes and outcomes.

“An epic finale primes the students to discuss the topic for weeks (or years) to come and to leave the classroom amid a bit more awesomeness than when they arrived.”. Source: — Anthony Crider, Professor of Astrophysics at Elon University

Anthony Crider, an Elon University professor who coined the term "epic finale," offers multiple epic finale scenarios as alternatives to the traditional, multiple-choice final exam. The lone-question finale, for example, is a one-question test through which students can share what they've learned. Crider's own astrophysics finale consisted of putting students into small groups to answer a single high-level research question.

Math professor Lorelei Koss recently published her findings after introducing epic finales in four undergraduate classes at Dickinson College. According to Crider, these continued experiments on exam alternatives can and do lead to a "memorable learning experience" and "create something inspiring."


Pass/Fail Grading

Taking a course pass/fail means that instead of receiving a letter grade for the class, you'll get an indication on your transcript that you performed either satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily. While passing a class won't necessarily impact how your GPA is calculated, failing a class will.

Amid campus closures this spring, some colleges and professors gave students the option of ending their courses with pass/fail grades. Colby College's Margaret McFadden explained that in doing this, "[the] goal was to give students as much flexibility and choice as possible and allow [them] to focus on learning and doing their best work."

Credits earned pass/fail are not always accepted toward a new degree plan.

While taking a class pass/fail can ease a lot of anxiety you might have about a particular class, there are some potential downsides. Students planning to apply to graduate programs should be aware of any guidelines or changes related to their future applications. For example, Harvard Medical School will accept pass/fail grades for coursework completed this spring, summer, and fall.

Students who plan to transfer from one school to another should also research the requirements of the school they want to attend. Credits earned pass/fail are not always accepted toward a new degree plan, particularly for courses in your major — though there may be allowances for classes taken during the pandemic.

There's some evidence that pass/fail grading options will continue at many institutions into 2021. As each college and university establishes plans for the 2021-22 academic year, watch for updates from your school and any school to which you might want to apply or transfer.

Rethinking College Transcripts

Every college class you take, no matter its format, will appear on your academic transcript. This document provides a snapshot of your achievements — including course titles, the number of credits you earned, and the grades you received — but typically lacks detail related to what you learned and how well you learned it.

Transcripts provide a snapshot of your achievements but lack detail.

Additionally, transcripts don't include information on any choices you might have had about how your classes were offered (e.g., in person vs. remote, for a letter grade vs. pass/fail).

Education consulting group EAB recommends several ways that grading changes — especially those that happened due to COVID-19 — could be more effectively listed on student transcripts. Adding information about the school's policies during each semester is one possibility, and may be especially helpful for 2020 academic terms, which many refer to as "asterisk semesters."

Another suggestion is to let faculty members add a designation to students' transcripts for classes completed this year. At Dartmouth College, for instance, professors can put academic citations on students' transcripts to indicate strong class performance. Providing a descriptive component to a college letter grade or pass/fail mark could provide a fuller picture of your effort and achievement.


College Grades and Student Motivation

Grades can be a blessing and a curse. They provide one way for your learning to be assessed and your progress to be documented. But when grades become the priority, understanding and interest in course concepts can get lost in the quest for a perfect score.

Grades can motivate you to meet a class’s learning objectives.

College grades can also motivate you to do what's required in a class to meet the learning objectives. Many students skip or otherwise put little effort into class activities that aren't assigned a specific point value or directly linked to a grade, such as attending live sessions or reading assigned chapters.

A recent survey of Stanford University students found that not all students liked moving to credit/no credit, or pass/fail, grading this spring. One-third said that being unmotivated due to the absence of grades was one of the barriers they faced while living at home and finishing their courses.

According to the study, "Students emphasized that the lack of graded cumulative final exams [was] harmful to their learning as it removed incentives for them to 'go the extra mile.'"

The Future of College Grading Systems

Even before the pandemic, people called for changes to traditional grading and academic transcripts. The argument that eliminating letter grades can reduce stress and enhance learning has persisted for years, though not all students want to abandon this grading system just yet.

In addition, ideas for transcript improvement are gaining an audience among leaders who'd like to see more alignment of the academic experience with skills development and career planning.

College campuses' sudden closure this spring forced many professors and schools to make quick decisions about how students' work would be evaluated and documented. The result is now more than eight months of schools and students exploring new ways to measure learning.

And through this experience, we might just see longer-term impact on higher education grading policies and practices.


Feature Image: Neustockimages / E+ / Getty Images

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