Sarah Bonner-Proulx, an undergraduate student leader at the University of Manitoba, addressed a meeting of senior administrators from her kitchen table this week determined to persuade them to overhaul changes to the grading system the university had made in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Thousands of students had signed a petition asking the university to further alter its evaluation process. They wanted the right to choose whether they would be evaluated on a pass or fail basis, or to accept the letter grade they’re given. The university, which had already decided to allow students to exclude some courses from the calculation of their grade point average, was willing to listen.

Ms. Bonner-Proulx, a student union vice-president, had heard from students who had lost jobs, who had been rousted from their dorms, as well as a single mother struggling to study while caring for her children. Some worried that with the rapid transition to online learning and changes to the way courses are evaluated, such as the cancellation of in-person exams due to distancing rules, they wouldn’t perform to the standards expected.

Todd Mondor, deputy provost at University of Manitoba, said the university senate adopted the motion. It’s not clear how many students will take advantage of the additional option, but they have until mid-May to decide.

“We were willing to work with our student union and give them options so that they don’t feel any negative academic consequences from the disruption we’ve all had to deal with,” Dr. Mondor said.

The University of Manitoba is among many schools to adopt what’s being called a compassionate grading policy. Students at more than a dozen Canadian universities can now choose to be evaluated with a pass or fail rather than letter grades.

In most cases, they can do this for each class, so a student who did poorly in only one course could choose a pass option, rather than a lower letter grade that could harm their grade point average (GPA). At Manitoba, a failed course this term will not count against a student’s internal GPA, used for calculating academic standing and awarding scholarships.

“The grades that students are getting this semester are not a reflection of their capabilities, but a reflection of the circumstances,” Ms. Bonner-Proulx said.

However, some students have told Ms. Bonner-Proulx they’re concerned that if they select a pass rather than a letter grade, their transcripts will be looked upon less favourably when they apply to graduate or professional school. Dr. Mondor said students should be aware that it’s still not known how a transcript with a “pass” grade will be evaluated down the road, particularly as students move between institutions.

Some schools, such as the University of Alberta, have moved to a credit or no credit system that does not give the option of taking a letter grade. Some U.S. Ivy League colleges adopted similar policies.

The University of Victoria has also given students the compassionate option, and they can drop a course without penalty after receiving their grade.

“We want to provide flexibility to students this term, given these circumstances, and as a way to relieve stresses associated with these unprecedented circumstances,” said Susan Lewis, associate vice-president of academic planning at the University of Victoria. “Essentially, this means that no student will have ‘fail’ appear on their record this term.”

Steven Murphy, president of Ontario Tech University, said his university also chose the compassionate route. Those who receive at least 60 per cent in a course can choose a letter grade or a pass-fail mark.

“We think it’s more than fair given the situation,” Mr. Murphy said. “You have to realize that if you’re taking five courses, they’re going to differ in terms of how quickly the instructor felt comfortable transitioning to [online delivery,] and what that meant for your learning. It allows the student to decide: ‘I had an A going in, and then I ended up with a C and that’s just not fair.’ ”

Ms. Bonner-Proulx, who is in her fifth year at the University of Manitoba and completed her degree in December, said the changes make little difference to her but could mean a lot for others.

“There’s a lot of other pressures that students are facing right now,” she said.

The Globe and Mail, April 3, 2020