OPINION: All Students Should be Eligible for Another Grade Bump

Wednesday 12 August, 2020. A new Covid-19 community cluster is found in Auckland, and New Zealand is faced with the prospect of another lockdown. Thankfully, only Auckland actually faced another Level 3. However, immediately after the announcement, I found myself once again on Zoom calls, once again feeling isolated, and once again struggling.

Last semester, the University of Otago, among other tertiary institutions, offered a blanket five point grade increase. Otago’s grade bump was announced following the University of Auckland’s own grade bump. Both were introduced to account for disruptions to learning under the Level 3 and Level 4 national Covid-19 responses. To recap, the University of Otago moved to online teaching from 30 March, and remained online until the end of the semester—that’s six weeks of online teaching.

In comparison, this semester, when Level 3 was announced for Auckland, and Level 2 for the rest of the country on 12 August, the University of Otago made the decision to move some classes to online teaching; however, some classes remained face-to-face. This was left up to the discretion of the course coordinators. Some students were moved to a mixture of online and face-to-face courses, while other students remained online for the semester. Teaching conditions under Level 1 were not implemented again until 28 September. That’s four weeks of interrupted learning. For some students, this meant four weeks of content delivered online, creating much the same conditions as the first semester.

I, for one, experienced the second round of online teaching in almost exactly the same way as the first. My anxiety sky-rocketed (again, lol). I found it hard to concentrate on online teaching, let alone keep up with all the course work without scheduled classes. As classes didn’t require my physical presence on campus, I didn’t have to leave my house—in fact, it made more sense to stay at home where I had a reliable internet connection, didn’t have to contend with the anxiety of shared spaces, and was guaranteed to have a quiet space. Although not a lockdown, the teaching arrangements of Level 2 yeeted me straight back to the mental state of Level 3 and 4 during first semester, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone.

For others, the outcome of Level 2 teaching conditions was even worse than teaching conditions over lockdown. Online delivery had different consequences during semester two, with some students having to juggle online delivery with other commitments such as jobs.

Zoe told me that going to online learning over Level 2 was more confusing and jarring than during lockdown, because the response was continually evolving, and inconsistent across departments. She found this semester “just as challenging [as last semester] if not more so… because instead of being at home with nothing to do but uni, everything else is still going on, making it easier to get behind on uni work.”

To account for disruptions to teaching this semester, Otago will increase final grades of 47, 48 or 49 to a 50. In an email, the University of Otago explained that their decision was a result of the fact that the grade distribution for last semester remained much the same even without the five-point grade increase. However, this stance completely disregards the fact that lockdown affected people in different ways. Some were fine with online delivery, while others struggled. For those in the latter category, the grade bump was a life-line for their GPAs.

Erin, who studies Law, notes that those who are trying to achieve competitive grades are significantly disadvantaged by the stance the University has taken during Level 2. She believes there should be another grade bump this semester, as the impact of online teaching has been much the same. She noted that “I am in the same position I was at the end of last semester but without the grade bump… I reckon my grades will probably be worse for it.”

Other students, like Barney, felt that the second round of online teaching was more manageable; however, he also believes the University’s response to learning disruption has been inconsistent. His stance is that the University should have given a grade increase of two or three points for everyone, not just those on the pass/fail border. This would more accurately reflect the challenges that came with the second round of online teaching.

Importantly, those who were impacted by the second round of online teaching are not eligible for Special Consideration. Application for Special Consideration requires a disruption to your ability to study within two weeks of a given exam. This seems bullshit, because disruptions to learning at any point in the semester are likely to have an impact on the overall grade achieved in that class.

All this begs the question: why is the University of Otago not extending their “compassionate response” to students who struggled during this semester? The University cites anxiety, stress and uncertainty as a justification for the grade increase last semester. Although there was no lockdown this semester, it could be argued that there has been just as much uncertainty and anxiety during the second Level 2. Remember that the cluster could just as easily have spread to other areas of the country, and the government was ready to increase alert levels at any time.

I believe a truly compassionate stance would allow students impacted by the second round of online teaching to apply for Special Consideration, if not a blanket grade increase of two or three points. It doesn’t make sense to assume that students on a pass/fail border were somehow more affected by disruptions to teaching during semester two than others. While I advocate the grade increase for those students completely, I just wish the same attitude would be extended to the wider student body.

It’s been an exceptional year. I don’t think anyone is disputing that it has been hard, both for students and the Uni. 2020 has thrown us many challenges, and the constant theme that arises again and again is the importance of community and empathy, something which the University of Otago keeps advocating in their communications.

They should apply this advice to grade bumps.

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2020.
Posted 7:22pm Sunday 4th October 2020 by Naomii Seah.