Pass or fail
The open letter recommends that the U of O automatically converts any failed grade to the ‘not satisfactory’ designation. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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Student union and 16 recognized student governments penned an open letter to provost Jill Scott

On Nov. 19, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU), along with 16 recognized student governments, called for the University of Ottawa to adopt proposed recommendations for improved online learning, including the implementation of a pass or fail option for both the fall 2020 and winter 2021 semesters. 

UOSU advocacy commissioner Tim Gulliver sent an open letter to provost and vice-president of academic affairs Jill Scott, outlining propositions which were the product of feedback from the UOSU’s Online Learning Feedback Forum and fall 2020 questionnaire which saw close to 1,300 combined responses from students.

“In our view, despite our best efforts, online learning is not quite where it needs to be, in terms of quality, access to resources and delivery of course content,” reads the letter.

“We make these recommendations in a constructive spirit, with the aim of providing more flexibility and peace of mind for the students we represent.”

Scott replied in an email thanking Gulliver for the open letter and for “having taken the time to articulate clearly the important challenges facing students in the academic context, and for naming the specific requests for improvement.” 

Rather than a CGPA system, the open letter recommends that the U of O automatically converts any failed grade to the ‘not satisfactory’ designation along with allowing the optional conversion of one course per semester to a ‘satisfactory’ designation. 

Julia Handley, a second-year international studies and modern languages student at the U of O believes there are pros and cons to the pass or fail option. 

“If someone is really struggling with a class that can help them with their CGPA which is a plus because having a good CGPA does matter if you want to get into a master’s program,” said Handley in an email.  

“However, I think that people need to be cautious because if you use [pass or fail grading] for four or five classes that’s going to look bad on a transcript and people need to keep that in mind.”

Marko Hrga, a fourth-year student at the U of O’s Telfer School of Management also sees pros and cons to the option.

“By allowing students to pass/fail any course it may be unfair to the students who worked diligently to differentiate themselves through their grades or scholarships,” said Hrga in an email. 

“Students knowing they have a pass/fail available may result in less class participation, less effort on assignments, and overall lead to a far less proactive student base,” he said. 

However, Hrga notes that implementing the option will alleviate stress for many students who are struggling to adapt to online learning. 

“It is positive in terms of helping relieve students of stress during these trying times, and as a result may allow them to focus on learning far more efficiently.”

Mireille Dubé, a second-year political science and law student at the U of O believes the implementation would be a positive thing for students.

“I think it’s great since it would relieve some of the stress that a lot of students are feeling because of the online semester,” said Dubé in an email. 

“Some profs haven’t yet mastered the right way of teaching online, and it has affected students’ grades and mental health,” she said. 

Dubé expressed she would use the option for one of her classes, but Handley and Hrga both expressed their desire to stay away from using the option. 

“While I may not necessarily even use the option, the fact that it is there helps relieve stress to maintain high grades,” said Hrga. 

“If I tanked a final and that brought my average way down I would definitely consider using it after weighing the benefits over future risks,” said Handley.

In addition to the pass or fail option, the letter also recommends that the university issue a guideline for professors limiting the amount of assignments and to be flexible when it comes to grading and deadlines. 

UOSU also recommended that the university implements guidelines or academic regulations encouraging professors to not exceed the regular maximum of time for lectures. 

Lastly, they are recommending that the university issue a guideline to inform students of professors who deliver synchronous lectures on uoZone when registering for courses. According to the letter, this will help students living in different time zones chose courses that are asynchronous and don’t require live attendance.

“We are hopeful that the pragmatism, thoughtfulness and constructive spirit with which we make these recommendations will allow for the implementation of some, or all, of these measures,” continued the letter.

It remains to be seen if the U of O will implement any change when it comes to grading for the fall semester, however, Scott has promised to meet with Gulliver to discuss the issue at hand.

“I will be emphasizing the importance of your letter in my discussions with deans and academic leaders, and propose that we schedule a meeting in the next week or so to follow up on some concrete measures that we might take as an institution to address the concerns raised,” said Scott.

“We share the view that students deserve to have the best learning experience possible given the present circumstances and constraints.”