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Universal pass or fail grading is the first step in the right direction. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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The pandemic has already impacted students enough. Get rid of the CGPA.

On Nov. 2, Carleton University approved the use of compassionate grading options for its undergraduate student body for both the fall 2020 and winter 2021 semesters. 

For Carleton students who fail their courses, it will be possible to opt to receive a non-satisfactory grade instead of a numerical grade affecting their CGPA — similar to the option University of Ottawa students were given for the winter 2020 semester at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students will also be given the choice to change one of their passing grades to a satisfactory grade.

U of O students, however, have not had the same fortunes as their cross-town rivals. As of the publication of this editorial, the university has not made the decision to continue implementing compassionate grading for the current academic year. This isn’t to say the university administration could not decide to change their minds in the next couple of weeks as we near the December exam period — there is still time. 

On Friday, Tim Gulliver, advocacy commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, sent a letter to U of O provost Jill Scott. 

Co-signed by 16 recognized student governments, the letter demands the university to grant students the option for pass or fail grading.

“We believe that, for as long as mandatory online learning continues, students should have optional, universal, pass/fail grading,” said Gulliver in the letter.

It is no revelation that COVID-19 has been a challenge for most when it has come to their academic path. Although failing a class is not the end of the world, it can leave a lasting impact on students’ CGPA and transcripts. 

For many students, their CGPA is a source of pride, but also an unhealthy neurotic fixation that doesn’t help improve their university experience. Failing a course or receiving low grades can lead to a sense of failure and major self-disappointment which in turn can lead to major mental health struggles. 

On Oct. 19, the editorial board of The Crimson, Harvard’s independent daily student newspaper, which boasts former U.S. presidents John. F Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt as alums, summed the issues with GPA perfectly in an editorial on universal, pass/fail grading.

“Our campus’s obsession with GPA does nothing to further learning, as we are incentivized to avoid courses that we anticipate will be a challenge or that are out of our comfort zone. This GPA arms race fuels Harvard’s unhealthily competitive underbelly, which threatens to exacerbate the mental health struggles faced by many students, and fosters a toxic, competitive academic environment.”

This excerpt can just as easily be applied to the University of Ottawa. 

Additionally, the option of universal pass or fail grading might be a good option for this year due to the pandemic, because there are multiple other factors that are influencing a student’s ability to learn at this given time.

Not all students start on an equal playing field even with the option of universal, pass or fail grading. For many students, especially international students, online learning has brought challenges that other students don’t have to face.

The letter addressed to the U of O touched on the challenges of synchronous courses to international students not residing in the eastern standard time zone. 

“Public health guidelines and travel restrictions are encouraging many students to live away from Ottawa for the foreseeable future,” read the letter. “They should not be penalized for this … there are still too many students waking up at unreasonable times to write evaluations or attend lectures.”

Waking up in the middle of the night or staying up until the early hours of the morning is a reality all too real for many international and domestic students. Added challenges to these students can also include working a part-time job to support themselves or in some cases, their loved ones. 

So it begs the question; how do we level the playing field so that everybody can be graded fairly given their circumstances?

There are no magic solutions that will make it so everybody can start on equal grounds, however, there are ways to at least bridge the gap. Universal pass or fail grading is the first step in the right direction. 

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s thirteen-person editorial board and express the shared opinion of Fulcrum’s editorial staff. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca.