John Blair | Staff Photographer
Even one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and after four and a half online terms, grading policies and student and professor accommodations remain hot topics among the Pitt community.
Ilia Murtazashvili, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said professors should understand that students cannot perform as well academically in the pandemic as they could pre-pandemic, and their grades should reflect the professor’s understanding.
“You need to recognize that what constitutes ‘A’ work in the pandemic is different from what constitutes ‘A’ work in normal times,” Murtazashvili said. “People should be able to get an ‘A,’ even if they’ve been at 50% ability to do their work or less for the past year.”
Pitt students had the option of making any classes satisfactory/no credit at the end of the semester — in addition to the beginning — last spring, when the pandemic started. In the fall semester, about 3,000 Pitt students signed a petition urging Pitt administration to implement the S/NC option again. Instead, an email announced that students will have a late withdrawal option and a note on their transcript saying, “Grades and credits earned were impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 global public health crisis.”
Joe McCarthy, vice provost of undergraduate studies, sent out an email on March 12 announcing that in addition to the “late withdrawal” option, Pitt will modify the “G” grade for students as a “fallback grade.”
“If you run into problems trying to complete a course, we will be modifying the ‘G’ grade (incomplete for extenuating circumstances) process to facilitate taking a bit more time to complete a course, if needed,” McCarthy said. “This new process will allow a ‘fallback grade’ to be recorded in cases where a student has done enough to achieve a passing grade in a course but would like more time to finish some well-defined final assignments. As with all ‘G’ grades, you will need to work out those details with your instructor.”
According to Chris Bonneau, a political science professor and president of the University Senate, professors usually use a “G” grade for when students couldn’t complete their coursework within one year. Students would work with the professor to complete the coursework before the end of the next semester, and once completed, the “G” grade would revert to a letter grade, Bonneau said. If the student hadn’t completed the coursework, the “G” would revert to “NG,” or “no grade.”
This new policy, according to Bonneau, still allows professors to revert “G” grades into letter grades if students complete the coursework, but now also allows professors to assign letter grades instead of “NG,” even if a student hadn’t finished the coursework.
“Let’s say, so far in my class you’re getting a ‘C.’ And you would get a ‘C,’ but you just didn’t do the final paper, or whatever else,” Bonneau said. “As an instructor, I can say, ‘Well look, you’ve done 80% of the work in the class, so if for whatever reason you can’t complete it, then your ‘G’ grade will revert to a ‘C’ as opposed to a ‘no grade.’’”
Bonneau said this new policy change allows students to still receive credits for a course by having the “G” revert to a letter grade — as students do not receive credits for an “NG” grade — even if they could not complete the coursework. He also said it is a way to “provide additional flexibility” to faculty members when evaluating students’ work.
In a March 16 meeting of the University Senate’s faculty affairs committee, Pitt faculty brought up concerns about leaving professors when assigning “G” grades after the semester ends. McCarthy said although the “G” grade process has not been fully established, it should have “no impact” on faculty.
“We have not yet established the process to be used for issuing a fallback grade. [But] … the grade would be noted at the same time as the G (and all other) grades,” McCarthy said. “So, there should be no impact on faculty that are on contract or that leave the University. We will communicate the process closer to the end of the semester.”
According to Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick, “students seem to appreciate this option,” as the “G” grade offers “more flexibility for the student” over the S/NC option.
Tyler Viljaste, SGB vice president and chief of cabinet, began talking with Provost Ann Cudd’s team during winter break about grading options, specifically pushing for the S/NC option. Viljaste said Cudd’s team originally agreed to allow one class to be S/NC, but decided against it after receiving “pushback” from faculty. Many professors, based on what Viljaste’s heard, felt they were accommodating their students and that students were “deserving” of the grade they received — therefore not needing alternative grading options like S/NC.
Viljaste said the new “G” grade and late withdrawal option is an “inadequate solution” because it is not promoting flexibility, and is instead putting the “burden” on students.
“This seems like an already inadequate solution and it’s not addressing the needs of students, it’s not really promoting this [email protected] model that a lot of us were anticipating and hoping for,” Viljaste said. “It puts a lot more burden on the students during an already stressful time.”
Students this semester, along with the “G” grade, can choose the late withdrawal option — which would appear as a ‘W’ on a transcript — if they are not satisfied with their grade in a course. Monitored withdrawal ends on April 20, and late withdrawal ends May 14.
Bonneau said there was more “leniency” in the fall because Pitt didn’t know how [email protected] would work, whereas this semester, there are “no surprises.”
“In the fall, you could say, well, no one really knew how [email protected] was going to work, no one really knew how — it was a new thing,” Bonneau said. “Professors didn’t know, students didn’t know and so, yeah, a little bit of leniency there was good, but this semester there are no surprises.”
Since Pitt administrators informed faculty about the new “G” grade policy — about three or four weeks ago, according to Bonneau — Bonneau said he hasn’t “gotten a lot of feedback.” Bonneau said he usually gets a lot of feedback with other issues, but because he has not received much feedback, he sees the policy change as “not a big deal,” or that “there are 10 other fires that are more important.”
John Stoner, senior history lecturer and co-chair of the University Senate’s Educational Policies Committee said the new “G” grade policy is a “minor” change, and it “does not impose any additional burden on students or faculty.”
Stoner, whose committee worked closely with the Office of the Provost, said the Office turned to peer institutions, not to “keep up” with other institutions, but in order to not put Pitt students at a “disadvantage.” Stoner added that allowing Pitt students multiple S/NC options may not accurately represent students’ academic standing on their transcripts, therefore limiting them when trying to apply to graduate school.
Stoner said the vice provost — specifically McCarthy — had difficulty finding a balance between allowing students flexibility, but not putting them at a disadvantage in their future.
“I know the vice provost, Vice Provost McCarthy in particular, wrestled with those issues and trying to find a happy medium by which students had some flexibility — especially given that we could certainly classify COVID as an event outside of our immediate control — and give students options, without necessarily committing them to something that would result in a negative outcome for them down the road,” Stoner said.
According to Stoner, he said he believes news about policy changes were “distorted” into thinking Pitt planned on “expanding” the “G” grade use and that “it was going to be indiscriminately used” and “the faculty would somehow be working all summer to resolve ‘G’ grades with students.”
Murtazashvili said he had students in the past use “G” grades. He said if a student needs “additional flexibility,” he adjusts his class’ workload.
“I try to adjust the workload if I can so that they can get a grade based on the work that they’ve completed,” Murtazashvili said. “So if there’s a way for me to work with them, based on my discretion I tend to try to allow them to complete the course even if it involves reducing the required assignments.”
He said he decreases students’ workload because students typically have a “very good reason” for not being able to complete the coursework.
According to Murtazashvili, there’s “not a lot of communication sometimes” with a student who is not completing their schoolwork, and that he doesn’t assign a letter grade until he understands the student’s situation. He said if he can’t get in touch with the student, “Assigning a ‘G’ grade is better than assigning a letter grade.”
Some Pitt students, such as Logan Weiss, were unaware of the new “G” grade policy. Weiss, a sophomore music performance major, said she “really had no idea” what the new “G” grade policy was — only the late withdrawal option.
Weiss said she believes professors are more open to helping students and giving them accommodations — such as extensions or more office hours — because of COVID-19 and the negative impact of online classes on student’s learning.
“I feel like teachers just more easily learn to accept [accommodation requests] because they know — they don’t have to really know your situation, but it’s COVID and they know it’s harder to do a lot of things,” Weiss said.
According to Weiss, it’s important for students to have alternative grading options because many students, such as international students, do not have access to on-campus resources, which may affect their academic performance.
Weiss said Pitt should give students the resources needed to excel in their classes.
“You should give students the best resources they need to do well in class,” Weiss said.