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Professors should consider unique challenges of fall 2020 semester, raise final grades

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JANUARY 22, 2021

For most, last fall’s remote learning proved to be a nuisance, if not consistently vexing. To offset performance impacts of both the logistical difficulties of remote learning and the collective trauma experienced by students throughout 2020, I propose faculty members consider a final grade increase across all systems. Call it the “COVID-19 curve.”

Final grades should reflect the unique challenges we faced in fall 2020; it’s only prudent.

Since the coronavirus exploded in March 2020 and students sunk into isolation, headlines and assignments piling up relentlessly, we have been experiencing a collective, cultural trauma. On the tail of the unfettered pandemic came the viral death of George Floyd; Black Lives Matter protests erupted nationwide in likely the largest movement in U.S. history. This response was necessary, but the constant violence and brutal imagery these events brought were emotionally overwhelming.

Politically and pandemic-related stress rendered students mentally compromised by the start of fall 2020. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released in August, a staggering 75% of respondents aged 18 to 24 reported increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other adverse mental health symptoms due to COVID-19. More than 1 in 4 reported suicidal ideation.

Regarding politics, the American Psychiatric Association, or APA, reports 83% of U.S. adults experienced increased stress about “the future of our nation” after Floyd’s death.

When school started, we were accustomed — numbed — to catastrophe, but more was coming.

On Sept. 10, Berkeley residents awoke to an orange sky caused by a layer of wildfire-borne smoke particles. “Apocalyptic” suddenly resembled an understatement. Wildfire-induced “climate anxiety” compounded with weeks of unbreathable air — it was overwhelming.

And who could forget the 2020 elections? Their precipitating impact was widespread; according to APA, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults reported high election-related stress in early October. From Nov. 3 to Nov. 7, I watched peers clutching computer screens as bCourses lecture videos drowned helplessly in a sea of election-coverage websites; many fell behind.

Falling behind during normal semesters is rough. But we can’t press pause — lectures go on regardless. Online, however, there’s always tomorrow.

Concerning “self-discipline,” Digital Promise researchers found that, unsurprisingly, “staying motivated” with remote learning was either a “major” or “minor” problem for 79% of all college students. Not to mention, “Zoom fatigue”-causing headaches, sleep deprivation, anxiety, attention issues and chronic neck and back pain adversely affected students.

Motivation aside, assessments — the main determinants of grades — bring countless mishaps. Testing success no longer depends solely on students’ preparation; glitches with time constraints and submissions, compounded with the uncertainty of testing essentials such as a quiet environment and reliable Wi-Fi, create a perfect storm for deficits in student performance.

Additionally, about 85% of 14,000 college students surveyed by education technology company OneClass reported that the pandemic had a “negative effect on their performance” during fall 2020.

Remote testing secures technological and environmental stability as facets of “assessment.” So, unfairly, our grades reflect factors often completely out of our control.

To be clear, enormous sociocultural events don’t alone warrant academic compensation; it’s this rare compounding — wildfires, an election, racial tension, a recession, social isolation, remote learning and a pandemic killing millions — that does.

Thus, I propose a grade increase of at least five points overall, however applicable. Traditional college “bell curves” have C averages; for these systems, I suggest either lowering the benchmark for a C (projecting a higher volume of students above a C) or adjusting the assignment of letter grades based on standard deviations to be more forgiving. As for “bin” systems, which have specific score ranges for each letter grade (i.e., 85-100 is an A, 70-85 is a B, etc.), perhaps widen the upper bins for A’s, B’s and C’s and narrow bins for D’s and F’s.

Some argue that increased lenience with deadlines and the relativity of curves already cushioned grades. However, the grades “cushioned” with lenience were already significantly weighed down by the issues discussed above. And curves are relative, but it’s worth considering how much harder being in the A or B range was this semester; grades given on said curves should still be raised.

To those who persevered in spite of the pandemic and worry about the “devaluation” of hard-earned grades: This proposition lifts everyone’s grades, including yours — if you got an A-minus during a pandemic, I think you deserve an A. And chances are, someone out there who normally gets grades identical to yours had it worse than you — remote learning only exacerbates these discrepancies.

I understand many professors “already” made minimal adjustments. For example, my physics instructor assured us that grading would not be harsher than last year’s, but simply “not being harsher” is not enough.

I hope to provide professors with a small sense of the tumultuous student experience: a call for sympathy from the other side of the Zoom screen.

We must ask: Is it truly fair to evaluate students taking online, UC Berkeley-grade classes based on normal semesters during a pandemic and arguably one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history? Students should not be further penalized for the uncontrollable outcomes of this past semester, the likes of which no one could have imagined.

Lea Yamashiro is a UC Berkeley sophomore intending to major in environmental economics and policy.

JANUARY 23, 2021

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