“Thank you for rescuing our class from its way to collapse,” began the hand-written letter that I received from a student as we adjourned our final class of the semester. The letter, which was accompanied by a box of chocolates, was one of many thank you notes that I received during the Fall 2022 term. 

Despite only being a graduate student, I was both the full-time instructor and teacher’s assistant (TA) for an upper-year physics class. Midway through October, when the original professor unexpectedly went on leave because of long COVID-19 symptoms, the department decided that I, having been the course’s TA for three years, was best suited to take over on short notice. It was a simple solution to a straightforward problem. 

I was a novice teacher, and I had limited experience delivering lectures and writing exams. While the professor’s serious post-COVID symptoms meant that the course’s organization was chaotic from the start, by no means did it run perfectly after I took over. So why were my students so appreciative when I became their instructor? 

As I reflected on my situation over the holidays, I realized that the “collapse” my student referred to was more than just the result of a long-COVID-induced professor swap — it was part of a growing realization that I’d been navigating for nearly a decade of being involved with higher education as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and then instructor. 

The way university instructors incentivize student learning is flawed. The problem is, simply put, how and why instructors grade students. As I have come to realize, grades often have little to do with measuring students’ understanding and are often used as a cudgel to compel student compliance with arbitrary standards set by out-of-touch professors. As has been common throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 simply highlighted deeper structural inadequacies.

Learning assessments and students’ time

Most Canadian universities — U of T included — use the modern A–F grading system, in which students are given a letter grade and corresponding numerical grade point average (GPA) on a scale that represents their academic accomplishment in a course. 

However, despite the system’s present ubiquity, it only rose to prominence in North America in the late nineteenth century as a way of standardizing the assessment of student learning in an increasingly international educational environment. Yale, for example, went through four different grading systems between 1967 and 1981, including a pass and fail system, before settling on its current A–F model. 

Grades are primarily intended to assess learning, but instructors often use the implicit threat of giving students a bad grade to compel their engagement with course material in the absence of positive incentive. This absolves professors of responsibility to make their classes engaging. 

In my experience as a TA, the students who receive the lowest grades on assignments are the ones that don’t hand them in due to time constraints. These constraints often arise for reasons entirely out of their control, such as health issues or domestic conflict. The Faculty of Arts and Science’s Academic Handbook for Instructors explicitly gives professors “wide latitude” for deciding on late policies, with the only guideline being that any policy must be “fair, equitable, and reasonable.” As such, it is not uncommon for professors to penalize students upward of 10 per cent a day for late work, if they accept late work at all. 

Exams are a different story. In principle, they are a fairer measure of student learning since students are given the same amount of time to complete them. However, traditional exams assess a student’s ability to perform well in a stressful environment just as much as it does their understanding. Meta analyses consistently show that test anxiety is a strong negative predictor of academic achievement. It’s been so widely accepted that traditional assessments are a poor measurement of practical understanding that it has almost become a cliché.

Many professors exacerbate the situation with arbitrary grading practices. As a student, I’ve experienced more than one professor proudly proclaim to me that they never award grades higher than a 90 per cent. 

According to the FAS’ handbook, grades are meant to function as a measurement of a student’s mastery of course material. If this is the case, then these professors would be admitting that they have never adequately taught the material. Alternatively, these professors are admitting that grades are entirely subject to their own personal whims.

Even when assignments are marked fairly and transparently, the amount of course work assigned is left entirely to professors’ discretion. The FAS’ handbook only includes a guideline that no assignment can account for more than 80 per cent of the final grade. Professors may require students to devote many hours every day to their course to maintain a reasonable grade. When a student has four other courses with similar demands, their ability to earn a good grade may be limited purely by the number of available hours that they have in a day.

Take the flipped classroom structure for example, which is one in which students are required to read the lecture materials on their own before class. Lectures then become the instructor expanding on course readings by answering student questions. 

This displaces the responsibility to prepare for lectures from the instructor to the student. Professors rarely reduce the assignment workload to compensate for the additional work created by the flipped structure. 

Flipped classrooms have gained some popularity among instructors, as there is research that suggests that they improve learning outcomes. I don’t dispute this claim; in fact, it seems obvious that the increased workload would generally improve understanding. The real question is whether improved learning outcomes justify the inflated demand on students’ time.

Even when professors are willing to grant extensions for extenuating circumstances, there is often a high barrier to accessing these accommodations. Something as simple as emailing a professor requesting an extension can be anxiety inducing for students, especially first-year students who have not yet acclimated to the university environment. Moreover, the Faculty of Arts and Science only requires that instructors accept late work when there are “legitimate, documented reasons beyond a student’s control.” It is not always possible for students to attain documented proof for extenuating circumstances, no matter how legitimate.

These barriers are also unnecessary from a pedagogical perspective. There is no policy that stops professors and TAs from giving students feedback on assignments at any time during the term. Therefore, the effect of late penalties is to simply punish students for deviating from a prescribed schedule, rather than to empower them to learn at a pace that accommodates their own needs and priorities.

The arbitrariness and ambiguity of participation grades

According to U of T’s University Assessment and Grading Practices Policy, published in 2021, participation grades can comprise up to 20 per cent of graduate students’ total grades. The document didn’t specify participation grade weight for undergraduate classes, but, in the course I took over, participation grades also made up 20 per cent.

When I was an undergraduate student, I was confused by participation grades. How could a professor who has never asked for my name assess whether or not I had participated in class sufficiently? Did the students who stayed silent during lecture automatically lose 10 per cent of their final grade? 

My suspicions were not unfounded. As a new instructor, I received an email from the Physics Department undergraduate coordinator reminding me that “under no circumstances may instructors release final marks to students before they have gone through [departmental] approval.” The email further explained that “instructors should not add in the ‘overall assessment’ portion, ‘participation mark,’ or the final exam mark to the Quercus grade book,” as per the FAS’ handbook.

When I first started as a TA for the physics course four years ago, the professor told me that participation grades would benefit students. They would motivate students to attend lectures and tutorials and engage with the class material. 

I was already skeptical — surely, if instructors wanted to encourage engagement, the most effective way of doing so would be to create engaging course material. Now that I have seen behind the curtain as an instructor myself, the absurdity of this claim is even more apparent to me. 

Although it was not stated outright, I interpreted the email I received to mean that students should not be allowed to see their participation grades so that the grade could be adjusted to meet departmental requirements for grade distributions. 

Previously, the FAS required specific proportions of students to receive a given letter grade in a class. In recent years, these distribution guidelines have been relaxed, with the general norm being that the number of students receiving an A is between 15 and 30 per cent of the class, and no more than 10 per cent of the class should receive an F. While instructors are expected to grade within these guidelines, departments only review grade distributions at the end of the term. By withholding participation grades from students until after departmental review, professors are able to arbitrarily scale grades without prior accountability. 

Not only are participation grades obviously a device for scaling grades, in my experience they also fail at their purported purpose: encouraging participation. 

Last term, the professor whose class I took over introduced a flipped classroom structure. Although I’ve witnessed this lecture structure implemented very successfully, I’ve just as often seen it being implemented disastrously. For the structure to work, the instructor must be skilled at fostering a positive environment of curiosity and encouragement. Accomplishing this task was all the more challenging for a professor suffering from long-term COVID-19 symptoms. 

For the first month and a half of the semester, the students in my class learned very little during lectures. Some of them told me that, before I took over as instructor, the lectures were an hour of awkward silence.

In this context, the participation grades were ineffective at encouraging class participation and did nothing to promote learning. They simply forced students to waste multiple hours a week under the threat of losing a significant chunk of their final grade.

Gatekeepers of academic advancement 

The unarticulated assumption is that students are lazy and need the threat of a poor grade to motivate them. Now, I have had professors who do empower their students, who work hard to accommodate their needs, and who even award participation marks for actual participation. Ultimately, though, a student’s grade is subject to their professor’s whims, with very little oversight beyond the artificial scaling a department may require. 

The result is that a final grade is a meaningless combination of many factors, only a small fraction of which relates to a student’s understanding of course materials. 

Grades are the gatekeepers of academic advancement. A good GPA is required to access further education, be it professional school or graduate school. The U of T medical school requires a minimum GPA of 3.60 for admission, although, based on statistics from recent admissions cycles, a 3.80 GPA is required to be competitive. The Masters of Sciences program offered by the U of T Department of Physics, which accepts on average 45 students every year from 400 applicants, requires a minimum GPA of 3.3. 

Students are also under enormous pressure to attain good grades, which has negative effects on their well-being and, by extension, their learning. I have seen students prioritize grades over their mental and physical health. As a student myself, I have often sacrificed my own well-being to maintain my GPA. I can only imagine how methods to incentivize student learning are now taking a greater toll, due to the persistent strain caused by the pandemic and increasing economic instability. 

Abolish grades

In my brief experience as an instructor, I have seen the advantages of relieving the pressure of grades from students’ shoulders. When I took over the course, I made it clear to the students that the only way to attain a failing grade was to not hand in any assignments at all or sit any exam. I gave unlimited extensions on homework up until the end of the term. For exams, I gave rubrics that clarified that as long as an attempt was made, a passing grade would be given. 

If grades encourage student learning and engagement, then one would expect that the effect of these policies would be that students would stop coming to lectures and their responses to exam and homework questions would degrade in quality. The opposite was the case. Attendance did not suffer and the quantity of in-class questions increased. More students attended office hours than in any previous year, and student understanding of the material was unaffected. 

In the same letter where my student thanked me for rescuing the course from “collapse,” they also thanked me for my “kindness.” To these students, an instructor who viewed them as adults capable of making decisions regarding their own education — and who didn’t use grades to enforce adherence to arbitrary standards — was remarkable.

While individual instructors have a limited ability to fundamentally alter the grading system, there are still positive policies that professors can implement in the classroom. Before anything can change, however, professors must unlearn the prevailing attitude that good grades are a reward for learning. Rather, the threat of a bad grade in a system that places such high value on GPAs is simply a tool to enforce desired behaviours, thereby disempowering students from making informed decisions about their own.