Students voice concerns over ‘business-as-usual’ assessment strategy

Additional reporting by Colin Vanelli

As British universities grapple with how to tackle assessments during the Covid-19 global pandemic, LSE is being accused by some of following a “business-as-usual” approach. Various student groups have circulated petitions and letters proposing alleviating measures, citing major exam performance inhibitors such as stress, anxiety, family obligations, and even a  lack of access to the internet. What’s more, disparate responses from departments and a lack of provisions for marginalised and disabled students – such as those with inclusion plans – threaten to derail the current strategy.

At the time of writing, LSE continues to plan for online assessments. The Eden Centre advises that online assessments should be either a 24-hour window exam or a 7-day-window exam. The fact that Departments are ultimately responsible for managing their own online assessments means that the university response has been uneven. Some courses have cancelled exams and others have provided ample guidance. Other departments have kept students in the dark until recently.

In a letter to Pro-director for Education Dilly Fung, students urged the directorate to reconsider its approach, noting that other universities have taken ‘non-detrimental approaches’:  “It seems alarming that LSE would choose to continue with exams, being fully aware of the impact on student’s well being. It is simply not fair to continue with ‘business as usual’ when students from other British Universities have been relieved from the pressure and stress from their final exams, while students at LSE do not have this luxury. I even consider that removing this pressure will improve the overall exam performance from the student body, as exam performance inhibitors, such as stress and anxiety, will be removed. I urge you to consider those of us who have weak internet connections, are revising and writing exams from places with limited or censored internet access.”

Speaking to The Beaver, Anthropology final-year Amelia Jabry compared her experience in her UCL outside module to LSE’s approach: “UCL for example has pushed back all assessments by 3 weeks. It’s really helpful. [At LSE] we have only been given a 3 day extension on our dissertation. This is pitiful in comparison.”

Another letter, accruing more than 300 student signatures, was circulated on social media over the past week and sent to the directorate on 26 March. The letter, penned by a group of concerned students, provides a 5-point proposal asking LSE to:

  1. Implement an Opt-Out Universal Pass system for all modules assessed in Summer Term. Modules graded with a ‘Pass’ will not be counted towards the overall degree classification.
  2. For dissertation or research paper modules (e.g. SO302, HY300, IR398), students may still choose to take a ‘Pass’ grade. They will, however, have to submit a summary of actions taken, research gathered and, if available, a preliminary discussion of findings in order to receive a ‘Pass’, at a date decided by departments but set as far back as possible.
  3. Allow students to opt-in to submit assessments and be graded for as few or as many modules as they are able to complete. Students will have to indicate their desire to complete modules through completing assessments by a set date.
  4. Upon release of preliminary results, students who chose to be graded can subsequently choose whether to have a ‘Pass’, where grades will therefore not be counted, or have their grades reflected in their final transcripts.
  5. Degree classifications for all year groups affected by COVID-19 will be pro-rated based on number of units completed.”

Student Union representatives have also written to university authorities, recommending a series of actions aimed at reducing stress and accommodating for these circumstances. With less detail, the Sabbatical Officers ask LSE to allow students to amend resit rules and provide increased technical support. Several of the recommendations – such as allowing deferrals – had already been met.

The letter sent by LSESU Officers to the directorate

 

Whilst LSE has allowed automatic deferrals to the late-summer exam resit period for those who request them, it is unclear whether or not deferrals would be subject to the same problems currently faced by students if the crisis ensues. It was also not immediately clear what policies there would be to accommodate students unable to sit exams during the later period. Until recently, several students also seemed confused about whether they could defer their undergraduate dissertations, with some saying that the current situation had derailed their progress.

 
Ex Pro-director of Education and Professor of Political Philosophy Paul Kelly echoed student concerns on Twitter.

Guidance for students on extensions and deferrals also notes that Exam Boards “will also be permitted to exercise discretion for all students (without the need to submit additional ECs) at the time of making final classification decisions (whether they are a finalist this year or in future years) to take into account the C-19 related disruptions that the 2020 cohort experienced during the Summer Term assessment period”.

At the time of writing, students still do not know the dates for their exams, which can upend study plans and cause some students unnecessary anxiety; the updated timetable was supposed to be released on 3 April, but the publication was delayed until 7 April. 

Several students with inclusion plans have communicated with The Beaver noting a complete lack of guidance over how assessment modifications affect them. The only email received by one student was from the LSE Library which did not refer to the pressing matter of assessment. Another student, in the process of obtaining an inclusion plan, received an email on 31 March requesting medical evidence. The student highlighted the difficulty of doing this during a global pandemic.

Other universities in the US and UK have set up no-detriment policies and pass/fail systems. Cambridge, for instance, has told students that if they pass their online assessments, they are guaranteed to get at least the same grade as they got in their previous year of university study. 

A Master’s student told The Beaver how difficult balancing academics and the current situation has been: “Pre-existing mental health conditions (i.e. anxiety, OCD) are making it nearly impossible to write my coursework at the rate I am accustomed to. Having to work in a home environment which is not conducive to work is an added challenge, as well as managing the emotions of those I am living with. LSE has not been the slightest bit generous with its extension policies, which is appalling considering that the entire student body is being affected in diverse and deeply challenging ways and that not everybody has the privilege to study in an environment that is easy to work in. I spend all day in libraries for multiple reasons, and now that I am unable to, I am immensely stressed about performing my best during a global state of emergency.”

 

[This article has been edited to amend a mistake. A letter was addressed to Pro-director Dilly Fung, not Director Shafik]

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