On March 6, McGill announced that its Senate would be consulting students on how the McGill Charter of Students’ Rights should be revised. The Charter is a document that outlines the rights and freedoms that each student at McGill is guaranteed, including academic rights. This revision is an apt opportunity for the university to review its grading policies.
The current grading policy is composed of a patchwork of faculty specific policies broadly governed by the Student Assessment Policy (SAP), which outlines the school’s policies on all forms of student assessment, as well as some rights delineated in the Charter. While these documents are comprehensive in guaranteeing generally fair assessment practices, faculties retain the discretion to define their own grading schemes and grade reassessment policies. This leeway can compromise the rights that the SAP and the Charter afford students, especially when it comes to consistent grading across faculties.
In the SAP, there is nothing to ensure a uniform grading scheme across courses, or even across different sections of the same course. The result is that some faculties, such as Management, pursue a very rigid curving scheme whereas others, such as Arts, leave it to the professors to determine how they wish to grade. Hence, students face very different outcomes depending on their major and their professor. This disparity translates to a significant injustice when students are competing for jobs, scholarships and academic accolades. A grade is only useful insofar as it communicates a uniform standard of quality; without some objective sense of what a B+ means and how it differs from a B-, grades become arbitrary. Thus, McGill should ensure that its assessment policies yield university-wide standards of grading. However, this reform would be moot if it is not paired with clear grading criteria across faculties.
As students, we are no strangers to poorly-defined assignments. Oftentimes, there are no detailed grading rubrics given for assignments, or point values are not assigned to questions. When the assignment is handed back, it is discouraging when the only comments are a few pen marks and a grade. Inevitably, growing class sizes, substantial workloads, and prioritization of research projects limit professor’s and teaching assistants’ (TAs)’ ability to provide comprehensive feedback to students. However, if the university is committed to a “quality education” for each student, as the Charter promises, provisions should exist that emphasize the role of TAs and professors as not merely evaluators, but as educators. As stated in the Charter and in the SAP, students do have the right to an explanation of their grade–however, assessment reviews and explanations are available only upon student request. This provision should go further, by stipulating that students be provided assignment rubrics where possible. Additionally, the SAP should include reasonable comments on positive areas and where improvement is needed. Feedback is essential to students learning from their mistakes and improving, and to any definition of a “quality education”.
Moreover, when students feel their grade is simply unjust, they may find little avail in the regrading policy. There is no university-wide regrading policy—it varies by faculty. Moreover, regrading is usually a tacit threat of a lower grade. Consequently, students are forced to weigh the possibility of a lower grade against the benefit of challenging one they believe to be unfair. Thus, in practice, the right to regrading is more a formality than a meaningful avenue of recourse. As such, McGill should devise a uniform double-blind regrading procedure in which all students are guaranteed a fair reassessment.
If the administration is truly looking to improve students’ well-being with Charter reforms, it would be an oversight to not review grading policies. There are three clear gaps in the current SAP that have perverse effects on students: Inconsistent grading schemes, poorly defined assignments and the regrading policy. Fair evaluations are an issue of justice where students are at significant power disadvantage. The current policies do not go far enough to address this.