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Remote Learning Report Card: Average GPA Increased at Missouri Universities During Pandemic Parsing Factors Behind Better Grades

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Above image credit: The University of Missouri-Columbia reported that total enrollment last fall was 30,849, up 4% from the previous year – though still well below the record enrollment of 35,050 reached in the fall 2015. (Emily Wolf | Flatland)
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Online school was an adjustment at first for Adriana Velarde, a 2021 biology graduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It was definitely hard at first, having everything online,” Velarde said. “Just having that face-to-face interaction kind of taken away from you and I know a lot of students depend on that.”

Eventually, though, she got used to it. And despite the sudden change, her GPA actually went up during the pandemic.

Adriana Velarde, a 2021 biology graduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, saw her GPA increase after the shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adriana Velarde, a 2021 biology graduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, saw her GPA increase after the shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Contributed)

“I think I found myself making a more daily routine and having certain times where I focused and devoted my time to school,” she said. “Whereas in person, it was more like the hustle and bustle of everyday going to work, school, all that. I found myself having more time when it was all online.”

Velarde isn’t the only one who experienced a GPA boost during the pandemic. Data from the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development show that the average GPA increased at all of the state’s public universities from spring 2019, prior to the pandemic, to spring 2020, when remote instruction began.

Although the 2.5% year-to-year increase in average GPA — from 3.15 to 3.23 — isn’t huge, such changes were remarkably consistent across all 13 public universities in the state.

Notably, younger students seemed to benefit more from remote instruction than their older peers. When broken down by grade level, GPA averages rose by about 5% for freshmen, 4% for sophomores, 2% for juniors and 1.5% for seniors from spring 2019 to spring 2020.

Missouri GPA Slideshow

University officials said several factors contributed to the improvement in GPA.

Part of the improvement may be attributable to change in grading policies during the spring 2020 semester. Many schools, including Missouri State University, the University of Missouri and University of Missouri-Kansas City, expanded their “pass or no pass” program —  otherwise known as “credit or no credit,” or “satisfactory or unsatisfactory.”

Under the program, students who received below a C- for the course did not pass, while those who received a C- and above did pass. Students who passed still obtained the hours they needed to graduate. But in all cases, the final grade was excluded from calculation of the GPA.

In the past, these options were only available for a limited number of classes. UMKC and MSU both ended the expanded option for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters.

“We expanded that to almost everything because we didn’t want the students to be disadvantaged because of that dramatic move,” said Chris Craig, deputy provost of MSU.

However, in some cases, students were not able to choose this option, particularly those who needed certain prerequisites to attend graduate school.

This includes Velarde, who did not choose the “credit or no credit” option because she was applying for medical school at the time. She will be attending the University of Illinois Chicago in the fall.

Kim McNeley, the vice provost for curriculum and assessment at UMKC, said students were required to meet with an advisor if they were interested in choosing the “credit or no credit” option to ensure they weren’t making decisions that would negatively impact them in the future.

“They had to meet with an advisor to make sure that it wasn’t impacting their long term (plans) — either graduation, demonstration of a prerequisite that would block them from getting into a subsequent course, or have a negative impact on any type of credentialing that they might need to obtain after graduation,” McNeley said.

Universities also extended the chance to withdraw or drop from a course, which also could have affected GPA.

McNeley said they received more than 1,600 requests for these grading policy exceptions, with 43% of those wanting to remove a grade of D+ and below. But the rest were some of their highest performing students who didn’t want a grade like a C to pull down their GPA, she said.

But GPA was affected by more than just an extension for dropping classes and the “credit or no credit” option. A spokesperson for MU said faculty also provided more flexibility by replacing exams with research papers or projects.

Ally Elder, also a 2021 biology graduate of UMKC, said professors made some changes to tests as well.

“One of my labs I took, they completely got rid of tests and it was basically a bunch of assignments we did,” Elder said. “So it was more busy work, but it was easier than having to study for exams and stuff.”

Elder added that there were more open-note exams and exams that weren’t proctored.

Although the increase in average GPA during the early stages of the pandemic may be interesting, it probably won’t be a factor in a recovering labor market. Employers are now scrambling to fill a record 9.2 million job openings.

Angela Schaefer of the Missouri State Council for the Society for Human Resource Management said GPA is not a major consideration for hiring individuals out of college.

“This isn’t something that is being specifically discussed at a national HR level through SHRM,” Schaefer said.

McNeley said she’s glad the university offered more academic flexibility because it provided students with some relief during the pandemic.

“Those two changes we like because they still allow us to have a full unabridged summary of the students’ academic work, but certainly give them some relief that really acknowledges that there were certainly things that were going on that were beyond their control,” McNeley said.

Marissa Plescia is a Dow Jones summer intern at Kansas City PBS.

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