Prof retracts policy where purchasing optional textbook can earn bonus marks

A professor in the faculty of forestry has rescinded their policy of awarding bonus points to students who completed exercises on an optional, paid online resource.

A tweet about the policy gained more than ten thousand likes and a thousand retweets earlier this month with users expressing concern with financial inequity in access to learning materials.

Students who completed online tutorials on McGraw-Hill ConnectMath would earn bonus marks on their midterm and final exam, which could amount to a maximum 1.1 percent addition to their final grade.

Students would have had to pay $99.50 for the e-book to access ConnectMath and problems for bonus marks, or $128.95 for a printed book and digital access.

While the policy meant that students who paid would have access to bonus marks, it also meant that with no mandatory purchase, students could still attain full marks without paying extra.

The instructor rescinded the policy and apologized to the class, according to Forestry Associate Dean Academic Robert Kozak.

“Fundamentally, what I determined was that it seems that if you have a requirement that a book is not mandatory, to allow students to access bonus points would disadvantage those who did not buy the book,” he said.

While this policy was an explicit case where students could pay for the opportunity to earn a better grade, some classes, especially at the lower levels, require all students to buy online resources to complete assignments for marks.

When asked how making the textbook mandatory rather than optional would affect equity, Kozak said that the expectation is that all students have access to the book and would have “equal ability” to earn bonus marks.

Kozak said he spoke to the instructor about changing the policy to be fairer.

“He’s doing it with the best interest of the students in mind; he wants them to succeed,” Kozak said. “I asked him to reconsider it in such a way that he could provide all students with access to bonus points.”

Kozak said it was “acceptable” for profs to make a textbook required for all students while recognizing that it’s reasonable for instructors not to require a textbook and instead suggest optional textbooks that don’t affect a student’s chance of success.

Asked whether making ConnectMath mandatory for all students would have posed another issue, Kozak said he didn’t see any immediate problems.

“If it was mandatory, would it be okay to use the McGraw-Hill system for bonus points? That’s something I need to think a bit more about … I don't see an immediate issue with it.”

According to the 2020 AMS Academic Experience Survey, 67 per cent of undergraduate student respondents said they have gone without a textbook or course resource due to cost. The average student spends $884 on textbooks annually.

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee said the AMS has been pushing for instructors to adopt open educational resources (OERs) — free, open-source learning materials.

“It is incredibly unfair, and it’s imposing additional burdens in the middle of a pandemic that has left a lot of affordability issues for a lot of students,” Yee said about instructors making students pay for additional resources. “ … It’s definitely an inequitable process, to impose or weight it differently, regardless of whether it is for bonus or whether it is mandatory.”

Yee recognized that many instructors adopt digital assessment tools such as ConnectMath — something for which the AMS has lobbied restrictions due to financial equity concerns.

Seventy-seven per cent of undergrads have been assessed through online portals that require paid codes, the 2020 AMS survey reported.

While those portals pose an additional financial burden as with any paid course material, UBC said in 2018 that some online assessment platforms offer feedback or assessment activities that are better than what a professor could produce themselves.

The UBC Senate has endorsed a set of principles for digital assessment materials, which state that instructors should make students pay no more than $65 for mandatory educational resources used for assessment in a three-credit course and that the marks from those resources should not exceed 20 per cent of the student’s grade.

“Students are already paying tuition for their learning, and they shouldn’t have to pay additional amounts for assessments,” said Yee.

This article was updated to include Kozak’s comments about the possibility of ConnectMath being mandatory and past reporting about digital assessment tools.