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Academic Safety Net 

FAQs 

Please note: the following information is intended for TEI Staff and Students who are part of the Common Awards scheme.  

Last Updated: 18th May 2021, 13:01

We recognise that this year assessments are being undertaken in challenging circumstances. In response, we are introducing the Academic Safety Net, an integrated set of policies and practices aiming to ensure that no student’s educational attainment is worsened as a result of the pandemic, and that each student receives the grade they deserve.  

The Academic Safety Net takes into account the different circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2021: Covid-19 has affected the entire year; however, at the same time, students and staff have had time to prepare for the unique conditions of teaching and learning, and TEIs have not had to make sudden, unplanned changes to assessments and examinations (as was the case in 2020). Prior to the start of 2020/21, TEIs were asked to inform the University (and the National Ministry Team) of the changes to their activity for the academic year in response to Covid-19. This information has been updated by TEIs as more information has become available (e.g. some TEIs were only able to confirm plans on a termly basis). While TEIs have been able to make changes to methods of learning, teaching and assessment to account for the different circumstances under which assessments are being taken, we recognise the ongoing challenging circumstances.  

The Academic Safety Net has been designed to apply to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. However, we recognise that not all measures – in particular, the commitment to compare a graduating student’s marks from this year to the previous year – are applicable to all postgraduate or continuing undergraduate students. 

The following information therefore relates to modules and assessments completed during the academic year 2020/21. There will not be a new ‘No Detriment’ policy in 2020/21.  

  1. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when undertaking assessments? 
  2. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when work is being marked? 
  3. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when their degree is classified, or their progression from one year to the next is considered? 
  4. Is there an Academic Safety Net for First Year Undergraduate students?  
  5. Is there an Academic Safety Net for Postgraduate Taught students?
  6. Can TEIs take Covid-19 into account when marking? 
  7. Can TEIs apply any measures retrospectively?  
  8. Where can we find the average mark for modules? Do we have to work this out manually?
  9. How can a TEI compare average module mark with previous years if historic data doesnt exist, for example due to programme changes?
  10. How and when should TEIs let Common Awards know which modules or assessments they want to apply a Group Mitigation Flag to?
  11. Do TEIs need to grad the Group Mitigation Flag in the same way an SAC would be graded? 
  12. Do TEIs need to look at average marks for Level 4 modules Do TEIs need to do this for modules even if they do not count towards a classified award?
  13. How can this process be used for a failing cohort on a non-classified programme?
  14. How will the Overarching Board of Examiners use the Group Mitigation Flags?
  15. Is there an amended template agenda for the TEI Board of Examiners?
  16. What if students are affected in 2019/20 and 2020/21?  
  17. Will there be a new No Detriment policy in 2020-21? 
  18. Do students need to pass their modules? 
  19. Will anything be said on transcripts about how marks were affected by Covid-19? 
  20. Will there be an Academic Safety Net in 2021-22? 
1. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when undertaking assessments? 

TEIs already have processes in place for agreeing extensions when students provide good reasons for being unable to meet an assessment deadline. However, given the cumulative impact of Covid-19 which has continued throughout this academic year, we are now asking TEIs to grant extensions of up to one week (7 days) automatically upon request if Covid-19 affects students’ ability to submit summative coursework by the advertised deadline – that is, without requiring the student to provide a reason. If students need a short extension, the general impact of Covid-19 is reason enough.  

If students are unable to take an examination – for example, if they are ill or caring for someone who is ill – they will be able to defer their assessment to take at a later point. We want students to complete their assessments as scheduled, but they will not be disadvantaged academically if their circumstances change. Durham University is permitting any student to defer one or more of their examinations and undertake it as a first attempt in the summer reassessment period. 

If the student affected is a finalist this may delay their graduation or have an impact on their progression to the next year if they are a continuing student, but TEIs are encouraged to be supportive and flexible, and no medical or other evidence should be required. 

If a students dissertation, major project, or other major assessment has been adversely affected by academic factors – e.g., lacking access to key resources – this will be factored into marking. All students submitting a dissertation or other major assessment will be able to submit an academic impact statement, using a standard Common Awards template, which can be adapted by TEIs. TEIs should also see our FAQs on taking Covid-19 into account when marking. 

What do we do about dissertations, major projects, or other major assessments that have already been marked?

The Academic Safety Net encourages students to submit an academic impact statement with their dissertations, major projects, or other major assessments if they believe their work has been adversely affected by academic factors related to the pandemic – e.g., lacking access to key resources. Markers can then take that information into account, assessing the quality of what the student has done with the resources available to them, rather than assessing them against unrealistic expectations. Where students have already submitted such work, TEIs should ask those students whether any of them now wish to submit an academic impact statement. If they do, the markers should be asked to look at the statement alongside the mark and feedback they have already given for the work, and consider whether any adjustment is needed. It is unlikely that the marker would need to re-read the work. In some circumstances, this process may lead to an adjustment of the mark and/or the feedback already given. This is entirely appropriate, since marks are in any case provisional until ratified by the Board of Examiners.

2. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when work is being marked? 

Work will be assessed in a way which takes account of the challenging conditions in which students will be preparing for and taking these assessments.TEIs have already reviewed and amended assessments to reflect the disruption of Covid-19. TEIs can similarly amend and adapt marking practices to ensure that they reflect the current circumstances in a fair way. TEIs should refer to the additional guidance already published on taking Covid-19 into account when marking (also see below).   

3. How does the Academic Safety Net protect students when their degree is classified, or their progression from one year to the next is considered? 

If students narrowly miss out on a higher degree classification, then students will be considered for promotion by discretion. Students whose marks are up to 2 percentage points below the classification boundary (e.g. 58.00-59.99 at the 2:1 / 2:2 boundary) will be automatically considered by the Board of Examiners using Durham’s standard discretionary criteria, which focus on the overall pattern of module performance (e.g. whether a student has marks at the higher classification in a majority of modules and/or in key modules) and performance at different levels. 

If a student’s average mark for the year is five or more percentage points below the previous year, their record will be scrutinised for possible Covid-19 effects. A major drop in year-on-year performance for graduating students will trigger a review of individual as well as group factors that may have affected their performance (i.e. a check to make sure any such student has not been adversely affected by Serious Adverse Circumstances).   

If a student’s performance has been affected by Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC), this will be taken into account when the Board of Examiners is coming to a decision about their degree classification or progression. 

Any student whose work has been affected in ways that go beyond the general impact of Covid-19 upon whole cohorts can use the SAC process. Where a student believes that their work has been severely affected by illness, by caring responsibilities (including home-schooling), by significant changes in personal circumstances, or by other adverse circumstances, in ways that it has not been possible for the TEI to mitigate at the time (e.g., by extensions or other means), they can submit an SAC form. This information will be reviewed automatically by the TEI and Durham University Boards of Examiners, in line with existing practice. 

TEIs will consider mitigating circumstances for all students affected by Covid-19 as a matter of course (i.e. without requiring students to submit individual SACs due to Covid-19) for every assessment. All TEIs will review assessments proactively to determine whether something akin to a ‘cohort-level SAC’ should be applied to that assessment. This consistent approach means that no student is required to submit an SAC form to cover impacts of Covid that are common to all, and ensures that TEI SAC Scrutiny Panels can retain their focus on considering individual students with exceptional personal circumstances. These will be known as ‘Group Mitigation Flags’. 

‘Group mitigation flags’ ensure that all TEI Boards of Examiners will consider mitigating circumstances for all students affected by Covid-19 as a matter of course (rather than, for example, simply in response to individually submitted SACs). The processes outlined here are in keeping with existing regulation and policy. However, for clarity, they should be treated separately from existing processes available to Boards of Examiners (for example, relating to SACs). They will therefore operate in addition to, rather than replace, existing processes. 

This proactive approach has been adopted for the following key reasons: 

  1. Consistency & Fairness: considering mitigating circumstances for Covid-19 automatically avoids a scenario where only those students who submit an SAC form have them considered. Having one approach adopted by all TEIs ensures that all students are treated consistently.  
  2. Pressure: automatic consideration avoids students feeling pressured to complete an (unnecessary) SAC form. 
  3. Focus: considering mitigating circumstances relating to Covid-19 for all affected students ensures that our SAC Scrutiny Panels can retain their focus on considering individual students with exceptional personal circumstances. 

We recognise that there will also be some unusual and exceptional circumstances where students have been affected specifically by Covid-19 (for example, in relation to a disability or condition where mitigation may already have been in place but which has been exacerbated by the disruption), and have therefore submitted SACs. Such SACs should be considered in line with the University’s normal SAC policy.  

It is hoped and expected that the impact of Covid-19 will have been mitigated for most teaching and learning activities (including assessment) via the careful consideration of changes made (and approved by the University) before the start of the academic year, and in some cases, as the year has progressed. We therefore expect that the need to mitigate over and above the mitigations already in place (such as providing teaching online, choosing alternative assessments, offering additional support and ensuring that resources are accessible to students) will be in exceptional circumstances. If a TEI Board of Examiners is satisfied with mitigation already taken, then it should simply record that satisfaction, making reference to the mitigations in place – which we expect will be detailed in the Changes in Delivery Form(s) for the most part.  

However, we understand that there might be exceptional circumstances where teaching has been disrupted for all students, or a group of students, on an individual module or as part of an assessment. The TEI Board of Examiners will be asked to consider the extent to which the disruption has affected the students’ assessment. They will do this via a ‘group mitigation flag.’   

The following information should therefore inform discussion:  

  1. Mitigating action already taken: a summary of any mitigating action taken by the TEI in light of Covid-19 (e.g. the information provided in the Changes in Delivery Form, and any supplementary information as needed). 
  2. Mitigation impact: whether the mitigation has been successful (with reference to historic marks). 
  3. Module Information: access to module outline information to provide context for modules prior to Covid-19. 

TEIs will be asked to review assessment marks in light of historic marks data (available in Moodle). TEIs will not be asked to make changes to assessment marks through scaling processes. This is because student numbers at some TEIs are too small. However, TEIs will be asked to use the ‘group mitigation flag’ to bring assessment marks to the attention of the University where assessment marks are both significantly lower and/or higher than previous years (in line with good academic standards practice). We are advising that 5 years worth of data is reviewed.

What counts as a significant variation from previous years’ marks is a matter for the Board of Examiner’s academic judgment, but it is likely to mean that a modules’ marks are noticeably outside the range of variability normally experienced on this module in the past or in similar modules. For instance, it may be that on Level 5 biblical studies modules where student numbers are high enough for a pattern to have emerged, marks have tended in the past to bunch in the upper 60s, and the mean has seldom if ever been below the mid 60s. If there is a similar module this year where marks have bunched in the lower 60s, and the Board cannot identify other factors that may have made this difference, a group mitigation flag could be raised. 

TEIs will not be asked to provide this information via Moodle. We want to ensure that there is sufficient separation from the ‘No Detriment’ policy and the ‘Academic Safety Net’ policy. As we are asking TEIs to report ‘group mitigation flags’ as the exception, TEIs can provide this information (including any relevant information on historical marks data) alongside the documentation provided to Durham following the TEI Board of Examiners. Where TEIs do wish to allocate a ‘group mitigation flag’, TEIs will be asked to provide a short summary of the circumstances for consideration by the Durham Board of Examiners. The Durham Board of Examiners will consider a ‘group mitigation flag’, as it will consider an SAC, when making classification decisions. The Durham Board of Examiners will be able to use its discretion in light of a ‘group mitigation flag’.  

There may be instances where a student is affected by individual SACs unrelated to Covid-19, and by Covid-19 which has affected all students on an entire module or assessment. The Board of Examiners will need to consider both impacts when considering progression and classification in such circumstances. There can be no hard and fast rule about how this should be done, as it will depend upon that student’s individual performance.  

Please note that while the TEI Board of Examiners are responsible for agreeing any ‘group mitigation flags’, this work does not need to be done at a Board of Examiners meetings itself. We anticipate that TEIs will consider which assessments may require a ‘group mitigation flag’ in advance, for discussion and ratification at the meeting. (This follows a similar process that TEIs were asked to follow to identify Covid-19 affected assessments in 2019/20).   

Further information on the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process is in the TEI Handbook here:   Absence, Illness or Other Adverse Circumstances - Durham University 

4. Is there an Academic Safety Net for First Year Undergraduate students?  

Further to the process above, for those students registered on the BA programme, Boards of Examiners will be permitted to enable students to proceed on the Ordinary degree carrying 40 failed credits at Level 4 (rather than the usual 20), if the Board is satisfied that key programme Learning Outcomes have been met (note: this means that students will still need to pass any modules deemed critical for their programme). 

 

5. Is there an Academic Safety Net for Postgraduate Taught students? 

The Academic Safety Net has been designed to apply to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. However, we recognise that not all measures are applicable to all postgraduate students. 

We will identify whether any further mitigations would help to ensure that postgraduate students are not academically disadvantaged by the pandemic. We will update the Academic Safety Net policy if necessary, in due course. 

6. Can TEIs take Covid-19 into account when marking? 

All students have been affected by COVID-19, which has restricted their access to resources, to experiences relevant to their studies, and to conversation. These are part of the general impact of the pandemic.  

Some of these general impacts can be mitigated in the setting of assignments, with tutors picking topics, suggesting approaches, and pointing to resources that work in a time of lockdowns and other restrictions.  

The general impacts of the pandemic can also, however, be mitigated in our marking, without a lowering of academic standards.  

Marking always takes account of numerous factors. Most obviously, markers refer to the Common Awards Assessment Criteria, and to module Learning Outcomes. They can also, however, take account of the context in which students did their work, and the resources that students had available to them. 

This is normal. Imagine, for instance, marking a student’s essay laying out an interesting argument. If we know that this argument was rehearsed repeatedly in class, it will have one kind of impact on our mark. If we judge that the student found or invented this argument for themselves, it will have another kind. Or, again, we typically expect different things from essays on topics about which there is an extensive literature than from those on topics for which there is little. The resources we know to be available to students make a difference to our judgments about their work.  

In just the same way, it is entirely appropriate for markers to take account of the general limitations that the pandemic is likely to have placed on whole cohorts of students. 

Our Assessment Criteria remain unchanged. We still expect, for instance, a written assignment to display ‘Wide-ranging and thorough understanding’ to gain a mark of 70–75. But – as we have always implicitly done – we can interpret ‘wide-ranging’ in the light of the resources available and the circumstances. 

It should be noted that this is not about dealing with the extraordinary difficulties suffered by individual students. Taking those into account requires close attention to individual circumstances, and in such cases the ‘Severe Adverse Circumstances’ (SAC) process will be more appropriate.  

Quite what impact the general impacts of the pandemic should have on our marking is not a matter for rules determined by the University. It is a matter for the marker’s judgment, and for conversation between markers, moderators, and eventually external examiners. In particular, external examiners are the main resource we have for ensuring that marking standards are maintained, that there is parity between TEIs, and that TEIs have taken the circumstances of their students into account in appropriate ways.  

Note re. Dissertations and independent projects  

The distinction between the general impact of the pandemic upon whole cohorts and the extraordinary impacts upon particular individuals becomes more complex when considering dissertations, independent learning projects, and other independent project work. Those tend to differ so much that the generic factors described above will have widely differing relevance from student to student.  

To allow appropriate mitigation, it can be useful to ask students undertaking such projects to record how the general restrictions experienced during lockdown (e.g., reduced library access) have affected what is possible in their chosen project. Such information can appropriately feed into the marking process in the way suggested above. An ‘impact sheet’ has been created for use by TEIs, if helpful. 

Once again, it is important to distinguish this from the SAC process. The kind of record we are suggesting here would be an impersonal one, focused on the nature of the project, the resources relevant to it, and the restrictions that have been placed upon access to those resources during the pandemic. If, by contrast, a student would need to describe personal details (about their health, working environment, family circumstances, and so on) in order to make a plea for mitigation, that would be a matter for an SAC application. 

7. Can TEIs apply any measures retrospectively?  

TEIs are asked to contact the Common Awards Team to discuss this in advance of their Board of Examiners Please also refer to the FAQ on dissertations, major projects, or other major assessments that have already been marked. 

8. Where can we find the average mark for modules?

TEIs are advised to review marks over the past 5 years where this data is available. We recognise that some modules may not have been delivered for a full 5 years; please use as much historical data in your decision making as possible. Please do not compare to 2019/20 module marks in isolation as we know that this year was also affected by Covid-19. If TEIs wish to submit a ‘group mitigation flag’, please provide as much information in the rationale as possible.

TEIs will be able to find historic marks data in Moodle. Some TEIs may find that there may be a need for some manual calculations where Moodle has been recently introduced at the TEI. Please contact the Common Awards Team if you require any advice or support.

9. How can a TEI compare the average module mark with previous years if the historic data doesn’t exist, for example due to programme changes?

Tell us what you can, with the information you have available. If comparable data does not exist but you believe there is good reason why a module or assessment should be flagged, provide a narrative around what checks you have completed and why you believe the module needs to be flagged to the University (e.g why the whole cohort may have been impacted or why mitigations in place have not been fully effective).

10. How and when should TEIs let Common Awards know which modules or assessments they want to apply a Group Mitigation Flag to?

If possible, please let us know within 48 hours of the TEI Board of Examiners when you send us the marks data. The information should also be recorded formally in the Board of Examiners minutes, but we will need it as soon as possible to support our preparations for the overarching Boards of Examiners. The information does not need to be recorded in Moodle.

11. Do TEIs need to grade the Group Mitigation Flag in the same way an SAC would be graded?

No – simply let us know which module or assessment has been flagged.

12. Do TEIs need to look at average marks for Level 4 modules? Do TEIs need to do this for modules even if they do not count towards a classified award?

Yes, please conduct this exercise against all modules at all levels. The Overarching Board of Examiners will need the full narrative. Also, for unclassified awards (for example the DipHE) students may wish to return to study to complete the BA programme. Affected modules at Level 5 will need to be taken into account when they are considered for their award and classification.

13. How can this process be used for a failing cohort on a non-classified programme?

Seek our advice for individual candidates in advance of the TEI Board of Examiners. Group mitigation flags will not be used to change marks; however, there may be other action that can be taken by the Board of Examiners.

14. How will the Overarching Board of Examiners use the Group Mitigation Flags?

Just as when a student has an SAC or falls into the zone of discretion, the Board of Examiners will examine a candidate’s profile which has a ‘group mitigation flag’.

15. Is there an amended template agenda for the TEI Board of Examiners?

Please see our Templates and Forms page.

16. What if students are affected in 2019/20 and 2020/21?  

For students affected by Covid-19 in 2019/20 the No Detriment AMW (arithmetic mean weighted mark) will not be calculated until they are due to graduate. (See our FAQs on ‘No Detriment’). No Detriment AMW will work as per the standard degree classification – with assessments weighted by level and credit, as outlined in the Core Regulations – but with assessments completed during 2019/20 excluded if they were affected by Covid-19. TEIs have already provided this information to Durham for continuing students. The Overarching Board of Examiners will receive both the default AMW, and the No Detriment AMW, and will use whichever is higher to determine the degree classification. In practice, this means that a student’s performance in Covid-19-affected assessments can only improve their overall degree classification. 

This means that marks received in 2020/21 will be included in the ‘No Detriment’ calculation (the ‘No Detriment calculation’ only excludes assessments affected in 2019/20)The integrated set of policies and practices for the Academic Safety Net for 2020/21 will, however, also be applied.

17. Will there be a new No Detriment policy in 2020-21? 

NO. The Academic Safety Net builds on our experience of last year, incorporating lessons learned as well as responding to current circumstances. After careful consideration, ouracademic policies and procedures have been amended to ensure that grades and degree outcomes are not negatively affected by Covid-19.

It is agreed that one of last year’s policies, an across-the-board algorithmic approach to grades and degree classifications, is neither possible nor appropriate for a number of reasons: 

  • Unlike last year, when an unanticipated crisis forced us to make many changes to assessments and examinations, this year TEIs have had time and experience to develop an approach that treats each student as an individual. 
  • In 2019/20, there was a clear before and after period: in 2020-21, the whole year has been affected by Covid-19, and we need measures which reflect that. 

For the vast majority of students, there is a lack of the data needed to create authentic baseline averages.  

However, last year’s No Detriment policy will still be in place covering last year’s marks, and therefore a majority of undergraduate finalists will still have two AMWs (e.g. one including all marks, and one excluding marks for assessments affected during the 2019-20 academic year, as indicated by TEIs). 

18. Do students need to pass their modules? 

Yes, to ensure students meet the learning outcomes for their programme, students will still need to meet normal requirements for passing modules (the existing rules for compensating modules will still apply; where there are individual SACs, TEI Boards and the Overarching Board of Examiners can take them into account when making progression and award decisions – see our FAQs on SACs). 

19. Will anything be said on transcripts about how marks were affected by Covid-19? 

Academic transcripts will display marks gained by students, and will include an additional statement that "Marks awarded for modules taken in the 2019/20 and 2020/21 Academic Years may have been negatively affected by the disruption caused by the COVID19 global pandemic" in recognition of the particular challenges which students faced over this period. 

20. Will there be an Academic Safety Net in 2021-22? 

We will continue to review the impact of Covid-19, and our response to it, developing further measures as necessary.