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Durham University

Student Registry

Academic Safety Net (2020/21)

Please note: this guidance applies to the 2020/21 academic year.

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 has been developed in collaboration with the Students’ Union, taking account of the feedback they received from students across Durham. It draws on a review of student degree outcomes in 2019-20, which has enabled us to prioritise measures which are proven to work most effectively, taking account of the different circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2021.

More detail is available from the FAQS below. These arrangements apply to the 2020-21 academic year.

+What is the Academic Safety Net, and how does it protect me when I’m undertaking assessments?

Approved by the University’s Senate, Durham’s Academic Safety Net includes the following headline commitments in support of students undertaking assessments during 2021:

1) Your 2020/21 examinations will take place online, with no physical examinations taking place. We took this decision in Michaelmas 2020 to provide clarity and certainty for students and staff alike, and to avoid the need to make the late changes to assessment that we saw in 2019/20.

Your online assessments will be designed to be consistent with exams that are sat normally. Each assessment should take the two or three hours it would have taken under normal examination conditions. You will be able to take and submit the exam during a 24-hour window, which ensures that students are not disadvantaged if they live in different time zones, have multiple exams, or religious observance or reasonable adjustment requirements.

2) If Covid-19 affects your ability to submit your summative coursework by the advertised deadline, you can request an extension of up to one week (7 days). If you need this additional time, you will be able to use it.

Your request should follow normal departmental procedures, but it will be granted on request (noting that there may be some exceptions for e.g. weekly assessments and those which are particularly time-sensitive, and that this policy does not apply to online exams).

  • Further information on coursework extensions is available from the What should I do if Covid-19 issues mean that I am struggling to submit a piece of coursework on time? FAQ, below.

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

If you are a finalist this may delay your graduation, or have an impact on your progression to the next year if you are a continuing student, but we will be supportive and flexible, and no medical or other evidence will be required.

  • Further information on the Examination Deferral process is available here.

4) If your 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 departmental template.

  • Further information on the use of Impact Sheets is available from the What do I do if, because of Covid-19, I have not been able to get access to the books or research data I need to complete my dissertation or major project? FAQ, below.

+What is the Academic Safety Net, and how does it protect me when my work is being marked?

Approved by the University’s Senate, Durham’s Academic Safety Net includes the following headline commitment to ensure that the impact of Covid-19 will be considered during the marking of assessments:

5) Your work will be assessed in a way which takes account of the challenging conditions in which you will be preparing for and taking these assessments. Over the last 6 months departments have been reviewing and amending assessments to reflect the disruption we are all facing. We are similarly amending and adapting our marking practices to ensure that they reflect the current circumstances in a fair way.

All departments will compare this year’s cohort's assessment marks to marks awarded to cohorts in previous years. If departments identify any concerns, then marks will be amended to ensure they are comparable.

  • Further information on considering previous marks is available from the What if assessments are out of line with previous years? FAQ, below.

6) Your departments 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 departments will review assessments proactively to determine whether cohort-level SACs 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 our SAC Scrutiny Panels can retain their focus on considering individual students with exceptional personal circumstances.

  • Further information on the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process and online form is available from our dedicated SAC webpages.

+What is the Academic Safety Net, and how does it protect me when my degree is classified, or my progression from one year to the next is considered?

Approved by the University’s Senate, Durham’s Academic Safety Net includes the following headline commitments for action by Boards of Examiners (which classify degrees and determine progression) when considering marks in 2020/21:

7) If you narrowly miss out on a higher degree classification, then you 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.

8) If your average mark for the year is five or more percentage points below the previous year, your record will be scrutinised for possible Covid-19 effects. A major drop in year-on-year performance – for graduating students and for continuing students, particularly where specific progression thresholds must be met (e.g. for Integrated Master’s degrees at Level 2) – will trigger a review of individual as well as group factors that may have affected your performance. You will also have your outcomes reviewed automatically on the same basis - e.g. looking your performance at Level 2 in 2018-19 and Level 3 in 2020-21 - if you spent 2019-20 on an optional exchange or placement (and, unlike the rest of your degree cohort, were therefore not assessed by Durham in that year).

This measure will not be applicable for most postgraduate taught students, who are typically on programmes of one year’s duration. We are undertaking a further review of 2019-20 postgraduate outcomes specifically, and will propose further measures if necessary in response to that review.

9) If your 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 your degree classification or progression.

Our 2020-21 SAC process enables students to submit personal SACs via an online form, and any student whose performance has been affected by serious adverse circumstances will be reviewed automatically by the Boards of Examiners.

  • Further information on the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process and the online form are available from our dedicated SAC webpages.

+How was the Academic Safety Net developed, and how do you know it will work?

We developed the Academic Safety Net following a detailed review of degree outcomes in 2019-20. This has enabled us to focus on the measures which made most difference in 2019-20 – for example, reviewing marks for assessments and modules helped to ensure that student performance in 2019-20 was in line with, or higher than, previous years – and to adapt them as necessary for the different effects of the pandemic in 2020-21.

The Academic Officers of the Durham Students’ Union have been heavily involved in the development of the Academic Safety Net. They have faithfully represented the views of students, after holding extensive consultation which included a drop-in session, and repeatedly emphasised the need to provide a level of assurance that will enable you to approach your studies with confidence. This collaborative effort has enabled us to reach agreement on each part of the Academic Safety Net.

We will continue to monitor the Safety Net during 2020-21 to ensure that students’ educational attainment is not negatively affected as a result of the pandemic.

+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 – in particular, the commitment to compare a student’s marks from one year to the next – are applicable to all postgraduate students.

Therefore, following a thorough review of postgraduate outcomes in 2019-20, we have also reduced the normal requirements for the award of Merit and Distinction on postgraduate Master's programmes, reducing the pressure placed on your final dissertation or major project.

For postgraduate students graduating in 2021, the requirement to achieve a mark in your dissertation or major project of at least 60/70 has been waived. You will therefore be awarded your degree with Merit or Distinction as long as you achieve a final average mark of at least 60 (Merit) or 70 (Distinction).

In addition, any Master’s student who:

  • narrowly fails to achieve an average of 60/70 (gaining average marks of 58-59.99 or 68-69.99 respectively); and,
  • who achieves a mark of at least 60/70 in their dissertation or major project

will be considered for discretionary promotion to the higher award.

This applies to all students completing in 2021 (including those on one year postgraduate programmes which started in October 2020 or January 2021, and those on two year or part-time programmes starting in 2019/20 but completing in 2021).

+Is there an Academic Safety Net for Foundation Programme students?

The Academic Safety Net has been designed to apply to Foundation Programme students. However, we recognise that not all measures – in particular, the commitment to compare a student’s marks from one year to the next – are applicable to all Foundation students.

Therefore, if you are a Foundation Programme student, your performance in each assessment will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with further resits (as first attempts) offered if any individual assessment mark is identified as anomalous.

+Is there an Academic Safety Net for First year Undergraduate students?

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

Therefore first year undergraduate students will be able to resit up to 120 credits of failed assessments, and Boards of Examiners will be permitted to enable students to proceed on the Ordinary degree carrying 40 failed credits (rather than the usual 20), if the Board is satisfied that key programme Learning Outcomes have been met (note: this means that you will still need to pass any modules deemed critical for your programme, and some accredited programmes - such as the LLB Law - may still require you to pass all modules to gain an accredited degree).

+Will there by 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.

+What do I do if, because of Covid-19, I have not been able to get access to the books or research data I need to complete my dissertation or major project?

When submitting a major, research-led piece of coursework, such as a dissertation or major project, you will be able to submit an Impact Sheet, which will enable you to indicate if Covid-19 required you to amend your research proposal or approach.

You can specify what happened (for example, if you were unable to access a particular specialist resource) and what you had to do in response (for example, if your dissertation therefore does not make use of that resource).

Please note: the impact sheet should not be used to outline illness or similar adverse circumstances; the separate Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process and online form is available from our dedicated SAC webpages for this purpose.

Your departments will advise you how to submit an Impact Sheet. You only need to submit an Impact Sheet if Covid-19 required you to amend your research proposal or approach, or the resources which you used.

+What should I do if Covid-19 issues mean that I am struggling to submit a piece of coursework on time?

Assessment deadlines have not changed and, where possible, you should work to the original deadlines. However, if you anticipate that Covid-19 will affect your ability to submit your coursework by the advertised deadline, you can request an extension of up to one week (7 days).

You can request an extension for coursework such as assignments, major projects or dissertations due in 2021 for an undergraduate or postgraduate programme. This policy doesn’t apply to other forms of assessment – such as online exams or tests – and there will be some exceptions, for example, for weekly assessments and those which are particularly time-sensitive. Your departments will be able to confirm any such assessments.

Your request should follow normal departmental procedures for seeking extensions, but it will be granted if you need it, and you will not need to provide further evidence.

Please note: delaying the submission of coursework may impact your workload for assessments and exams later in the year, and managing this should be considered before deciding to request an extension. However, if you need the additional time, it will be available. Extensions are available for up to one week from the advertised submission deadline. If you have already had an extension of one week or longer, any further extension will be at the discretion of the department, following standard departmental procedures. Automatic extensions are not available for exams, or for assessments due after the end of term, for reassessment and/or on a short timescale (e.g. coursework for reassessment due in the summer resit period).

+What should I do if I have been ill because of Covid-19 or I have been looking after someone else who has had Covid-19 and it has affected my work?

Detailed information on the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process and the online form is available from our dedicated SAC webpages.

+What should I do if I am unable to take an online examination because of Covid-19?

Detailed information on the Examinations Deferral process and the online form is available from our dedicated Examination Deferral webpages.

+Do I need to pass my modules?

At Durham, in common with other universities in the UK, an undergraduate or integrated masters degree is awarded on the basis of credits earned across either three or four years of full-time study (or part-time equivalent), and a taught postgraduate degree is awarded on the basis of credits earned across one year of full-time study (or part-time equivalent).

Students need to pass all their modules (with a mark of 40% or more at undergraduate level, 50% or more postgraduate, though in some circumstances a lower mark can be ‘compensated’ so it still counts as a pass) to earn enough credit for a degree. In addition, you may need to meet certain progression thresholds (for example, an average mark of at least 55% at Level 2 of an Integrated Master’s degree, or a mark in each Foundation module of at least 50 at Level 0 during a Foundation Year) to progress from one level to the next.

+How are degree classifications calculated?

Degrees are awarded by each department’s Board of Examiners in a student’s graduating year. The Board of Examiners comprises academic staff from the department, with one or more external examiners from other universities. The Board will review and confirm all assessment marks. The Board then looks at students’ anonymised marks, and at the arithmetic mean weighted mark (AMW), which is calculated automatically by the student records system. The AMW is based on all module marks from your second year onwards (or single year for postgraduate programmes), each weighted according to the number of credits the module is worth (so that, for instance, the mark for a 40-credit module has twice as much effect on the average as that for a 20-credit module at the same level), and by the year weighting for the year in which the module is taken:

  • on a three-year undergraduate programme, the weighting is 2:3 between Levels 2 and 3, so assessments completed during the second year will be weighted 40% and those in the third weighted 60% (marks from modules undertaken at Level 1 in the first year do not contribute to a student’s classification);
  • on a four-year integrated master’s programme, the weighting is 2:3:4 Between Levels 2, 3 and 4, so assessments completed during the second year will be weighted 22.22%, those in the third year 33.33% and those in the final year 44.44% (marks from modules undertaken at Level 1 in the first year do not contribute to a student’s classification);
  • on a taught postgraduate programme, the whole programme is set at Level 4 and assessments have no year weighting.

Undergraduate and integrated masters degrees (e.g. BA, LLB, MPhys) are then ‘classified’ by the Board. Students with an AMW of 70 or higher are awarded a First, 60 or higher a 2:1 and so on.

Postgraduate Masters degrees are not classified, but can be awarded with Merit or Distinction where the AMW is at least 60 (Merit) or 70 (Distinction) and the mark for the Major Project/Dissertation is similarly at least 60 (Merit) or 70 (Distinction). Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas are similarly awarded with Merit or Distinction where the AMW is at least 60 (Merit) or 70 (Distinction).

+What if I just miss out on a higher degree classification?

If your marks are just short of a higher degree class the Board of Examiners will automatically review your mark profile, and consider whether you should be promoted to the higher class, under our policy on 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 modules 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.

Boards will also consider students who fall outside this zone of discretion if the Board believes that either serious adverse circumstances, or a combination of serious adverse circumstances and academic factors, justify the use of discretion.

+What happens if everyone on the module had a problem completing the assessment because of Covid-19?

Departments will review assessments to see whether cohort-level SACs – which will be taken into account when classification or progression decisions are being made – should automatically be applied for all students undertaking an assessment.

  • Further information on the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process and online form is available from our dedicated SAC webpages.

+What will happen if the marks in a module are generally much lower than in previous years?

Departments will review marks for each assessment in light of historic performance on the same or similar assessments. There will always be some variation in marks between years, particularly in modules with small cohorts. However, if marks in 2020-21 initially appear out of line with previous years, it may indicate that the assessment has not worked as intended, and student work will therefore be re-moderated or potentially scaled. If marks are generally much lower than in previous years, they will be raised.

Departments will also review assessments to see whether cohort-level SACs – which will be taken into account when classification or progression decisions – should automatically be applied for all students undertaking an assessment.

+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, our Academic 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 reasons:

  • Unlike last year, when an unanticipated crisis forced us to make many changes to assessments and examinations, this year we have time and experience to develop an approach that treats each student as an individual.
  • In 2019/20, we had 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, we lack the data needed to create authentic baseline averages. The external academics who examine our outcomes and assessments were very positive in general about our safety net measures in 2019-20, but concerns were expressed where degrees were classified entirely or almost entirely on the basis of work below the final level.

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 due between 14th March 2020 and the end of the 2019-20 academic year).

  • For further information see the I am a continuing undergraduate/integrated masters student in my second or third year of study: how will No Detriment work for me? FAQ here.

Those undergraduate finalists whose classifications are unaffected by last year’s No Detriment policy – primarily students on a Year Abroad or Placement Year in 2019/20 – will have their marks profile scrutinised specifically at the Board of Examiners meeting, as part of the Academic Safety Net.

+Will anything be said on my transcript about how my marks were affected by Covid-19?

As agreed with the Students' Union, 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.

+What will happen for programmes which are Accredited by Regulatory or Professional or Statutory Bodies (PSRBs)?

We recognise that there are a number of programmes with professional accreditation, at undergraduate and postgraduate level, where the requirements of the relevant accrediting bodies may mean that we are not able to apply every aspect of the Academic Safety Net. In such cases, the University will work with the relevant department(s) to support them in trying to secure an acceptable approach for the relevant accrediting bodies.

+What about the University Regulator, the Office for Students (OfS)?

The OfS is committed to tackling ‘grade inflation’, and has confirmed that it will consider taking action against any institution which ‘recklessly or deliberately’ increases the proportion of firsts or 2:1s which it awards during the pandemic.

In January 2021, the OfS stated that it expects universities to ‘balance the importance of standards being maintained with recognition of – and response to – the exceptional pressures that students remain under this year’. This is what our Academic Safety Net aims to do.

+What will happen with programmes delivered with partner organisations?

We will work directly with partner organisations to determine how the Academic Safety Net should be applied.